As a teenager, I was filled with anticipation at the “great things” God had planned for my life.
I had big dreams. Dreams of touching people’s lives and leading them to Jesus. How exciting: I was his servant! My future belonged to him. I would go wherever he led – even to other nations as a missionary; to a war-torn country, if that’s what he desired.
Then came some unwise life choices. During my third year at university I went through a period of tumultuous doubts, when I questioned everything I’d ever learnt about God. At the end of the year I met and fell in love with a man who didn’t share my faith. We spent several years in an on-again, off-again relationship. The final break up was rather traumatic, and it took me another several years to heal emotionally.
Faith in God vs faith in myself
Throughout that period I never lost my faith in God, despite all the doubts and struggles.
What I did lose was faith in myself.
I was disillusioned. I was all too aware of my weakness. I just couldn’t see how God could use “someone like me”. My dreams of serving God, rescuing the weak, bringing home the lost… They’d been shredded apart. Now I was the one who was weak and in need of rescue. Now I was the “lost son” who needed to return home, head hung in shame. (And that unreserved, warm embrace of the father… How unexpected, and how powerful. Luke 15:20).
This prayer was written during that painful period. I was quite severely depressed at the time.
Where’s My Love Gone?
Lord, I don’t have any love left.
What can a servant offer
If she has no strength?
I am a servant of God
Who has nothing to give.
What can I do, Lord?
My reserves are empty.
I am unkind and unhappy.
I don’t want to give –
I only want to be left alone,
I have nothing left to give –
I am weak,
I feel fragile,
I can’t cope the same as my friends –
Even having fun exhausts my body and mind.
What can I do?
What can I give?
I have nothing left to offer.
Rescue me, my refuge.
Help me and carry me
Until I can walk again, please Lord.
I want to give and love
And live again.
– Kristy Johnston, Oct 2003
Years later, as I read this poem I feel two things:
I just marvel at God’s faithfulness. At the way God held on to me through all my doubts and failings. At the way he was with me in my deepest depression. At the way he forgave my poor life choices. At the way he graciously healed me and never stopped providing for my needs.
This one’s a bit hard to explain. I think I feel sad because I see just how much my initial commitment to God, as a teenager, was based on what I felt I could do for him.
So when I struggled and made some big mistakes, it shook me to the core. The image I had of myself — a “good person”, of great use to God — was shown to be painfully inaccurate!
I really didn’t have a good grasp of the gospel.
I knew the good news, that Jesus died for my sins and rose again to give me eternal life. I was a devout and committed Christian. I loved Jesus with all my heart. But I can see, in hindsight, that I hadn’t yet learnt how to apply the gospel to my everyday life.
The gospel was something I was eager to share with others; but I had not yet grasped the extent to which I, too, was a person who needed rescuing! (Rom 3:23-24)
A “good” Christian girl, eager to serve, needs to be transformed by the gospel just as much as a promiscuous, drug-dependent girl living on the streets (whom this Christian girl dreams of rescuing). I don’t think I really “got” that for quite some time…
I still need the gospel, daily – even though I’ve been a Christian for decades! – because as long as I’m living in this broken world I will remain far from perfect. (1 John 1:8-9)
What is God’s plan for my life?
How privileged we are to belong to such a compassionate Heavenly Father! Even as infants in the faith (i.e. new Christians) our lives are in his hands, and nothing can snatch us away. (John 10:11, 28-29)
God has wonderful plans for each of his children. His ultimate goal is to bring us to maturity in Christ; to transform us into people who depend on his strength, and find rest in his unending love. (Eph 4:15-16, 2 Cor 12:9, Matt 11:28-29) As we walk with God, we gradually learn to love others in the same way that he loves us. (Eph 5:1-2)
How have these truths helped in my chronic illness journey?
Nowadays I understand that “God’s plan for my life” was never so much about what I could do for him. Rather, it was about what he could do in me… His plan for my life was, and still is, to make me more like Jesus. And as he transforms me into a more loving, less self-absorbed person, he can do things through me as well. (Rom 8:29, Eph 2:10)
These days, my heart rests, truly rests, in the Gospel of grace. I have a reason to be glad when I think about all the things that he has done for me.
I have something to be joyful about, even when my circumstances are far from ideal. I have a future hope, even in the face of a future that doesn’t look too bright.
Yes, I still fail him daily. But when I stumble and fall short of his standards I am quick to run to him for help. Because I now realise who I really am: a person who’s deeply flawed, but at the same time deeply and dearly loved.
In a way, our chronic illness acts like a magnifying glass. Through it we are able to see more clearly just how much we need God. His grace is indeed sufficient for us, for his power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)
Secular motivational speakers might tell us, “Believe in yourself and you can accomplish great things”. The Bible teaches us something very different: Put your trust in God as he is the only one whose strength never fails!
Is chronic illness an obstacle to God’s plan?
Now when I think of the future I think like this: I have no idea what lies ahead. But I know that God is loving, I know that God is strong, and I know that God will be there. He is my Good Shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Will I ever serve overseas as a missionary, as I so passionately dreamed of doing as a teenager? I don’t know, but I’m thinking: probably not! I can hardly leave my own home these days due to debilitating fatigue…
Will God ever heal my body from the chronic illness that holds it captive? I don’t know. But you know what? I’m actually ok with not knowing. Why? Because my heart has been profoundly changed and moulded by the Gospel of grace.
The younger me would have had a crisis of faith: What about all the things I could do for him if I were healthy!
Now I no longer despair when I feel weak, when my love is gone, when I have nothing left to give. Yes, it saddens me — I’m only human! And yes I do grieve the loss of my mobility. And yes, I do still need to carefully manage my anxiety and depression.
But these weaknesses don’t destroy me, because my sense of identity as a Christian rests on Christ alone. On what he has done for me. On the amazing plans he has for my life: to never stop showing me his love, and to transform me into a more loving person as I rest in his amazing grace.
These are indeed “great things”. Not the same great things I had envisaged as a teenager. But more wonderful than I ever could have imagined.
Father God, thank you for being strong in our weakness. Thank you for holding on to us even when we’re too weak to hold on to you. Thank you for the amazing love you showed us through Jesus, who humbled himself to the point of death for our sake. Thank you for his life and his example – even Jesus suffered hardship while he was in our world… Help us to remember this, and not lose heart when our own troubles seem to multiply. Help us cling to your promise, that you will work all things together for our good and for your glory. We entrust our future to you – only you know what lies ahead. Amen.
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