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What suffering reveals about our identity

A doctor reflects on the source of our worth

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April 16, 2021

He was a professional skier. During a competition he was favored to win, he lost control on the downslope, plunged 30 feet off course, and rolled like tumbleweed down a hill until a tree trunk broke his fall. When paramedics found him, he denied any pain, but repeated over and over, his voice taut with panic, that he couldn’t move his limbs. 

Days later, he lay in an ICU bed with metal screws and rods fixing his spinal column into place. We’d saved his life, but couldn’t save his spinal cord, and he remained paralyzed from the shoulders down. Hour after hour he stared at the ceiling, and when we examined him each morning, he’d answer “yes” or “no,” but said little else. 

Then one day, his nurse motioned for us to talk with her in private. She looked stricken. “I offered to brush his teeth, and he suddenly burst into tears,” she said. “He says everything he cares about is gone, and that he doesn’t know who he is anymore.” 

I am lost 

Although few experiences are as devastating as quadriplegia, outbursts like that of this young man echo in every hospital hallway. When an accident or sudden illness assails us, our first desperate pleas are for our survival, and when we escape with our lives we gush with gratitude. In time, however, the dust settles. We stare dumbfounded at our strange surroundings and realize that the lives through which we once absentmindedly strolled have disintegrated. The images we took for granted have burned up, and the elements of ourselves we most highly prized crumble into ash. 

In such moments we can lose sight of who we are. Severe injuries that leave us disabled not only impair us physically, but also can threaten our understanding of our identity, value, and dignity. 

I remember the lament of a man who survived a stroke, only to sink into despair when he could no longer provide for his family. 

A woman for whom I cared would moan through the night from searing pain in her dying limbs, but refused amputations because she could not fathom life without the freedom to walk. 

Another woman cried in anguish when an operation cured her thyroid cancer, but forever altered her singing voice. 

Such stories highlight that even when we escape a health catastrophe with our lives, every disaster leaves a mark. Some scars so disfigure us that we no longer recognize ourselves, and like Jeremiah stumbling through the ruins of Jerusalem, we cry out, “I am lost” (Lam. 3:54). 

Called out of the darkness

And yet, when we look with dread upon the pieces of our fractured lives, our worth derives from something far more permanent, far more precious than these scattered fragments. Our worth doesn’t derive from our self-reliance, our talents, or our independence. We can’t earn it via anything our trembling hands accomplish. Rather, our worth springs solely, wholly, beautifully, and immutably from Jesus. His blood, for ours. Our renewal, caught up in his. 

Our true and foremost identity has nothing to do with the vigor of our limbs or the keenness of our eyesight and everything to do with the truth that we are image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:26), loved by God (John 3:16), and made new through Christ (Rev. 21:5).

Consider the words of Peter:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:9–10).

In Christ, when God looks upon us, even in our lameness, even when we cannot recognize ourselves, he sees righteousness and holiness, a reflection of his own marvelous light. 

A child of God

One day, after a horrific accident, you may glance in the mirror and struggle to recognize yourself. You may remind yourself that you are a spouse, a mother, or a father. You may remember that you were a lawyer, a teacher, or a bus driver. But first and foremost, remember that in Christ, you are a child of God. Revisit John’s declaration: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; And so we are!” (1 John 3:1).

Cleave to this truth if the steps you took for granted decades earlier now feel like labor. Revel in itw hen the person you envisioned yourself to be seems a distant memory. When the days unfold before you like a path plunging into the fog, the destination hazy, and the journey bleak, dare to rejoice that all meager, worldly identifiers shrink before who you are in Christ

As a follower of Christ your identity, now and forever, is as one called out of the darkness into his holy light. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). By that light, you conform to the image of God’s Son. By that light, God wraps you in his love. And nothing, not illness or death, not halting speech or a crippled limb, can snuff that light out, or enshroud you from its brilliance (Rom. 8:38–39). 

This article was adapted from Glimmers of Grace: A Doctor’s Reflections on Faith, Suffering, and the Goodness of God, Crossway, April 2021.

Kathryn Butler

Kathryn Butler (MD, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons) is a trauma surgeon who is board certified in surgical critical care and served on the faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. After a decade of experience in surgery, she left clinical practice in 2016 to homeschool her … Read More