By / Apr 28

At a moment’s notice, chaos can erupt in my home. This day was no different. Although every day is difficult with my son’s illness, some stand out as ones that will forever be etched in my mind. And this was one of them.

Something triggered him, as had happened countless times before, and a two-hour-long episode began. As chaos went on around me and he suffered at the hands of his illness, my adrenaline pumped within me and I leapt into action, buckling down for the long haul. By the time it had passed, he had melted into my arms in tears, and I was left with an aching heart and an exhausted body.

But worst of all, I was enveloped in an overwhelming sense of loneliness. 

Unseen and unknown in loneliness? 

Not only was I physically alone, but the longer our son’s challenges lasted, the more isolating it became. Very few could relate to our specific circumstances and most barely knew they existed. Even countless doctors were at a loss as to the cause, let alone the solution. As the years have gone by and the challenges have increased over the past decade, the loneliness has grown exponentially. 

I now sat on the floor, holding back tears as the other kids chased each other around the house, blissfully unaware of all that had just transpired. Even with noise all around me, the loneliness grew louder.

A knock at the door interrupted my runaway thoughts. I gathered myself and opened it to find on my doorstep a small box containing a small, clear bottle. No note, no signature, just a little bottle with a tiny scroll rolled up inside. I slowly unrolled the fragile piece of paper and read these words: 

You have kept count of my tossings; 
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book? 
. . . This I know, that God is for me.

I stood there for a moment, still perplexed by the unexplained box on my doorstep with no one in sight. But a small wave of comfort began to wash over me. In this moment of incredible heartache that no one could see but me, I felt seen and, somehow, less alone.

Is God really for me? I wondered. Does he really keep track of every sorrow that causes me to toss in bed at night and every tear that falls when no one else can see? As I thought back to all that I had endured over the years and all that still loomed in front of me, these few words carried so much weight. To be seen and known — we all desire that, don’t we?

And yet, when grief or pain take up residence in our lives, we often feel unseen and unknown as the life we knew comes to a halt and life around us goes on as usual. We can walk into a bustling group and feel lonelier than when we’re alone.

Loneliness comes in all shapes and forms. At times, physical illness or a child with special needs prevent us from typical life activities, forcing us into isolation. At other times, we experience a loss or trial to which very few relate. Even if they’ve experienced something similar, our different personalities, temperaments, and unique aspects still create a feeling of loneliness. Sometimes, we may act like the life of the party on the outside, but feel utterly alone on the inside — and we may not even know why.

For me, loneliness has come and gone in intensity, but the nature of our circumstances has often forced me into some level of isolation. Even when I’m with others, there is a large part of my life that I’m unable to share due to the complexity of our situation. If I try to explain, I’m often met with blank stares and awkward silence.

The One who sees and knows

Relationship and community are important, and we need to pursue them as much as possible. However, if you’ve dealt with true loneliness, you know that sometimes that’s easier said than done. But what if there is Someone who sees and knows us like no one else ever could? Could it be that there’s a God who wants to draw near in the messiness of our grief and loneliness, unlike those who shrink back in discomfort? Could it be that he sees us in the dark of night when painful and anxious thoughts rob us of sleep? Could it be that he sees the tears that come when no one else is

As I’ve had to learn the hard way, no matter how much I want to feel seen and heard by family and friends, there’s only so much they can understand and so much they can endure. The longer our suffering lasts, those willing to stick with us become few and far between.

But the Bible says that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). Even if everyone else abandons us or can’t see and understand our pain, there is a friend, Jesus, who promises to never leave or forsake those who put their trust in him. As the Bible also states, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deut. 31:8).

Whether you know it or believe it right now, God sees you personally. He knows your deepest fears, greatest desires, and heaviest heartache. You may be carrying sorrows and burdens that no one else can see or carry at the moment, but you can be comforted knowing that Jesus loves you so much that he gave his life for you and wants to come near to you with compassion. And he not only sees you, but he came to give you a hope that loneliness cannot steal. When we trust Jesus as our Savior, he promises our lonely tears are held by God himself.

Whenever I glance over at that little bottle sitting by my kitchen sink, I’m grateful it showed up at my door. To most people, it probably looks like nothing more than a strange choice of decoration. To me, though, this little bottle carries far more meaning than anything it could physically hold.

Whatever tomorrow may hold, that bottle will forever be a reminder that the God of the Bible knows and profoundly loves me (and you). Out of a world full of people, he personally sees and comes close to us in our loneliness. He is strong enough to hold what you and I cannot. If you trust him, he will draw near to you and fill you with a hope and comfort that cannot be taken.

You may not feel seen by those around you, but with Jesus, you’re never truly alone.

*Adapted from “He holds our tears in loneliness” (Ch. 2) of Tears and Tossings: Hope in the Waves of Life (10 Publishing, 2021), written as a resource for non-Christians and Christians alike who are walking through pain and suffering.  

By / Apr 16

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.

By / Mar 10

Being sick can be scary, especially for children. Dr. Scott James has a passion for showing both kids and their parents that God is right there with them in their time of need, even in the middle of a pandemic. Scott is a pediatric physician. He serves as an elder at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, where he and his wife, Jaime, live with their four children. Scott wants to remind us that we can not only trust God to take care of us, but we also have the privilege of imitating him while caring for others.

Scott’s new book, God Cares for Me: Helping Children Trust God When They’re Sick, helps parents and caregivers talk with children about illness and how to keep themselves and others safe when sick. Scott was kind enough to answer some of our questions about how parents can talk with their children about sickness.

Q: We are a year into the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States, but there are still so many unanswered questions. How old are your children, and what kind of conversations have you had at home with your kids as COVID started to spread?

We have four children, ranging from nine to almost sixteen years old. Depending on how you look at it, having an infectious diseases doctor as a dad during a global pandemic is either a fortunate or a very unfortunate thing. On the positive side, as the pandemic ramped up and then hung around, my kids always had someone they could come to with questions. 

They ask profoundly good questions, and we’ve had the opportunity to process things out loud all year long. We’ve talked about what makes this virus unique, how seriously ill it can make people, how it has disrupted so many people’s lives, what we can do to slow the spread and help people in need, and how sad it makes us that people want to fight about that.   

The downside of having an ID doctor as a dad during all this is that the nature of my work on the frontlines has put a certain amount of stress on our family. Because I am knowingly exposed to the virus every day, I’ve had to be very cautious about not spreading the infection to my family, our church, or our community. We’re not on lockdown or anything, but we make it a point to be consistently careful about how we go out and how we gather. 

In a year when many people have gone on with life as normal, my kids have missed out on a lot. That’s one reason I was interested in writing God Cares for Me—though thankfully we have remained well so far, I saw it as a good opportunity to talk further with my kids about how God is near, he loves to take care of us in difficult times. He gives us the privilege of helping him care for others in their time of need as well. 

Q: As parents, how do we talk about not only keeping our own bodies well, but making sure we keep others safe from getting sick too? 

Even as we’re helping our children trust in God’s care for us amid this pandemic, we also have the opportunity to help them see that God calls us to care for others, too. With an infectious disease circulating in our communities, one way to look out for the good of others is to help slow the spread of infection by consistently practicing interventions such as masking and social distancing. 

When doctors and public health experts recommend these practices as a way to protect other people, I think that following their guidance is a reasonable Christian response. It’s one way we can love others and seek the good of our communities (1 Corinthians 10:24). To be clear, it’s certainly not the only way to love others, and I believe Christians should refrain from codifying such practices as moral law, as if the Bible says, “Thou shalt mask up.” These behaviors are a way to love your neighbor—a very good and timely way, I would argue—but we shouldn’t act as if they are a foolproof litmus test of Christian love and faithfulness. 

Corollary to this, if our faith is motivating us to look for ways to love our neighbors and help others stay safe during this pandemic, we would do well to consider mental and spiritual well-being as well. Christian faith is marked by fellowship, hospitality, and deep community—we are not wired for social isolation or physical estrangement from the body of Christ, and there are profoundly negative effects to this season of separation. 

Even while we are trying to protect others by social distancing, we have the opportunity to help our children think about how to proactively and safely pursue the fellowship we so desperately need. We may need to get creative with the ways in which we gather, but we’re still called to live in community with one another.

Q: I’m sure you saw an even greater need to write God Cares for Me because of the pandemic, but the book isn’t just about COVID, is it? 

Certainly not! I think of this book as COVID-relevant but not COVID-specific. The broader theme of helping children walk through times of pain and suffering is central to my role as a pediatrician. It is something I often think through from a pastoral perspective as well. 

God Cares for Me follows a boy named Lucas through a sick day and a scary visit to the doctor’s office, but the bigger story is how God provides comfort and care all along the way. My prayer is that whatever illness a family might be facing, this book will be a reminder that God is a trustworthy refuge and fortress (Psalm 91:2). 

I hope this book will spark ongoing conversations within families. The back section, “Talking with Kids about Sickness,” gives parents a few suggestions on navigating those conversations. I encourage parents to approach these difficult topics in a way that acknowledges the hard reality of what it’s like having to deal with pain and suffering but consistently points to the comforting truth that God has not left us to manage on our own. God himself is with us every step of the way, and he also surrounds us with a community of people called the church—people who love us in Christ and are present to bear our burdens alongside us.