If you’d asked me a decade ago what grace meant to me, I’m not sure I could have answered. Or I would have said something like “the gifts of God are free” because I hear this each week in church and think it sounds pretty great. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell you exactly what this meant or how it manifested in my life. The idea of God’s grace had always been abstract and intangible to me.
Then I got sick. It started with a headache. I woke up the morning of Oct. 28, 2013, with a feeling of pain and pressure behind my right eye. It never went away. Not after days or weeks or even years. Today I still have a constant headache, something I call my “Daily Persistent Headache.”
On top of that, I have pain spikes that make me unable to sit up; dizziness, nausea and extreme fatigue; and muscle pain and weakness all over my body. These symptoms make it impossible for me to hold a full-time job or function beyond a basic level.
It turns out that, for me, being at the bottom is where I finally saw how God’s grace operated in my daily struggle with chronic illness and pain.
There are days when I can’t get out of bed. There are times when I miss out on things I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m racked with guilt or fear that I am letting people down. There are days when I feel so isolated by my illness and where it has left me in life, compared to where I thought I would be at 30. It can be overwhelming. So where is grace in all of that?
The Franciscan monk and theologian Richard Rohr writes: “Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing: we must go down before we even know what up is.”
Sometimes I struggle to find the way up, to see God’s grace working in all of this. Now, I’ve never been angry with God. My definition and understanding of God as the infinite source of love and light doesn’t leave room for anger. But I have wondered where God is in my situation. I have asked myself that question many times. Where is God when we suffer?
It turns out that, for me, being at the bottom is where I finally saw how God’s grace operated in and amid my daily struggle with chronic illness and pain. Grace isn’t some intangible thing. Grace is my mother, who drives me to all of my doctor’s appointments and sits with me as I cry because of pain or frustration or both. Grace is my friends and family who love and support me and keep asking me to participate in life with them, no matter how many times I cancel plans.
I’ve also found grace deep within myself, when I am forced to wrestle with the guilt, shame and isolation from chronic illness, and I choose to forgive myself over and over. Grace is me accepting that I have inherent value as a child of the God of love and that I am worthy of this gift of grace, just as every other living thing is worthy also.
I have learned so much about grace by humbling myself to accept help from others and also by extending grace to myself. I know this is where God is in all of this, day in and day out. God’s grace dwells in the suffering and in the relationships strengthened amid this suffering.
This love and light outshines even that nagging pain behind my eye.