This past week, I was invited to speak at a monthly luncheon at Drury University where I’m a piano professor. In front of students, the university president’s wife, the school chaplain, and the dean who hired me, I stood up, took a deep breath, and shared my story…
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to be part of something special that our university has to offer and for allowing me to share my story with you today.
Before I begin, I want to let you know that I’m 36 years old and I have a decade’s worth of experience teaching in higher education. I am not—as most freshmen believe upon seeing me the first time—their classmate. I tell you this so you’ll know that as I speak to you today, I’m not speaking from my youth; I’m speaking as one who has experienced life, had my ideals come crashing down, and come through on the other side to know that amid the darkness, there is good to be found in the world and that God truly is who He says He is.
Six years ago, I got a Master’s degree in piano performance—a huge feat considering I had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis in both hands and wrists before I started the program. I was also a music professor at a college and I was performing across the country. I felt like my career as a pianist was beginning to take off. On top of that, my husband and I have felt a call to one day move to Japan to start a church, and everything was happening right on schedule.
But then everything changed.
I first realized something was wrong when I was preparing for a recital and noticed my hands were stiff. “Maybe I’m practicing too much. Maybe I’m stressed,” I thought.
On July 8, 2012, I wrote in my journal:
“My shoulder keeps slipping out of place and the joints in my hands are swelling. I was planning on taking a break from the pain medications [I’ve been taking for carpal tunnel and tendonitis] this summer, but instead I’m taking more pain pills that I’ve ever taken in my whole life just to function. I have some important performances coming up this month. It will take a miracle for my hands to endure the physical requirements of my pieces and make it through from start to finish. At any moment, my hands could stop, ending my music career forever. I go into every performance with a strong awareness that this could be my last one and it will happen only because God will make it happen.”
A few weeks later, on July 25, I wrote:
“Faith isn’t a surface belief but a knowing that God is doing something. I know that God keeps His promises. I know He is my healer. I know He has not sentenced me to a life of arthritis. I know He holds my future in His hands and His plans for me are good.”
Looking back, this entry makes me want to cringe. At the time, I thought these were faith-filled words, but now I see that my faith had a lot of growing to do. I still believe God is my healer, that He holds my future in His hands, and that His plans for me are good. But the prolonged, excruciating pain made me take another look at what the Bible says and reevaluate my definition of faith. Is faith just believing for miracles or can faith be bigger and deeper than that?
Over time, the stiffness turned into pain and spread all over my body to the point that I couldn’t move on my own. My husband, Daniel, had to lift my body out of bed and walk me one step at a time through my morning routine. I couldn’t even squeeze toothpaste onto my toothbrush.
It took every ounce of my strength to make it through each day.
On September 5, 2012, I wrote:
“It’s not that I’m not trusting God to take care of me and my future. I feel secure in Him. I don’t find myself doubting Him. I am full of hope and peace. But it’s the PAIN. The pain is just so much. And the new medicine the doctor gave me makes me feel worse. It makes me feel like I don’t have full control of my mind, like I’m not completely me.”
Keep in mind that I was teaching a full load at the college and this was still the beginning of the school year. On top of that, one of the professors in my department had unexpectedly passed away a couple weeks before the school year began. So not only was I a professor to these students; I was also a counselor to them as I navigated my own grief. And it was crucial that each day I came to work, I was fully present.
And that’s why a couple days later, I wrote:
“I had to make a difficult choice this morning: function in my hands and body or function in my mind. I didn’t take any pain meds last night because it was making me sleepy, dizzy, nauseous, and unable to think clearly. This morning, I woke up in extreme pain. I needed help getting out of bed, turning on the sink, getting in the shower…I didn’t know what to do. I chose to have my mind today. I am in so much pain.”
And September 17:
“The pain is getting worse. Me and Daniel are growing more exhausted. My muscles are disappearing. The doctors still have no answers. But God is sustaining me.”
As I look back, it’s crazy to me that I was able to continue teaching. There’s no way I could have done it if God hadn’t been sustaining me day by day.
It was during this time when I truly understood the words of 2 Corinthians 12:9.
“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
All the while, I went to numerous doctors, and they did test after test and had no answers. Weeks of waiting turned into months, and the pain was too much for me. My hair started falling out until half of it was gone. And I began to wonder, “Am I dying?”
There was one time when I was laying in bed, and I asked Daniel to come to my side so I could tell him my dying wish: “Promise me that if something happens to me, you’ll still go to Japan.”
This was a scary time. I was scared of what the doctors would say. I was scared for my future. I was scared that I might be dying.
Even though I was in horrific pain, this was a beautiful time in my relationship with God. I was acutely aware of my dependence on Him. And because every movement was excruciating, I spent a lot of time lying in bed and praying to God. Early on, I couldn’t understand why God would allow me to suffer for so long (at least, what seemed long to me at the time), but I needed the wait so God could transform my heart. Looking back, I can see clearly how God was being good and wise in allowing me to wait.
Instead of allowing me to have the diagnosis the moment I wanted it, God waited until the moment I was ready to hear it.
On October 3, 2012, I wrote:
“Still no relief from the pain. I am very dependent on Daniel for a lot of basic things. I have lost almost 20 pounds since the end of July. I am exhausted. I saw 2 doctors today. They are close to having a diagnosis. Right now I’m waiting for test results…[and] I don’t like some of the words the doctors are saying. But I’m too tired to be stubborn.”
Then I wrote in capital letters:
“GOD IS BIGGER THAN ANY DIAGNOSIS.”
I wasn’t afraid anymore of death or bad news. I had hope because I had God.
Several days later, on October 8, I wrote:
“Still in pain. But God has given me a tremendous peace. I feel His presence and the support of His people. When I look around, I can still see God’s goodness in my life. In the midst of extraordinary pain, He has given me extraordinary strength.”
The very next day, the doctor called to tell me that I have lupus, an autoimmune disease where the immune system can’t tell the difference between a good cell and a bad cell, so it attacks anything and everything. That phone call changed my life. The months of waiting for answers were so hard, but because God waited until the perfect moment to let me have them, that phone call did not fill me with despair, but with worship. And as soon as I got off the phone, I cried happy tears and said, “Thank You, God!” I was so relieved that I finally had answers, and I could finally move forward.
That day in my journal, I wrote down a verse from Scripture:
“Because the Lord is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.”
That same day, my husband came home with a couple of trays of food from a friend with a card. On the card was written the same verse.
The past 6 years have been hard. Too often, if something is hard, we equate that with it being bad. Hard doesn’t always mean bad. Sometimes hard is bad, but sometimes hard is just hard.
I still wake up in pain every morning and I have to take medication every day just to function and survive. Every few months, I get cortisone injections in my hands so I can continue to use them and to play the piano. In October, I’ll perform a third piano recital here as a faculty member of Drury. It would be so easy to say, “This is too hard. I quit.” And to be honest, on my hardest days, that’s what’s going on in my head. But every practice session and performance is a victory and a declaration of what God has done in my life. And you know what? If the day ever comes when my hands are no longer able to play the piano, that will be hard, but God will still be good and my life will still be abundant.
The reality is my life is hard, but my life isn’t bad. Even with lupus, my life is good and God continues to be good. And with all of the struggles and obstacles I’ve faced the past six years, I can confidently say, “Because the Lord is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
So here’s what I want you to take away from my story:
I want you to know that whatever you’re going through—no matter how dark, or hopeless, or difficult—God is bigger. He’s bigger than your circumstances, bigger than your dreams, bigger than your fears. He’s even bigger than your failures. There’s nothing and no one that is beyond what God can handle or redeem.
I want you to know that God is who He says He is. He is good, He loves you, and He is with You. What we experience in this world doesn’t change that. When we suffer, it becomes more difficult to believe those things. So do the work of theology. That’s not something that’s reserved for “theologians” and pastors; it’s something we are all called to do as Jesus followers. Over and over in Scripture, we are beckoned to know God, not just about Him, but to know Him personally and deeply. So dig into His Word and wrestle with your doubts, questions, and preconceived ideas through study, prayer, and even community. That’s what I was doing as I wrote in my journal. I was wrestling. And as I did that, God gave me what I needed to be able to face my difficult circumstances with hope and peace.
I want you to know that you don’t have to be afraid of the waiting or the silence. Just because we can’t see or hear God doesn’t mean He’s not there. There are things that God can do in the waiting and silence that are more powerful and more beautiful than we can imagine in the moment. So amidst the waiting and silence, cling to God. And when it feels impossible to cling to Him, allow Him to cling to You.
And I want you to know that it’s okay to pray ugly prayers. When I was waiting for a diagnosis, I prayed a lot of ugly prayers. They weren’t always the most reverent or refined. They were raw, and gut wrenching, and tear-soaked. And most importantly, they were honest. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. God wants all of us; not just the pretty, put-together parts of us. The same Jesus who cried in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading to the Father so intensely that He sweat drops of blood—this same Jesus is not offended or shocked by our ugly prayers. In fact, he’s able to empathize with us and understand our pain. And because it’s in our ugly prayers when we’re most honest with God, those are the moments when He’s most able to speak into our hearts.
I’d like to close with a verse you’ve heard me read a couple times already, but this time from the New Living Translation. Whatever you’re going through today, let this be your anthem:
“I know the Lord is always with me.
I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.”
(Psalm 16:8, NLT)
7 thoughts on “God’s Presence in Our Suffering”
Amen! Thank you for sharing your experience and testimony. I am so blessed by it because today I had an ugly prayer moment, but I Praise God. He is so faithful, merciful, gracious and unconditional. Even in times like this He’ll tell me “just relax” why? because He’s taking the wheel of pain, despair and agony! His grace is truly sufficient!
Thank you Jesus that we don’t stand alone!
I praise God for leading me to this article. It is such an encouragement to read of another health struggler and survivor. This has really lifted me up this morning.
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Thank you for sharing your story Esther. What a beautiful testimony of God’s goodness through pain and suffering. You are a living testimony of the the faithfulness of God.