- Courtney Ellis
We Are All Beggars
For this month’s edition of The Lift, I have the delight of introducing you to Jon Saur, my ministry colleague and friend. Jon and I have known one another for nearly a decade, and his wit, wisdom, and kindness run deep. I’ll let him tell you more. I’ll be back later this month, but for today, please enjoy Jon’s reflection on chronic illness, hope, and the graciousness of a God who might not meet us with the answers we hope for, but helps us live faithfully amidst our questions.
“That may not be what God has for you.”
I sat on the receiving end of a statement I didn’t want to hear when I was 18 years old. After a chronic illness diagnosis, I had been looking for someone who understood my suffering and all I had lost.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an auto-immune disease. The immune system of people with RA mistakes your joints for viral intruders, sending its army of t-cells to attack your bones. It causes joint pain, swelling, lack of mobility, and malaise, among other afflictions. It’s estimated that 1.3 million people in the US live with RA. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of the disease. I hadn’t either. Until I was diagnosed with it.
My diagnosis came right after I graduated high school. My body hurt intensely. I was walking with a cane and taking long, warm baths constantly. Nothing relieved the pain. It felt like someone was smashing my joints with a hammer in one hand while stabbing them with a needle in the other.
My pursuit of an explanation led me to the grayest office imaginable where long fluorescent lights gave me a headache. I sat in front of a rheumatologist having no idea we were about to start one of the most constant and important relationships in my life—this doctor would help me come of age with a chronic illness.
My body was broken and there was no way to fix it.
He excelled at diagnosis and prescription but not at bedside manner. “You have severe Rheumatoid Arthritis,” he said. “Congratulations. I’d shake your hand, but it would probably hurt too much. There’s no cure. The best you can do is manage this. You’ll be managing it your whole life.” He waited for me to say something. I said nothing. I stared at his puffy bowl cut as he dove into treatment options.
In the moment I felt emotionless. Not in a numb, shocked type of way. I had been living with so much physical pain it was impossible to feel entirely numb. No, I was just too tired and too naive to understand what I should feel. My body was broken and there was no way to fix it.
The diagnosis began a furious rush to find the right medication and a flurry of phone calls from people who genuinely cared about me. They wanted to know if I was all right. I wasn’t alright. A healthy life slipped through my fingers at age eighteen. While my friends worried about dating and grades and college, I was terrified of being rejected by insurance companies. (This was before Obamacare secured life-saving protections for people like me.)
While they were discerning their vocations and careers, I was learning about the side effects of risky medication and coming to grips with the truth that, however dangerous medications might be, my body was more dangerous. “I’m all right,” I lied. “Thank you for asking.” Because they were kind, and I didn’t want the sadness of my broken body to break them too.
Others were not so kind. Some directed me not to take medicine, to avoid doctors. Others declared that medicine reflected a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. They said things like, “Well, we just have to get you healed!” When I demurred, they insisted. I let them pray for me. My RA stayed the same. I became frustrated. As the cycle continued my frustration turned to sadness then anger.
Exhausted I took my sadness and anger to an older and wiser friend. We sat at a kitchen table eating Wheat Thins and cream cheese. He had never experienced what I was going through, but I trusted him.
“I’m all right,” I lied. “Thank you for asking.”
I told him about the prayers. I told him about the attempts at healing and how God had failed whatever hope I harbored. “This whole ordeal is diminishing my faith in God,” I said. “I just want this disease to go away. I want to be a normal man in his early twenties, making normal mistakes and learning normal lessons.”
I went on and on. He listened. Then he said it, that quote I wasn’t looking for: “That may not be what God has for you.”
His words were casual, but they slammed against my chest. He went on, “You’ll have to be okay with it.” That was it. That was all he had for me on that topic. We continued eating Wheat Thins and cream cheese and talked about my future and what I hoped for in life.
I left feeling bruised. But he was right. A normal life for a man in his twenties may not be what God had for me. And I would need to be okay with it.
The truth, though difficult, is often not that complicated. Nowhere does Scripture guarantee specific healings. I believe they can, and do, happen. But God’s work of healing isn’t limited to miracles. God has gifted us with medication, through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in the lives of researchers, doctors, and nurses. Though imperfect, medication can be an answer to prayer.
I accepted the possibility that miraculous healing wasn’t what God had for me. I continued to pray for healing, but I also listened to my doctor, hoping to hear God’s response through him. It took a while. Longer than I preferred. But eventually, we found a medication my body responded to. It was one of a class of drugs called “biologics.” They were new at the time, but now biologics have changed the lives of people with autoimmune diseases.
They distract the immune system so that it won’t attack your body. They carry risk but have proven safer with each generation of the drug. Each of the three biologics I have taken have been a blessing from God, one that has allowed the last nineteen years of my life to not just be manageable, but to exceed the dreams I held before my diagnosis.
Before RA, I saw myself as one of Jesus’s core disciples. Perhaps even one of the twelve. I imagined walking with Jesus throughout his ministry, learning from him, witnessing his miracles, seeing him walk on water. After RA, I couldn’t imagine such a journey. Had I lived at the time of Christ, I wouldn’t have walked with Jesus. Without modern medicine, I wouldn’t have walked at all. I wouldn’t have been one of the twelve. I would have been a beggar, lying at the gate, unable to move, unable to provide for myself, yearning to be healed, waiting to hear Jesus say, “Take up your mat and walk!”
I am a beggar. I am completely dependent on medication, on the patience of my wife and friends, on the understanding of supervisors and co-workers. I am utterly dependent on the grace of God revealed in medicine. My doctor was correct, at least to this point. I’ll be managing RA for the rest of my life. More of my life has been lived sick than healthy. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten what it was to be healthy. What it was like to feel independent and strong. At my core, all I feel is vulnerability and need.
Until the day Jesus returns, we will all eventually realize we are beggars.
Don’t feel bad, though. I don’t feel sorry for myself. Because the truth is, until the day Jesus returns, we will all eventually realize we are beggars. We all lose our health. It simply happened to me earlier than most. It will happen to you, too, if it hasn’t already. Maybe it will be quick. Or maybe it will take a long time and you’ll be forced to process and adjust, like me.
Accepting that I’m a beggar changed everything. It deepened my prayer life to something more than a control mechanism. It helped me see myself as a beggar among beggars, recognizing that we all suffer at some point. It helped me see God at work through temporary measures and imperfect solutions, thereby opening possibilities I could never imagine. It gave me a healthy respect for the struggles of others, so that I don’t extend quick fixes or false hope, but instead offer myself as a helping hand or a companion in pain.
When you accept that you’re a beggar, you can understand the depths of Jesus’ grace in new ways. And when you do lose your health, God willing, you’ll have a doctor sit in front of you with a goofy haircut and lights that give you a headache, explaining treatment options. And maybe, amidst all the medications, the possible side effects and the options in front of you, you’ll hear Jesus’s voice whispering, “Take up your mat and walk!”
Jon Saur is the Senior Pastor of StoneBridge Community Church, a PC(USA) congregation in Simi Valley, CA. He graduated from Fuller Seminary and holds a D. Min. in Biblical Preaching from Luther Seminary.