This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear brother or sister at the bedside,
Few can understand the suffering you witness daily. You return home with sore muscles after standing on your feet for hours, but even the ache in your limbs doesn’t compare with the pain in your heart. You went into medicine to love your neighbor, as Christ has loved us (Mark 12:30-31, John 13:34-35). You practice medicine because shepherding your talents is good stewardship, and because the laying on of hands, whether to remove a gallbladder, change a dressing, or steady a trembling palm, is an expression of mercy. On the best days, your work is a calling, tied up in worship.
Yet in times such as these, when a pandemic has seized the entire world in its jaws, such days feel scarce. You wield every tool in your arsenal to treat disease, but patients still fade away. The family members who usually hover at the bedside, or accompany their loved ones in the ambulance, are nowhere to be found, and your patients draw their final breaths alone, without a hand to hold. Goodbyes, once the stuff of tears, memories, and kisses, are now sterilized through the cold glow of a smartphone.
In such moments, the certainty of God’s love can elude you. You may sing God’s praises with fervor in church, but when yet another procedure fails to cure, and yet another mother, father, or child cries out to you in pain that you can’t relieve, his presence seems remote. The work to which you’ve devoted your life can plunge you into your darkest hours, luring you into doubts about God’s love, perhaps even about his existence. Where is God in all this? you wonder, as you trudge down the hallway after delivering bad news. Why doesn’t he seem to answer when I pray? you ask, as you steal into a restroom to compose yourself after a patient dies. Then, coursing through it all, the most troubling question afflicts you: If God is good, why are so many suffering?
Dear friend, no glib answers can dismiss your anguish. Nothing the world offers can erase your agony when heart tracings flatline, or sponge away your questions when you witness harrowing suffering. And yet, even as you toil and pray, even as you strive, two truths burn on, piercing the dark like pale flames. The first, is that whatever circumstances befall us, and whatever changes assail us in this broken, chaotic world, God always remains who he is: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). The second is that this same, eternal, merciful, gracious God “so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Even when despair obscures your vision of God, these promises from Scripture assure us he is there. He is holy and merciful, the great “I am” who provides manna from heaven to feed the hungry (Ex. 3:14; 16:4; 34:6). In love the Father gave his only begotten Son for us (John 3:16). In love, that same Son now advocates for us when the wages of sin threaten to subdue us (John 17:3; Eph. 2:4–7). He walks with our patients when their bodies languish and break, and with us when our own hopes crumble and scatter like brittle leaves in the wind (Ps. 34:18). When the floodwaters rise, he holds us above the waves (Isa. 43:2). He, too, has known deep suffering (Isa. 53:3), and embraces us in love no matter what bad news we bear, or what fears we face. In him, we have forgiveness. In him, we have life beyond the confines of our dying, mortal shells (1 Cor. 15:55).
To draw from this well of hope, cling to God’s inspired word. Harbor it in your heart, for “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). Run to well-loved passages when fear grips you. Dwell upon them as you drive to work, or take the subway, or as you scroll on your phone as you ride the elevator. Recite them as you await the next lab result, as you pull up the chart of your next patient, and before you call the anxious family. When the wreckage of sin bears down upon us, only through God’s word can we remember who he is, and what he has accomplished for us in Christ. Therefore cleave to God’s Scripture as a beacon through the darkness, a lamp to your feet and a light to your path (Ps. 119:105).
When the floodwaters rise, he holds us above the waves.
Friend, even during the most harrowing moments in the hospital, God’s hold on you remains firm. Even when the heartbeat quickens and the monitor alarm sounds, God remains faithful, gracious, and merciful, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6). The wages of sin drive us to our knees, but in Christ, our awesome, loving God has sapped even death of its sting (1 Cor. 15:55). Things may fall apart. Cures may fail. But God, according to his mercy, has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet. 1:3). And as you toil in the valley of the shadow of death, in Christ no illness, no calamity, no car accident, heart attack, or procedure gone wrong, can steal that hope away.
Kathryn Butler is the author of Glimmers of Grace: A Doctor’s Reflection on Faith, Suffering, and the Goodness of God.
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