I buried my head into my father’s shoulder, sobbing out my fears and exhaustion after finding out my husband had collapsed and was unresponsive. He has Type 1 Diabetes and had already been hospitalized a week. The days seemed like years and so little progress was made towards getting better. Each day ran into the next as once again I made my way down the long lonely hospital corridor feeling like my legs would collapse beneath me. Never had I felt so needy, so helpless.
As a ministry leader, I was always the one helping the needy one. Now the needy one was me! Over the past three months as our family has faced three hospitalizations, I have had to come to grips with my neediness. It’s an uncomfortable place, an unfamiliar place. It’s so much easier to help others. The Lord has been teaching me that He doesn’t want me to hide my pain.
I will never forget the end of John Paul II’s life several years ago. Struggling with Parkinson’s, I remember seeing images of him on TV, coming out to greet the crowds with an uncontrollable shaking hand – his body frail and feeble, his speech slurred. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just stay inside and have someone else read a greeting? I was greatly impacted that he didn’t hide his suffering from the world. And by not doing so, he was teaching those of us watching how to suffer gracefully and with dignity, empowered by Christ. Jesus Himself did not hide His suffering from the world, but hung on a cross with a crown of thorns. Perhaps we don’t want others to see our suffering because we’re afraid they might judge it or judge us for the way we are or aren’t handling it. At the time my life was turned upside down, I was coordinating a conference and had an impending speaking engagement. I wrestled with what to do. I was completely depleted. How could I not follow through with my commitments? Surely, if all things are possible with God I could do it. But God gave me permission: “Your ministry is to your husband and girls, and to take care of yourself.” It was hard. But, when we are traumatized by life, it takes time to heal and recover. I needed to replenish the deepest places in my spirit so I could better serve the people of God again later.
Our family was literally held up by the body of Christ. People brought meals, prayer warriors prayed, coworkers filled in the gaps, family sat with me, friends wept with me, and pastors visited us in the hospital. Even though I was needy and weak, I know those collective gestures of support gave me the supernatural strength to make it through another long day. It’s often when we are at our neediest that God’s greatest power is unleashed to work in our circumstances. We all have a cross to pick up. The weight often feels like it’s too much to bear. Then someone grabs on and helps us. That can’t happen if we hide our pain.
Sometimes in our desire to be an inspiration to those around us we hide what is true because what is true isn’t always inspirational. Being in the trenches of suffering isn’t pretty. But by not being real, we encourage each other to lead inauthentic lives.
In Sheila Walsh’s book, Honestly, she shares this story: “My mother told me they visited a church that emphasized praising God in trials. A woman who had just lost a baby gave thanks for the trials of her life, giving glory to the Lord, that in Him there is no need to grieve; we can continue to march on victoriously. My mother was horrified by the woman’s apparent indifference to the loss of her child, but the congregation clapped in approval. After the service, my mom heard someone in the bathroom weeping bitterly in one of the cubicles. It was the mother who, having done the right thing, was now expressing her genuine emotions all alone in a dark place.” It’s so tragic that someone in such terrible pain had to weep alone.
God much prefers us to be open about our suffering. He allows us to feel our pain and to feel it deeply. He sees our stress, He hears our cries, His arms carry us in our brokenness, His hands lead us through the darkness. And He wants us to share our sufferings with the body of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Sooner or later we are all on the stretcher. As we let others share in our sufferings, we all come to understand a little bit more about what it means to share in the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). God doesn’t want us crying alone in the dark – it’s okay when the needy one is you!
*First printed in Just Between Us magazine summer, 2007 (justbetweenus.org)
SHELLY ESSER has been the editor of Just Between Us (justbetweenus.org), a magazine to encourage and equip women for a life of faith, for the last 26 years. Additionally, she is an author and freelance editor. For the last 15 years, she has been caring for her chronically ill daughter and husband. Her heart and passion is to walk alongside women to help them deepen their faith, and bring encouragement and hope, especially in life’s difficulties. She and her husband have four daughters, a son-in-law, and live in suburban Milwaukee, Wis.
Radical hope. Compassionate change. Equipping those affected by chronic physical and mental illness through community and education rooted in Jesus Christ.