Today on Parking Space 23, I want to introduce a new and deeply personal series, “Making My Theology Work.” My wife has a chronic neurological disorder called CDEM (it is kind of like MS, although the disease action that produces the actual injuries in the brain is different) which causes her nearly constant, widespread, varied, and at times quite severe pain. She also has limited mobility, most days she walks with a cane, although some days require a walker, and some even a wheel chair. Although there is no cure (there are treatments that may help) there is hope, because our hope is in God, and He has promised for His people there will be a pain free, tear free, eternity with Him (Revelation 21:3-4); our hope is in Him and that Great Day. Until then, we live in this fallen world, striving to please Him, and to honor Him with our lives and hearts. This intermittent series will be about how we do that in the context of suffering and chronic illness in the home and in our marriage. My Prayer is that many will be blessed and encouraged by it.
We all have a few memories indelibly carved into our consciousness. Most memories tend to be mutable and change over time, but there are a few that are fixed in everyone’s memory. We remember what we were wearing, the weather outside, the ambient sounds, the smell in the air and even the thoughts that were running through our heads.
Most of those memories for me are really rather insignificant ones. I remember a perfect run on corn snow in March at Mary Jane, the breeze, the sound of my skies on the little kernals of refrozen snow, the collar of my jacket being slightly damp with sweat and the odd stiffness of an old school powerbar in my inside pocket as I carved wide GS turns from the top of Parsenn Bowl, all the way down to the lift line corral at the base while listening to Jimmy Smith play a live version of Sag Shootin’ His Arrow through not entirely comfortable ear buds stuffed under the ear flaps of my helmet. I remember a particular few minutes of a night between college and real life where my best friend and I paused by the river on the Southside of Pittsburgh after driving down a road simply because we had driven past it for years and never knew what was down there. We got out and walked down to a disused boat launch, the ripples from the wake of a passing barge were gently lapping against the old crumbly concrete boat ramp, the voices of tipsy girls arguing about where their car was parked drifting in the air and that unmistakable Ohio River scent filling my nostrils.
But there is one important memory burned like that into my brain. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was missing my 1:00 theology class, I was wearing a blue, brown and sage tie with a repeating pattern of water color paintings of a tree on it and a brown gingham check shirt with an oxford collar, sage green pants and brown buck oxfords that were well past their prime in the way seminary student’s shoes usually are, and my wife was sitting next to me on the kind of barely upholstered chair that you only seem to find in doctors’ offices. Two feet away a man with a very thoughtful look on his face sandwiched between a white shirt with a too wide tie and a yarmulke held on with two bobby pins was seated on a stool with a rotating seat and pointing to MRI films of my wife’s brain. Although I was hanging on every word, my mind kept drifting to the thought that this is a scene that only happens in movies, or maybe “a very special episode” of a network TV show, not in real life. Not in my real life.
But it was, and what he was telling us, was that my wife had a serious neurological disorder. To be honest, it was not much of a surprise, I had a feeling in my gut a year ago when an orthopedist said that all of her symptoms were not coming from an injured disk in her back, and it was something of a relief too; she had been inexplicably suffering for so long, and had been given so many small diagnoses over the years that it was a relief to know there was a central cause and that we could develop a plan of treatment. But still it seemed incredibly surreal. Our day to day life wasn’t changing, but now we had this label.
As believers, we know that it is part of our daily life because that was God’s sovereign plan for us. It is for His glory and for our good and that we are called to be content in every circumstance, even when your family is deeply affected my chronic illness and suffering.
That is the theological truth of our situation; I believe all of those things unwaveringly. But I am also at times reminded of a favorite biblical counseling professor, who if he was having a rough day, and you asked him how it was going he would always reply, “I’m trying to make my theology work for me today.” Well, that is what this series is going to be about, making good theology work for you, when suffering is a constant part of your marriage.
One of the great frustrations I had, being a bookish sort of guy, was that there are virtually no resources available that address how to be a godly husband when your wife suffers greatly on a daily basis. So I (and we) are engaged in the ongoing process of discovering how to make my theology work for me (and us), as I seek to be a godly husband in a situation that no one is truly prepared for, and to love my wife who is the greatest gift, apart from my salvation, that God has ever given me. I humbly invite you the reader to come along with me as God works in my life and my marriage to mold me into the man He would have me be, and I strive every day to love my wife as Jesus loved the church.
Theology Is Like A Jeep
This is especially true when you are putting theology to work in counseling or discipleship settings, and especially when you are caring for, loving and counseling your wife who is suffering. You have to take the right approach to putting your theology to work, and in order to do that, you have to know what type of tool it is.
Some people think theology is like a hammer, to be used for smashing nails that are sticking up in life back into place. This an approach that is too often taken, especially by those who focus on making sure their doctrine is sound and biblical. They crush error with staccato bursts of biblical truth delivered like bullets from a machine gun.
Others see theology as a kind of fire blanket. Anytime trouble comes up they cast a large wet blanket of theology over the situation and run for cover and call the fire department as fast as they can.
Still others seem to think of theology as an antique jack-plain, something that is expensively acquired, fun to have and to look at, but never to be actually used. It’s a tool of course, but an obsolete one and not really suited for today’s needs – something to be admired, treasured and protected but never actually put to use.
But I would say that theology is like a jeep, the ultimate tool for navigating rough terrain. If you know how to use it, there is virtually no minefield you can’t navigate, but if you don’t know how to use it, you just might run someone over leaving them worse off than when you found them and if you mash the pedal to the floor, and try to drive through a boulder field at the same speed you head down the highway, you are going to break an axle and that jeep is going to be useless to you.
So what does this have to do with marriage and chronic illness? Well chronic illness is varied terrain, there are times when the road is relatively smooth and you can mash the pedal to the floor and feed your wife (and yourself) theological truth at a high-speed, and in its most unvarnished form. But sometimes the going is rough, and the path is strewn with huge boulders you have to crawl over.
What does this look like in real life? There is nothing more important than equipping your wife, when she suffers with a chronic illness, with a proper understanding of the sovereignty of God. She need to know that He is in control of all things, the good things and the bad things; that He causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes (Rom 8:28); that all good and perfect gifts (trials) come down from the Father and they are to strengthen us and make us more Christlike (James 1:2-4); That not one sparrow falls from the sky without the Father willing it (Matthew 10:29). In short she need to be able to answer the question why is this happening to me, “because it is what God who is good and loves me has declared would happen before the foundation of the world for my good and for His glory.” You work to build that understanding when the road is smooth.
But there are times when the road is rocky, like when your wife wakes up at 2:00 in the morning crying out in pain because one of those muscles that has been spasming to produce the “MS hug” all day has cramped up and she has a full body charlie horse that feels like it’s going to kill her and through tears she cries “why is this happening to me?”
Now you could hammer her and land a one two punch of Romans 8:28 and James 1:2 and maybe finish her off with a little 1 Peter 4:12 (which of course would be taking it out of context). She would probably stop asking you why she was suffering, and you not only would have delivered pure biblical truth, you would probably be able to get right back to sleep. But that wouldn’t help your wife at all.
Or you could barrage her with so many verses (and of course pepper in a few quotes from Jay Adams, Wayne Mack, and John Calvin for good measure) and at such a rapid rate they she couldn’t even get another question out of her mouth, promising to call the doctor in the morning. You might have thrown a blanket over the fire, but you wouldn’t help your wife at all.
And of course you could just shrug, say I don’t know and just roll over, failing to see that this is not only a physical crisis, but an opportunity to put your theology into action.
Or you could use your theology like a jeep, and use it to lovingly and gently guide your wife through this intense time of trial. First you need to realize that you are called to love your wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25); knowing that you are called to give your life for her and to sanctify her with the washing of the Word.
Too often, I think, when we read Ephesians 5 we think that this is instruction how to treat our wives and forget that it is instruction on how to love our wives. Christ didn’t just give himself up for the church, because that was what the Father required Him to do, He did it because the Father loved the world (John 3:16) and because He loved his bride. When we approach our wives, especially in the midst of suffering, it’s not to comfort them, it’s not to correct them, it’s not even to help them, it must first and foremost be to love them. Loving might include comforting, correcting, helping and a myriad to other things, but loving them always comes first.
So lovingly, gently when my wife cried out “why is this happening” I didn’t run her over with four wheel drive theology, I truthfully said ‘I don’t know.” Because I didn’t and I still don’t. We are not privy to God’s purposes and plans and we can no more know His reasons for allowing specific trials in our life, than we can know the timing of the return of Christ.
What we can know and do know, however, is that God is sovereign and perfectly good, and because I have taken the time to build that understanding in my wife’s mind when we were not in the midst of a deep and immediate crisis, when the heat is on and I respond to her question of “why is this happening” with “I don’t know” she doesn’t hear “I don’t know and it’s unfair” or “I don’t know and you’re sinful for asking” or “I don’t know, it just did” she hears “I don’t know, but God does and He is good.” She hears and is comforted and feels loved.
Sometimes you have to plan ahead to make your theology work for you in a time of crisis. And that is what being a godly husband is all about.