My late husband used to carry a photo in his wallet – just one, mind you. It wasn’t a picture of me, however, but of another young lady entirely, one he loved with his whole heart.
She is his niece, Joanne – beautiful to look at, and one of the most consistently happy people that I have ever known. To hear Joanne laugh is to have your day brightened unexpectedly.
She was born very early and, as a consequence, has faced many challenges in life – her vision and hearing are both limited; she cannot walk or speak; she is fed via a peg in her stomach. Joanne has spent a lot of her life in and out of hospitals, and she has been a worry to her family and friends on many an occasion. This week alone, she has been staying in hospital suffering from – amongst other complications – pneumonia.
Her parents are an inspiration. Not because they are remarkable in any way that is outwardly obvious, but because of their commitment to her. They would not want to be portrayed as heroic because they are not: they are simply loving their daughter; it just happens that loving Joanne requires more practical application than it might if she did not have so many health problems. The crucial thing is that Joanne has problems; she is not, herself, a problem; she is a blessing from God.
Those who are unbelievers struggle with the idea of children suffering under the eye of a benevolent and loving God. I understand their confusion; we think that if God loves, then He will not permit it.
But, the evidence of our own experience teaches us that this is not so. There is suffering. Many of God’s own people go through unimaginable hardships.
So did God Himself, though.
He knows what it is better than any of us, and so He does not shrug His shoulders and walk away from the person who is afflicted – God is NOT watching us from a distance. Scripture even tells us that He hovers over us like a broody hen.
Donnie once asked me why I thought Joanne had to bear so much in her young life if there really is a loving God. I don’t know what I said at the time – my answer would have been wholly inadequate anyway.
He had the most compassionate heart of any person I have ever known – Donnie came closer than anyone to actually being able to feel other people’s suffering. There were many occasions when I told him that his conscience was far too active, and that he could not take on the problems of the whole world. His reaction to every crisis was automatically, ‘what can I do in this?’ It took me sometimes to point out that not everything was his responsibility.
His mother, by the time I first met her, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Donnie’s patience and care of her spoke volumes about the kind of person he was.
One Christmas, after washing up the dinner dishes, we went for a short walk in the early evening, leaving her at home for just half an hour. When we came back, she had emptied the cupboards of every single item of crockery. In a worried voice, her big, dark eyes full of concern, she told us, ‘There’s a child missing, and everyone is out looking. I’m making tea for them’.
And it’s actually now, writing this, that I realise who he took his enormous empathy from.
Finally, it was his own turn to suffer. It is one thing for your heart to be exercised for others in their hardships, but the way you conduct yourself in the midst of personal pain surely speaks volumes about who you are. He never wavered. I didn’t expect that he would.
It is a measure of him that he had far more pity for Joanne, and for his mother, than he ever had for himself. He did not ask ‘why me?’ Not once. In fact, I have often recalled how, many years before, when his friend was terminally ill with cancer, Donnie said to me, ‘imagine if that was one of us, how the other would feel’. His attitude was always , ‘why not me?’
I believe he knew how to conduct himself in the midst of his own suffering because he had gone through it with and for others so many times. He suffered less for himself than he had for those around him. Even the last few entries in his diary are full of compassion for me, not pity for himself.
I understand that aspect of his character better now through closer acquaintance with our Saviour. Sometimes, Christians believe that they are entering the ‘fellowship of His suffering’ by enduring hardships in this world, but I can’t think that this is what Paul meant at all. God does not ask us to suffer in order to enter His fellowship – we identify with Him in His suffering for us.
As ever, it requires nothing from us but our faith.
What our own trials will do, if we allow them, is bring us closer to Him. Like a hurt child, we hold our arms up to the Father who knows how to comfort. It is, in every sense, an inside job for Him: He has been there Himself, and He heals the bruises that the rest of the world simply cannot see.
On February 22nd, 2015, a month before he would pass peacefully from this world, Donnie wrote in his diary of his love and concern for me, and of his gratitude to, and trust in, God.
I thought then that it was a good way to die. But, as I have since learned in facing this journey without my husband, it is also a very good way to live.
Look outwards at others, and upwards to Himself, and your own pain can never overwhelm.