“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4
I’ve heard this verse before. I’ve even memorized it once or twice. And, like many who store scripture away for a rainy day, I thought that I understood what it meant. I thought I knew how trials would produce steadfastness and how steadfastness would result in perfection. But before I’d experienced trials, I knew nothing.
Of course, I’d experienced your run-of-the-mill, ordinary hardship. I’d been fired from a job before. I’d worried about bills and money before. I’d even had heartbreak or sadness in my life. But for all of these hardships, I’d had a Plan B, a safety net, some source of help if it all hit the wall. They weren’t life altering for me. Not truly. And then, in this last year, I experienced trials like I never had before.
My MS diagnoses wasn’t just a trial because of the experience in that moment, it was a trial because it promises, more than anything else, to bring me more trials. Yes, the experience of having an MS attack was uncomfortable, frightening and frustrating, but that wasn’t the trial so much as the promise of more MS attacks to come is. The shot I take each night to manage my disease is miserable and I don’t like it, but that isn’t the hardship so much as the surety of the progression of the disease it’s keeping at bay. The hardest part of the trial of MS isn’t what I’m currently experiencing as much as it is the knowledge of what I will likely face in the future. We try to prevent it, through exercise and nutrition and expensive drugs, but having MS involves a lot of waiting and hoping the other shoe doesn’t drop. And that is by far the hardest part.
This year, I did a lot of mourning. Anyone who has experienced trials has likely done this too. Mourning the hopes for your future or the dreams you had or even the expectations that you allowed to creep in however subtly. Mourning what you think you deserve in light of what you got. Mourning what you wanted to have and now would never have. I mourned all of this. And I questioned all of this. And it was hard. I wondered about the goodness of God, the justness of God, the sovereignty of God. I wondered just how invested he was in my personal story, how much he truly cared for me the individual, if something this monumental would be ordained in my life. And it took me a while to stop grieving and start holding on to the truths I was learning.
God was teaching me that he is good. Somehow, inexplicably, he was showing me his goodness, explaining it to me like I’d never truly understood it before. And I believed it, down to the tips of my toes, which is just proof of modern miracles in my mind.
God was teaching me that he was sovereign. Because really, what good is it if he is good but he can’t control anything. God was showing me that he allowed my MS in his sovereignty and that this was perfectly tied to his goodness. And I believed it.
God was teaching me that loved me. This was the most difficult lesson of all, because I struggled for a long time with the idea that my MS was payback for the bad things I’d done in my life, the times I had failed God or, worse, deliberately disobeyed him. But God was faithful to show me that he is faithful and that MS is part of his love and faithfulness. And I believe it.
I sometimes still wonder though what good this disease can possibly serve. I mean, if my brain rots and I don’t know who I am, or forget how to speak to tell anyone who I am, what cosmic significance will this have? And then, last night, I was sitting in Bible study, listening to a fellow study-er share his personal struggle, and realized that I had something to share with him. As he was telling about the hardship he had experienced in his life, hardship which seemed far greater than what I had experienced, I felt that the lessons I had learned over the last year were suddenly applicable, suddenly relevant and maybe even helpful. I felt like I could tell him that God is good, God is sovereign, and that God loves us with a personal interest. I felt like I knew that, beyond a shadow of a doubt to be true. And I felt like he should know it too. So I shared about my MS in Bible study, to their great surprise, to my husbands great surprise and my own shocking surprise. And it felt good.
Last week, my sister shared about a struggle in her family. A family member close to her has been diagnosed with disorder that is largely treatable, but often misunderstood, and we were chatting about all the well-meaning solutions people offer you in times of trial. And I felt like I had things to offer. I felt like I had some helpful experience. I felt like I could relate, and that relating could help her feel better. I had some truth from my experience that I could share. And it felt good.
MS sucks. There’s no way around that. And last Wednesday marked the one year anniversary of my diagnosis with it. And, honestly, that sucks too. But it feels good to think that this sucky disease with it’s sucky prognosis and all the sucky side effects and potential complications could produce some good. It’s encouraging to see this disease as a trial, one that could produce steadfastness and, possibly down the road, make me perfect and complete. I could have all eternity to do all the physical things here on earth that I will slowly lose the ability to do- walk, run, dance- and I will look even better doing it as my spirit will be steadfast and beautiful.
A couple of verses later, in verse 16, James says “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” According to James, God gives us every good and perfect gift. He even gives us gifts in disguise, things like MS, which seem more like trials than gifts most days. But this thing he’s given me will teach me, will shape me, will mould me in ways I wouldn’t be taught, shaped or moulded otherwise. And it might just teach, shape and mould those around me too. Wouldn’t that be a gift? Wouldn’t that count as good? Wouldn’t that be consistent with the character of God, in whom there is no shadow of change? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I didn’t just develop MS on a whim of God’s when he was feeling moody or vindictive but if it instead was designed to help me and those around me in eternal ways? That truly would be a reason to count a trial like this joy.