Diagnosis on the Mission Field

Things started in his fingertips. A numbness began to swell and extend from his fingers and up his left arm up to the left side of his neck. Sam’s arm had gone completely numb. It was April of 2014, and he had only just begun his work on the mission field as a 40/40 Church Planter. “It was like that for two months,” he said. Obviously, Sam and his team were concerned. A 25 year-old guy’s arm shouldn’t just go numb without reason. For two months, his hand was crippled into a c-shape, completely unusable. “I couldn’t tie my shoes. I couldn’t open a bottle of water. I couldn’t button my pants, because my hand was just totally crippled.”  He went to the doctor, thinking that it was probably just a pinched nerve. Then the doctor came back told him it was nothing serious. It an old bruise on his spine that had acted up and would heal itself. The numbness eventually went away, and things got back to normal. It started to seem like a fluke. He was fine again. A month went by, and things were still okay. Another month went by, and all was still normal. Nine months went by and everything was fine. So it was a shock that exactly a year later in April of 2015, something odd happened again.

“I woke up with extreme pain in my right eye.” His vision was impaired too; his eyesight was blurry and he was seeing flashes of light and purple streaks. “It was crazy stuff.” Sam and his team couldn’t ignore the gravity of his symptoms, so they took him to a local neurologist. Unfortunately, that doctor wasn’t very helpful. He was unable to diagnose Sam and offered to give him prescription drugs. Not wanting to simply take medicine and mask a potentially bigger problem, they went to another doctor who ordered that they do an MRI. It turned out that his optic nerve was swollen, which was the reason for his pain and eye problems. But they also found something else that was completely unexpected. There were ten lesions in his brain and spine. With the results of the MRI in hand, the doctor was able to give Sam his diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

Multiple Sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder in which it is believed that the body attacks the lining around its own nerves, causing inflammation and damage to the central nervous system. There is no known cause for MS, and there is no cure. Irregularity, in terms of the way this disease develops, is common in MS. The most common symptoms of MS are blurred vision, loss of muscular coordination, and fatigue, but very uncommonly do those diagnosed with MS become completely disabled.

After Sam’s diagnosis was given, they immediately put him on an emergency five-day steroid treatment for his inflamed optic nerve. During those five days in the hospital, Sam had a lot of time to think and reflect. For the majority of us, those five days might have been scary, discouraging, or full of anger. Nature tends to teach us truths we can apply to life. They can be taken literally or metaphorically, like, “what goes up must come down,” or “you reap what you sow.” It is no surprise that karma is an ideal that many regard as truth. It offers something that can make sense in our heads. We can put it in a box and claim it as a function, the same as 1+1=2. Therefore, when we are taught similar things in the church and then life goes awry in such a drastic way, like in Sam’s situation, we are left completely confused. Sam, as a young adult, had decided that instead of pursuing a path to gain success and happiness in his own country, he would give up two and a half years of his life to bring others into relationship with our Heavenly Father. His “reward”? A debilitating illness. This just doesn’t seem right.

When at the precipice of making the decision to follow Christ, there is a cost to count. One is strongly discouraged from taking on the Christian life if he/she has not stopped to consider what might be the consequences or energy and resources needed to follow through with that decision (Luke 14:25-34). Couldn’t that also mean the cost of health? What if, when we make a decision to follow after Christ, some of the possibilities to consider are potential wounds that may be suffered in the battle. It would be grossly näive to represent the mission field as a safe and fluffy atmosphere where each day people are coming to know the Lord in droves. The reality is that there is tragedy on the mission field. The enemy is not barred from areas of missionary work, and he is hungry, and angry. He is ready to pounce on and devour God’s people. Who greater to attack than those who are walking in their God-given authority, like a missionary.

Often times we put Satan on the same level as God and assign attributes to him, like God’s omnipotence and omniscience. The good news is that he is not God, and he is limited in power. So we have hope, knowing that as the enemy lunges, he neither has the ability to trump God's power, nor does he know exactly what will come of his attacks. While he may have hoped that Sam would abandon his work, instead, Sam has risen to the challenge. Those five days of reflection in the hospital were essential for Sam’s heart in dealing with his diagnosis.

“I was just reflecting on what God had taught me, and the way that he taught me, and the passages in the Bible that really spoke life to me, especially the verses about Paul and his thorn in the Bible.” There was something else that God was teaching Sam all this time that had been preparing him for such a blow as MS. He says that before even coming to the mission field, he knew something big like this was going to happen. “I knew that I was going to have something like Paul’s thorn happen, and I just didn’t know how it was going to look.” Sitting alone in his hospital room, Sam began to come to terms with his diagnosis. Talking with God he said, “Okay. It’s time. It’s time for it to happen. You told me that it was going to happen. You prepared me for it.”

Those first moments during Sam’s diagnosis have strongly shaped his way of thinking about his MS. Many people have asked him if he was ever angry with God. The answer is no. “I’ve questioned God’s works. I’ve thought, ‘This isn’t funny anymore. God, help me understand what you’re doing.’ And of course there are times when I’m like, ‘Just take this all away. I don’t want this anymore. Let’s just go back in time and change it all.’ But God has constantly been there, reminding me that His grace is sufficient. His grace is enough. He is enough for me. I lack nothing in Him. This has been my journey. And I’m taking it like a gift.”

It’s not terribly common to find people that would compare something like MS to a gift. However, Sam points to 2 Corinthians 12:7, “I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.” Sam reminds us that didōmi, the Greek word used for the word “given” in this verse, is defined as the same sense of giving a gift. It comes as no surprise that Paul would utilize such language, considering how he calls us forth into joy, even amidst the trials of life. His writings, encouraging us toward joy, were even written in prison. When you are in doubt of whether an author has the authority to write about the subject he is addressing, simply look at his fruit. Paul’s fruit of joy in the face of hardship is testament to the transformed mind Christ puts in us during our hardships as well. Sam has been experiencing this transformation first-hand. “This is something ugly, but it has led to something beautiful.”

One of the beautiful things that has arisen from Sam’s MS would, at first glance, seem to be a mess in and of itself. Sam has struggled with bouts of depression. The medication that he is currently taking has preyed upon certains struggles from his past. Under its influence, those struggles have been amplified. “It’s another thing that has pushed me into God to trust in Him.” And the beauty is how even struggling with emotions has been refining Sam’s character and his ability to minister.

Sam has done a lot of ministry with teens in the past. He has one friend in the U.S. who struggles with depression. Before, Sam would tell this friend what to do. “I used to be kind of preachy,” he says. Sam recognizes that he lacked a bit of compassion when dealing with people who had depression. “Now, [I can speak] through experience of actually having to put my own words into practice, like putting my own advice into practice. It’s helped me out so much. Recently, I have had to apologize to [my friend] and say that I understand what going through depression is like more than ever before. Just that experience, that knowledge that I can share now from having gone through it, has been awesome.”

In life, we wish that we could pass through our troubles unscathed. We call out to God, asking Him to deliver us through evil on the express train. We wish we could just close our eyes, wake up the next day and have everything be back to normal. But Sam has seen the extreme value behind going through tests and trials. It has made him a person with more depth. Flying through our problems without the lens of a student leaves us prone to being like the man who walks away from the mirror forgetting his identity. Our trials are the mirror, and the reflection that we cast ought to be the character that remains when we step away from the glass. What we learn is not only for our own sake. Like Sam has learned, it is also for the purpose of ministering to those around us. “I definitely believe that through our suffering, anxiety, struggle, and battles, He gives us so much knowledge and experience to help others. And it’s funny too, because even thinking about it now, I have prayed a lot over these past few months, ‘Jesus, I want to have that heart like you to be compassionate for people.’ That has been one of my biggest weaknesses in ministry, like, sharing with other people. I never really [had a way to start conversation], but since my diagnosis and this whole journey with everything, I have that now. [MS] has been my ice breaker sometimes. I’ll say, ‘I have MS, and even then I’m still here. I’m still alive. God has brought me through.”

One of the reasons why Jesus is so precious to us is because we have a mediator before God, speaking on our behalf, and He knows what life as a human is like. “A thought that I have every day is that Jesus knows. That’s the great thing about our God is that Jesus lived on earth and suffered and went through [a lot]. Jesus went through anxiety too, that night in the garden when he sweat blood. He knows... He knows. One of the greatest thoughts I can think every day, especially when I’m down, is Jesus knows.” 

“And I don’t have a God who is distant. I have a God who is real close and who can relate” What’s so amazing about God’s presence is its power to change the atmosphere. This closeness Sam has been experiencing has pushed him into new levels of revelation about God’s identity, and has changed the way he sees his relationship with God. “He’s used so many aspects of this journey to reveal Himself to me in new ways, and I wouldn’t take it back. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I’d say, 100 times out of 100, give me MS again, because it birthed a new view of who God is and who I am. It has definitely been a crazy and awesome journey for sure. Hard... but blessed.”

When we surrender ourselves completely to God, our problems begin to take on purpose. Wherever there is hopelessness, we can be certain the enemy is near, lurking behind the curtain whispering his lies. God does not speak in the language of hopelessness, He only knows to speak hope. So even as the worst attacks of the world come upon us, we have the promise in our hearts from our Heavenly Father, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). 

All of these things Sam has been learning are truths we see in God’s Word, but often times are hard to remember in the face of trials. We can thank the Lord that we can base our truth per the surety and steadfastness of God’s Word rather than our own wavering and limited human experiences!

Praise the Lord that He is an unchanging God, and that we can have hope in that his Word is surer than our limited human experience.