My Young Life Has Been Physically Ruined — Now What?
Shaun from Seattle writes in: “Pastor John, over the past year my brother fought a cancerous tumor in his optical nerve. He is only 20 years old. By the grace of God the cancer is gone, but he is now blind. When I talk to him he tells me that he knows that he doesn’t get to have a life anymore. What words of encouragement might you have for my dear brother, or for any young man or woman who feels like a physical disability has taken their life away?”
I have sometimes stood in the shower after running a few miles and experienced a strange bright yellow donut in my vision that sometimes seems like it is going to completely take over my sight and blot out everything else. It has been very scary at times. And I asked the doctor about it one time and he said: Well, it is in your brain, not in your eyes. And I wasn’t sure whether to be encouraged by that or not.
At any rate, my point is this: In those times, I have had a very vivid thought about going blind, and I have wondered what life would be like and whether I would sink into a depression that I wouldn’t be able to get out of. I don’t have any romantic notions that it would be easy or that I would have a heroic attitude of making the best of it. My guess is, given the way I am wired, it would be a long, hard struggle, first just to learn how to survive and to want to survive. And then even harder to feel like life is worth living and that my life might be useful again.
So I don’t want Shaun or his brother to feel like my response is presumptuous, as if blindness would not be a great spiritual struggle for me. I feel the same way about the prospect of blindness the way I feel about suffering at the end of my life or being persecuted or tortured. I sometimes wonder if today’s grace will be there for that trial. And I know that is not the way it works — that if I am going to be able to meet the trial of going blind or suffering or being tortured at the end of life, I am going to need a special grace, a specific grace in the moment for that very specific trial that I face. And that is what I pray for Shaun and his brother: that God would give a special grace, a specific, precise, tailor-made grace for this particular burden of blindness.
I think of when Jesus said, “Tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” in Matthew 6:34. And then Jeremiah said in Lamentations 3:22–23: “[God’s mercies] are new every morning.” I think they meant that there is a new, special mercy from God for every new, special trouble that each day brings. Shaun’s brother’s first 20 years was full of grace. It was. I don’t even have to know him to know that. But now this is a new sorrow, a new trouble, a new affliction. And God’s promises are that there will be new mercies, special mercies, specific, tailor-made mercies that were never there before that are perfectly suited for the burden of blindness.
And I know that the temptation will be for Shaun’s brother to hear me or anybody else try to encourage him by saying: “Easy for you to say, you are not blind.” I get that, and I probably feel the same way. So I encourage him to read perhaps Joni Eareckson Tada. Her challenge was not blindness. She broke her back when she was 17 and she has been paralyzed with very little feeling from her shoulders down — in a wheel chair for 40 years. And the life that God has given her in her weakness, turning it into Christ-exalting hope for others, has simply been breathtaking.
Here is what she said,
I hope I can take my wheelchair to heaven with me. I know that is not biblically correct. But if it were, I would have my wheelchair up there in heaven right next to me when God gives me my brand new glorified body, and I would then turn to Jesus and say, “Lord, do you see this wheelchair right here? Well, you were right when you said that in the world we would have trouble, because that wheelchair has been a lot of trouble. But, Jesus, the weaker I was in that thing, the harder I leaned on you. And the harder I leaned on you, the stronger I discovered you to be. So thank you for what you did in my life through that wheelchair. And now — I always say jokingly — you can send that wheelchair to hell if you want.
That is Joni. That is Joni 40 years on after where Shaun’s brother is probably right now. Paraplegia, blindness, every pain, every disability, every tear will be wiped away from God’s children — every disease and disability will be cast into hell along with all who have turned away from his mercies.
One of the keys to finding strength to live with disability here — even the extraordinary disability of blindness — is to experience the grace of God in the unshakable confidence that this life, as precious as it is, is only prelude to the life which is life indeed. This life, in fact, in reality, not pretending, not romanticizing, not dreaming, but being utterly realistic, this life is very, very short. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17: These afflictions are light and momentary. And by “momentary,” he meant a lifetime. Peter says: We may suffer various trials for a little while (1 Peter 1:6). And by “little while,” he meant a lifetime. James says: This life is like a vapor’s breath on a winter’s morning: two seconds, max (James 4:14). And that “vapor’s breath” is a lifetime.
And, of course, it is a miracle, a wonderful, God-given miracle to believe that and to live in the joyful confidence that, in a vapor’s breath, I will see again. In a vapor’s breath, I will walk again. And I pray for that miracle for Shaun’s brother. It is a precious thing, I know. It is a precious thing to be able to see the beauties of the world and the people of this world with the eyes that are in our head. But it is — and I pray that there will be grace for Shaun’s brother to believe this — it is an infinitely more precious thing to see with the eyes of the heart as Paul calls them in Ephesians 1:18. The greatest tragedy in the world is that people with good eyes cannot see.
I would encourage Shaun’s brother to think about this. Millions of people use their good eyes and look at the natural world and do not see the glory of God. Thousands of people used their good eyes and looked at the very Son of God in the flesh and did not see the glory of the only begotten from the Father. Millions of people hear the gospel with their good ears and read the precious pages of the Bible with their good eyes and do not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. This is the greatest tragedy in the world. But Shaun’s brother has the opportunity now to see and to see and to see: to see the glory of God in everything he touches and tastes and smells and hears; to see the glory of Christ in every story from the Bible and every promise of grace; and to see the utter folly of the world in using their good eyes to commit idolatry, instead of loving the unseen God supremely.
Jesus lamented the blindness in Jerusalem. He said, “seeing they do not see” (Matthew 13:13). And I pray that Jesus would say just the opposite over Shaun’s brother. Blessed are your eyes, because not seeing, you see (Matthew 13:16).