Daniel Hans is a Presbyterian minister in the United States. In 1986 he and his wife Beth lost their three year old daughter Laura to cancer. Daniel and Beth watched in agony as their little girl faced nine hospitalisations and four separate operations in the last nine months of her life. Their hearts broke as they watched Laura die, and they struggled to make sense of what had happened.
In 1987 Daniel Hans released a book containing some of the sermons he preached throughout his daughter’s battle with cancer and in the period immediately after her death. One of them is titled: “Caution. Your God is Too Big.” Hans relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things they had hoped God would do but that God didn’t. People described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn child only to see it die, of the hope God would protect his people from violence only to hear of an elderly woman being stabbed on her way to church, prayed for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own – he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse.
Hans suggests that disappointments like these are the stuff of life, and that if we read the Scriptures we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats by God we hear story after story of disappointment with God, of times God appears silent and inactive. He suggests that sometimes we remember only the miracle stories and so we develop too big a view of God – not that we can have too big a view of God’s greatness and power or too big a view of God’s love and grace, but that we can have too big a view of God’s will. God’s action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but more often than not to walk through our suffering with us. Hans suggests that “A view of God that is too big is harmful both to believer and unbeliever. When our understanding of God is exaggerated, we declare that God will do things he does not intend to do, at least not regularly and in all situations.”
Source: Adapted from Daniel Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)
In the summer of 1967, Joni Erickson and her sister rode their horses to the Chesapeake Bay to go for a swim. The result was tragic. Joni dived into shallow water, struck her head on a rock and became a quadriplegic. She is paralysed from the neck down.
During two years of often painful rehabilitation Joni learned how to paint with her mouth, and what this disability meant for her faith. At times Joni was angry with God, demanding to know why he let this happen, even at times wishing she hadn’t survived. But in the years since Joni has learned that it is in her weakness that God’s strength can shine through. She has been a source of enormous blessing to people all over the world as she shares the faith that sustains her.
At first Joni found it impossible to reconcile her condition with her belief in a loving God. But one night Joni became convinced God did understand. The catalyst was a good friend who said to her, “Joni, Jesus knows how you feel. He was paralysed. He couldn’t move or change position on the cross. He was paralysed by the nails.” The realization was profoundly comforting. “God became incredibly close to me and eventually I understood that He loves me. I had no other identity but God, and gradually He became enough,” stated Joni. “I prayed for healing and truly believed it would come. The Bible speaks of our bodies’ being glorified’. Now I realize I will be healed; I’m just going through a forty or fifty year delay, and God stays with me even through that.”
Source: Joni and friends website, Joni’s books
Amy Tan is the best selling author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Saving Fish from Drowning, and the Opposite of Fate.
What is less well known is Amy Tan’s ongoing battle with depression. Indeed, her family history has been one of a sad battle with depression. Amy, who lives in the US has a photograph of her grandmother and three other women from her family. Every woman in the photo committed suicide. Amy’s mother, expressed her depression by violently upturning and even smashing the family’s furniture, and always threatened suicide. Amy herself experienced depression as early as 6 years of age, the age of her first suicide attempt. In addition to her mother’s suicidal tendencies, life gave Amy other reasons to be depressed. Her father and brother both died young from brain tumours, she was molested by a counsellor, raped by a school janitor and one of her best friends was murdered. Amy’s depression manifests itself as numbness alternating with extreme anger.
Even raging success as an author didn’t put an end to Amy’s depression. In 1993 she went to the premiere of the movie of her book The Joy Luck Club and instead of feeling great was overcome with a sense of meaninglessness, that everything in life was ugly and she was all alone.
It was after this Amy Tan started taking antidepressants and has found this has made an enormous difference. She says, “I know I will always have some degree of depression. I still have to wrestle with it, but I see where it fits in with my mother’s life, my grandmother’s life, my own life. For a long time I didn’t know how to be happy, and I didn’t trust happiness – I felt that if I had it I would lose it. But today, I am basically a happy person.”
Source: Reported in Who magazine interview, May 21, 2001
Elisabeth Jernigan is the beloved daughter of Betsy and Lennie Jernigan of North Carolina, USA. When she was just months old Elisabeth’s parents noticed her right eyelid weaken, then droop and the pupil become fixed. Her grandfather, a Harvard University trained surgeon was worried, and advised her parents to take Elisabeth to an ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist sent them to a pediatrician and the pediatrician to a neurologist. Elisabeth was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Exploratory surgery removed part of the tumour from the nerve that controls the right eye, but it was too dangerous to try and take it all. Then the pathology report came back with the worst news of all. Elisabeth had an extremely rare malignant meningioma which had killed everyone who had ever had it. The prognosis was for continued growth of the tumour, paralysis and certain death.
Elisabeth’s parents, Betsy and Leonard started praying, their friends prayed, their church prayed. They prayed that Elisabeth might be healed, but also for the ability to accept her death if healing was not God’s will. Elisabeth’s surgeon grandfather didn’t have the faith to pray for healing, but he did pray for wisdom in selecting doctors, and the ability to get through the inevitable suffering.
Elisabeth’s condition deteriorated as expected. Fluid began accumulating on her brain, with the doctors repeatedly relieving it with a large needle. Elisabeth grew lethargic and nauseated. It was agreed that there be further surgery, to insert shunts that would drain the fluid.
Prior to the surgery the family gathered around Elisabeth while the priest from her grandparents church anointed Elisabeth with oil and prayed for her healing. It was now the night before the scheduled surgery. A doctor arrived in Elisabeth’s room and removed so much thick, infected fluid from her brain that he asked that the operation be postponed for a couple of days. But 12 hours later when he returned he was baffled to find there was virtually no more fluid.
When the surgery went ahead the doctor’s decided to make a last ditch effort to remove the rest of the tumour. They would remove the section of nerve the cancer had invaded. This would leave Elisabeth blind in her right eye but would give her a slim hope of survival. But when they went into Elisabeth’s brain they couldn’t find the lesion. They removed the nerve section as planned, but when the pathology tests on it came back they reported there were no cancer cells. Regular cat scans since then have revealed no evidence of a tumour.
Doctors describe what happened as “spontaneous resolution.” Elisabeth’s family call it a Miracle. In June 1995 Elisabeth turned 13. Elisabeth’s father Lennie, says “In the years ahead if you happen to see a young girl walking down the street with her right eye permanently closed, please don’t think that some tragedy has befallen her and extend your sympathy. Instead have cheerful thoughts, knowing that the Holy Spirit dwells in her, and our God is powerful, benevolent and magnificent.”
Source: Reported in Time magazine, April 10, 1995. Volume 145, No 15.