“Suffering doesn’t automatically or naturally lead to [spiritual] growth or good outcomes. It must be handled properly.” – Tim Keller1
“Our fruitfulness comes out of our vulnerability and not just out of our power. It comes out of our powerlessness.” – Henri Nouwen2
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21b (esv)
As a professor living with chronic illnesses and disability, I am often approached by students with questions about trusting God in pain and suffering.3 As a biologist, I often discuss my health challenges in the classroom when explaining concepts like genetic inheritance, comorbidities, etc. In so doing, I’ve discovered this truth: Vulnerability and pragmatism used together can reach under a student’s defenses against the interactions of faith and science and distrust or disbelief in the value of God in everyday life.
My most important objective for my students is their growth towards wholeness. Yet I’m learning that many times their growth doesn’t come from my lectures, lab experiments, or lesson plans; it comes from my vulnerability with them. Vulnerability requires simple, truthful, and gracious answers to questions like, “Why do you use a cane, walker, or electric scooter?”, “Can I help you carry that?”, or “How are you?” (which is, by far, the hardest question to answer given above-listed parameters). Vulnerability is admitting that my body won’t let me attend their game or recital tonight or meet with them for coffee this afternoon. Vulnerability is asking them to bring their papers or projects to my desk with their questions during lab or to pickup/drop off mail, library books, or papers across campus after class for me. And the hardest for me, vulnerability is saying “yes, today is an ash heap day.”
An ash heap day is when my body doesn’t just wish for the relief of my bed, but a day when the pain overflows my will and leaks out of my eyes. Job knew very well the devastation of ash heap days when the pain doesn’t relent, nor the grief stop. And through Job, God is teaching me the V.A.L.U.E. of days like these: “Vision Always Lies Under Exultation.” Job dug out that truth in suffering; I’m trying to do the same. And when I’m vulnerable with my students in pain and in vision, hopefully they can see this truth at work in me and grow as well.
As a soil scientist, I often say I dig holes for a living. But really, that’s the truth. The beauty, the wonder, the lessons in soil lie buried just waiting to be dug up and discovered. And I’m learning that the same is true for suffering from chronic illness. For without this pain and loss, I’m not sure that arrogant me would’ve learned to dig deep in the soil of my soul and find that vision is found through grateful worship.4
When a student asks if I have a favorite verse or quote, I often reply with Psalms 73:26 (My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever. kjv). A common response is “but can you explain why?” because I didn’t give the expected answer of Philippians 4:13 nkjv I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength, Luke 1:37 esv Nothing is impossible with God, or similar. Admitting that life isn’t going how I wanted but God is ever enough for my life is a powerful vulnerability that students can’t explain away with science or lack of faith.
The best medical treatments and fervent prayers aren’t stopping my body’s decline. Rather, as my body is returning to dust, students can see that we can’t earn God’s love through what we do (or don’t do). For God gave His love in Christ. And there in Christ, freedom is found in life and in death (see Philippians 1:21). My Ph.D., position, or perseverance in pain are nothing worth acclaiming; His gift of grace is only thing worth proclaiming.
Talk is cheap, especially in the sciences. Plainly said, “that’s a nice story, now show me the data.” My students can google far more information than I know and far faster than I can give it to them in a class period. But proclaiming grace to students via vulnerability in lament and in gratitude is powerful, both in and out of the classroom. Yes, I do have the privilege of teaching at a Christian university, but I haven’t always been here.
I know well the importance of seizing the day in opportunities for the Gospel, both at secular and faith-based institutions. For example, when our first baby died, I was teaching at a large state school. My first day back after our loss, I was visibly struggling to make it through a lecture without giving in to the tears, so I asked for a minute to stop and regain my composure. The students knowing what had happened were patient and quiet until I could begin again. Then immediately after class, this big tough-looking male student came up to me, leaned in and softly said “Dr. Madison, could you please pray for me and my wife? We just lost a baby and it’s really hard.” I prayed for them right then and kept doing so. Later in the semester, he would come up and ask how I was doing and tell me about him and his wife. And now, nearly twenty-five years later, I can still remember that moment vividly and wonder if my student can do the same…
Weakness opened a door that knowledge never could for that student. A door for the Gospel of grace. Granted, there are students who are uncomfortable with vulnerability, so it isn’t always the key for every student. Alongside that idea, I’m finding my voice grows as my body decays so I must be especially attuned to each student’s needs for receiving grace. Some need grace in vulnerability’s power of shared stories or Scripture while others need grace in the quiet whisper of “it’s okay to not be okay” without saying anything else. It’s both my opportunity and responsibility to know when, where, what, and how much to share, all the while praying for the Holy Spirit to intervene in perfect power.
All of us are hurting in some way. We can receive grace in our own ways there in the pain together. And we can all extend grace to others from the abundance of grace received, whatever our circumstances. Grateful worship is the natural response of my day because I’ve been given so much grace. Thus, today and every day, I’m praying that my students might learn the beauty, wonder, and freedom found in grateful worship, without having to join Job and me here on the ash heap for class.
- Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, (Dutton, NY: Riverhead Books, 2015).
- Henri Nouwen, as cited by henrinouwensociety, Instagram September 14, 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/Cif8L_suDRd/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y%3D.
- As the diseases progress and disability increases, I’m being approached more and more by colleagues with the same questions as students in how to trust God in suffering. But that’s another topic for another article.
- I wouldn’t wish living with chronic illnesses on anyone else but also wouldn’t trade them for anything else because of what I’ve learned about God from them.