One afternoon in 1983, the doctor having just left the ward, I lay upon my bed thinking: ‘I have multiple sclerosis!’ I kept repeating the phrase, like a bride rolling her new name around her tongue.
A ‘crippling disease’ lay dormant within me. Yet at that precise moment I could have leapt from my bed and jogged around the ward. ‘Well, well’, I kept whispering to myself, ‘I have MS!’
I was struck by the irony of the situation. Throughout two decades of pastoral ministry, I had been involved with several MS sufferers. I had conversed with them, read the Scriptures to them, prayed alongside them, pushed their wheelchairs, and taken them for afternoon drives.
Now, I suddenly realised how little I had known them. How often I had been unwittingly glib when, in my attempt to comfort, had merely quoted an apt Bible text without much thought behind it, like ‘My grace is sufficient for thee’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).
What had I experienced of their alarms, fears and indignities; their constant need for courage? Very little. But one thing was now certain, I would soon be sharing them.
A new ministry
It was time to re-examine my relationship with Almighty God. Was it in proper working order? It would certainly need to be in the coming years. I therefore sought heaven’s mercy as at the first, and committed myself to Christ afresh. Whatever was going to happen, however prickly the pathway, I knew God had mapped it out for me.
A new ministry had opened up, in which far from telling others that his grace is sufficient for their every need, I now had to proveit in front of them (Philippians 3:10)!
Then, I suddenly remembered an extraordinary afternoon twenty-five years earlier, in 1958 – a few months into Bible training – when God prepared me in a remarkable way for future service in a ministry of suffering, or ‘inconvenience’ as I prefer to call it.
I had just returned from the principal’s study with some bitterly disappointing news. Having informed him I believed my calling was to Britain and not to some foreign field, he reminded me this could mean many more years in training, possibly as many as nine. I felt as if I had been sentenced at the Old Bailey!
What patience I possessed snapped. After three years training for life in the professional theatre (which I had willingly given up for Christian service) and after further study for the mission field, the latter door had now been closed. Besides, my fiancée and I had been hearing wedding bells, but they would now be silenced for an indefinite period.
I left the principal’s office stunned, angrily gritting my teeth. Life’s ‘board’ seemed filled with snakes and, shamefully, I was blaming God for emptying it of ladders. How many Christians have been, and are, in that position – like children wanting (demanding!) only smooth pathways on which to stroll, yes stroll, to heaven. Yet, it is ‘through much tribulation’ that we must enter (Acts 14:22).
What is our cross?
In an agitated state, I made my way to the college garden where, behind the tall hedgerows away from prying eyes, I paced the meandering pathways. For three long hours I waged a private war against the turn of events (alright, I admit it, against God), pouring out my complaints to him who knew ‘my thought afar off’ (Psalm139:2).
In lectures the question had often been posed: what is the cross that every Christian has to carry (Luke 14:27)? Now I knew – obedience to the will of God for one’s life. Obedience without hesitation, question or complaint; in fact, to follow Jesus’ example (Matthew 26:39).
Yes, but what does that mean? Often Christians pray, ‘Lord, make me more like Jesus’, forgetting that he was ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3). A daring prayer!
However, following his example and bearing one’s cross is a necessary ‘halter’, and those who wear it are privileged to do so. It is the symbol of spiritual baptism, of being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20).
Mere words or actions cannot testify to the quickening experience, but true repentance and personal submission to Christ do. If he is not one’s Lord, it is doubtful whether he is one’s Saviour either.
Confronted with reality
The challenge was clear. Christ possessed a cross, given him by the Father, with which he staggered to Calvary – for a sinner like me. He had ‘delighted’ to fulfil the Father’s will (Psalm 40:8).
But was I willing to do God’s will, even if it meant inconvenience and self-sacrifice? Did I reallylove Christ sufficiently? I sought to escape Christ’s gaze, but failed – like the first Peter had once done.
In my mind I could hear the same pertinent questions being asked (John 21:15-17). Did I reallylove Christ? It was a terrible shock to be confronted with reality – my love for Christ was genuine but it came a poor third.
Third? Yes, that is what injured my pride. My personal desires were top of the agenda, followed by a zeal for Christian ministry and study. Loping far behind was a mere affection for the Lord himself. In truth, my heart was lukewarm, fit only to be ‘spewed out’ (Revelation 3:15-16).
In short, assessed by heaven’s values, I was a hypocrite. In a very small way, I was beginning to understand how the apostle Peter felt when confronted by a similar challenge (John 21:15-17).
A convert or a disciple?
So for four years I had been unwittingly play-acting – just toying with the Christian faith, assuming that a convert and a disciple were the same thing.
Yet a convert is anxious to avoid ending in hell (understandably!) but is reluctant to enter further into the Christian experience (Philippians 3:10). For the convert, the Christian life consists of Sabbath observance (perhaps just one service); and possibly the midweek meeting – maybe, if there is nothing ‘better’ to do.
There is little else apart from the occasional good deed. Christ is present somewhere, but he is far from the centre (2 Peter 1:10).
But Christ seeks disciples, men and women who, from love for him, will follow closely and obediently at whatever cost. The disciple puts Christ first, over all things and at all times – his family, his comforts and even his own life are subordinated (‘hated’, Luke 14:26).
When Christ was on his final journey to Calvary – with all that meant in terms of sacrifice and commitment to the Father’s will – he brushed aside superficial offers to follow him (Luke 9:51). They had to understand that discipleship entails spiritual hardship and toughness (2 Timothy 2:3-4).
So let the dead bury their dead! So vital is discipleship there is no time (metaphorically) to say farewell to family and friends. ‘Forsaking all’ for Christ is what is required of his followers (Luke 14:33) and ‘looking back’ is unworthy of such a high calling (Luke 9:57-62).
I felt sick, shaken and broken in spirit. A laser beam of holiness had pierced my soul; a burning coal had touched the nerve-ends of my conscience. Suppose God did not want me to serve him in the ministry? What if (as with Jeremiah in 16:2) he commanded me to refrain from ever getting married? Would I still love him?
Did I love him for himself, or merely for what I could get from him? Sadly, I knew the answer. Although I wanted to be of use to God I expected it to be on myterms.
I sat down on the gardener’s rickety old chair, head in hands, tearful. Ministry and marriage had been expected within the year, but now both would be shelved indefinitely. Instead, God was commanding me to begin a slow hard climb.
I could either go forward, obediently and submissively, trusting him from day to day – or, seek my own short cuts knowing that he disapproved. Christ was claiming me for discipleshipand preparing me for suffering, urging me to place him first – to love him more profoundly than anyone or anything else, and that for the rest of my life.
The twist in the tale
After three hours ‘wrestling’ with God, I walked slowly from the garden transformed. This had not been a mystical experience, no extra-biblical ‘second blessing’ encounter. It was far more practical than that.
Knowing the pioneering ministry I was to be given, and the future struggles with constant ill-health, the Lord had offered me discipleship. I in turn had offered him myself in a wholehearted and solemn vow (Ecclesiastes 5:4). I knew there was no turning back. Usefulness in God’s service just begins at that point.
Unlike me, the Lord knew that my experience in the garden was a preparation for the long-term. He knew that twenty-five years later a doctor would tell me I had MS – and that in 1997 another would diagnose cancer also.
Try telling that to a convert and observe his reaction. But when a disciple hears the news, he thanks God for the privilege – in the spirit of 2 Corinthians12:9-10. It is the only way for a Christian to cope with the ‘problem’ of suffering.