by Bo Stern
In the course of every life, there will be good days, bad days and nothing-special days. There will be winning days and losing days and everything in between. And for most of us, in spite of all our hard work and right living and exemplary behavior, there will be one or two days so powerfully painful that they tip the timeline on its ear, forever changing our view of both the future and the past. Like a branding iron plucked from the fire and seared into skin, these moments leave a permanent mark. Perhaps your life bears the scars of one of these game-changing days.
For me, it was day #16,579. My husband and I had recently celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary as we sat in a hospital that frigid February morning and Steve’s doctor confirmed the diagnosis we had been dreading: ALS. Just three little letters, but they pack a hefty emotional wallop. The fancy title is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but most people know the disease by the name of its most famous casualty: Lou Gehrig. An ALS diagnosis carries with it a two- to five-year life expectancy. During those years this insidious enemy steadily ravages every muscle, robbing the patient’s ability to eat, speak and move until it finally steals breath. It is a vicious disease. My husband has always been strong and healthy, so I had never dreamed that we would find ourselves up against a Goliath of this magnitude. All I knew for certain in that moment was that everything was about to change. Everything.
What followed was a lineup of really rough days. For about two weeks, I could hardly breathe through the heartache, but I was also trying to be strong for Steve and our kids. Still, I couldn’t eat. I wept on the floor of my office until no more tears would come. I called my sisters at all hours of the night, asking them to please pray me through to morning. Every evening we went to bed on the battleground of ALS, and every morning we woke up on that very same fighting field. But even while our earth was shaking, I can say from the depths of my desperate heart: His love didn’t budge. His presence was constant. Steady. In the darkest moments, I could feel His grace sweep in, around and over my pain, doing what only grace can do.
And then, like a long-awaited sunrise, a light began to break. Something shifted into place. We pulled ourselves up from the pit of sorrow, sat on our sofa and with tears streaming, prayed, “Jesus, we are tied to the altar of your purpose and we are not going anywhere. We will not leave you, we will not question your goodness, and our faith will still be standing when this fight is done.” From that moment, I felt it. Something lovely was afoot. We were still situated squarely in the middle of this battlefield, but beautiful things were happening inside of us – not in spite of our fight, but because of it.
Since that first dark day, God has proven to us in so many ways that He is built for battle. We are conditioned to try to avoid it, but I am increasingly convinced that He does not run from a hard fight. At Easter, we are surrounded by images of the suffering Jesus. Whenever I see a picture of the crucifixion, I want to reach out and save Him from that fate; I long to end His torment and tend His wounds. And yet, the battle that caused the suffering is the same one that secured our victory. Had the Father shielded His Son from the fight, it would also have cost Him the win and the prize and the glory. Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross…” He endured because He could see the bigger picture at work on an eternal scale.
We stand on the shifting sand of the temporary, but He occupies the richly finished space outside our timeline where He has a clear view of all that can be achieved in the course of a ferocious struggle. The same God who willingly walked onto the biggest battlefield in all of history understands the full scope of the beauty that can be found there. He values battle not because He takes pleasure in our pain, but because He knows that some things – some very wonderful and essential things – can only be found in dangerous places. I used to believe that beauty could come from suffering; now I believe that some beauty can only come through suffering. God does His best work when we submit our suffering to His hand and His plan.
Two years later, our fight with this deadly disease continues. My husband’s body is weakened and weary, but his spirit is strong and alive. Because of this fight, we have a clearer view of Jesus and a more intimate relationship with Him and with the army of friends and family who are standing with us. We are stronger, more compassionate and more fiercely committed to our mission, which is to show a watching world that our magnificent God works all things together for His great glory and our great good. He does. He is. And we are proof.
Though the world says that no hope exists for this diagnosis, our family can say with confidence: Sometimes the worst days mark our lives in the most amazing ways. And I promise you this: He can make your battlefield beautiful.