In December of 2014, I stole into the back row of the PCA church in my hometown on the east coast. Home from Seattle for Christmas vacation, I was at a crossroads. Facing a divorce I did not want in a city I couldn’t afford to live, I nevertheless had a wonderful church in Seattle with pastors and elders who had shepherded my family well through several hard years. As divorce loomed, I faced the need to move closer to my family on the east coast. But how could I make it as a single parent there without my beloved church family as well?
The sermon in the church I visited that Sunday blessed me. I hadn’t heard such preaching when I lived in the city as a youth. I was excited that there was a strong church to which I could come home. But my life was complicated. I emailed the pastor at the new church a brutally honest email. I put it all on the line. My life was falling apart, and I couldn’t bear to show up at a church where I had to hide during a season in which I desperately needed the means of grace church offered.
I heard back from the pastors and arranged to meet with them. They were welcoming. My trusted pastor in Seattle communicated with the pastors in my hometown, and I was welcomed into this new church with gracious shepherding at a very dark time in my life.
Two years passed. I got mostly back on my feet. I eventually led our women’s bible study and published one of my own. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was reasonably calm. I could manage my responsibilities as a single parent with the help of my family. I was involved and growing in my new church.
Then I got the news that I had breast cancer.
Suffering in Community
I could hardly bring myself to contemplate this news. I vacillated between numbed shock and raging grief. How could I make it through this? Why was God asking this of me? Looking back, I recognize I longed for personal strength and independence. I have been involved in women’s ministry and discipleship for years, but I wanted to minister from a position of personal strength. I regularly gave testimony of how God had led me through past trials, but I didn’t have a category for ministry through current ones. This new round of medical issues humbled me as much if not more than my struggles through divorce.
I began to alienate myself, wrecked by emotions that would take me a year to work through. But my pastor’s wife called me and came over to sit with me. My elders organized a time to pray over me as James 5 instructs. And when I was in the ICU after my mastectomy, I woke up to my friend from church sitting there with me, fighting to stay awake all night because ICU nurses wouldn’t let her stay in the room if she was sleeping. Even my pastor sat with me for hours, on a day when his wife could not, getting me ice chips and talking with me as I struggled with the fact doctors found cancer in a lymph node.
After I came home, ladies organized meals. They paid a housecleaner to clean my house for months. Two came over and organized my pantry. Another elder and his wife brought my kids special Christmas gifts. And one after another after another texted me week in and week out. How are you? Can I come over? What can I pray for you? What do you need?
My natural inclination was to alienate myself, but these believers wouldn’t let me.
A Community of Sufferers
Over time, I recognized that though I felt alienated by suffering upon suffering, many of my fellow believers had gone on before me through the gauntlet of trial upon trial. Though I didn’t at first know the stories of those that walked alongside of me during that season, I came to learn them. The elder’s wife whose house had burnt down completely, losing everything except the clothes on their family’s backs. The pastor’s wife whose father had died suddenly without explanation a few years before. The other pastor’s wife whose father had recently died of an aggressive form of cancer. My fellow church member who had gone through her own double mastectomy. “You can DO it,” she emphasized to me again and again. I later realized she was a retired volleyball coach, and she was coaching me as she had her students years before. I remembered her words when I woke up in the ICU in searing pain after my reconstructive surgery. Her coaching echoed in my head. I could do this, and by God’s grace I did make it through that night, praying for everyone I could think of.
As I lay in pain in the ICU, I thought beyond the fellowship of suffering I had experienced with my church family to the fellowship of suffering with Christ Himself. I lay there in pain for my own healing, but Christ endured such pain not for His healing, but for yours and mine. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The punishment that brought our peace was put upon Him. And by His wounds, we are healed.
Though suffering feels alienating, we believers are not alone when we experience trial upon trial. The community of Christ walks with us. When one of us suffers, we all suffer in the Body of Christ. Most of all, Christ suffers with us. He does not stand detached from our pain.
Suffering is hard in many, many ways. We feel weary. We feel weak. We feel humbled. Those are reasonable reactions. But we don’t need to feel alienated. If you feel that you are alone in your trial, know that is a lie of Satan; fight that lie with the truth of Scripture. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness. No, He suffers with and for us. And He has united us with His Body who has suffered as well. Receive these means of grace in your life. You need them.
About the Author:
Wendy Alsup is a mom, math teacher, and author. She lives on her family farm in South Carolina and writes at www.theologyforwomen.org.