Sickness, Grace, and Healing: 20 Years of Experience

I recently came across some old films from two decades ago. These are not pictures of my family making memories or reminders of my youth. They are images of my brain, MRI films from an era when hard copies were mounted on a lit background for evaluation.

2002 was the first time I got an MRI. An EEG had shown abnormal brain activity, providing a concrete reason for the “weird” mental experiences that I did not previously know how to define or explain. Ignorance was certainly not bliss, but neither were the questions that came from early revelations. The doctors said that many people have seizures without any visible cause, but they would do a brain scan “just in case” something showed up.

It did. Those early images revealed a lesion, but there was no way of distinguishing between a cavernous malformation (i.e., an abnormal clump of blood vessels) and a tumor. What does that mean? It was the start of a long journey. The first goal was to control the seizures and monitor the lesion for changes (growth = bad). After two years, not much change was visible, but several types of medication had not been effective on the seizures. I was in college with no driver’s license and an occasional mortifying experience when losing consciousness around my classmates.

Two decades later, I think back to the years of facing surgery, the discovery of a low-grade tumor of a type which had a high recurrence rate (astrocytoma, grade 2), gamma knife radiation and a severe delayed reaction, a year on corticosteroids to reduce the pressure from a swollen brain, and a gradual recovery. While the years of undergrad included the typical academic and social challenges, the internal battle, physical, emotional, and spiritual, was even more prominent in my life. I was eventually able to write out what I experienced and learned, and published a memoir a decade ago.

But there was no complete closure. With the tumor gone, meds were more effective in controlling seizures, but still necessary. I had an annual MRI to look for changes in the scarred tissue, each year bringing a sense of relief as the odds of a recurrence of the tumor decreased. I passed the average length of survival for that kind of tumor (8 years). I completed my doctorate and became a licensed clinical psychologist. I traveled the world, witnessing God’s hand at work. Now I only have MRIs every other year, but there is still an occasional partial seizure, still a slight risk of recurrence, still an existing uncertainty of long-term outcomes. What happens to a brain that has literally been sliced and zapped? What is the significance of an apparent reduction in brain volume? Questions and uncertainties linger.

The Gift of Weakness

Living with a weakness is negative by most human standards. Our culture calls for striving to reach the highest possible accomplishment, and an impediment is limiting, preventing the optimal. But that’s not how it works in God’s kingdom. His kingdom is not based on our abilities, our capacities, our strengths. He turns things upside down: blessed are the poor in spirit, the lowly, the children, the persecuted. Why? Because it is in the humble, the vulnerable, that God’s power is made most evident.

I remember being at one of my lowest points, when my brain was swollen, my ministry cut short, my capacities limited. During that time, I felt the presence of God in more intimate ways. One night I was praying, thinking about the significance of names in Scripture (often given by God with a specific meaning), and asking God what name He had for me. His response was, What is your middle name? Grace. I was immediately reminded of the promise and comfort given to Paul when he was dealing with his own weakness: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul’s response was a shift in mindset. He was ready to embrace, even boast about, his weakness, so that all the glory might go to God. It is hard enough for me to share about my weakness, far more difficult to “boast.” But I know that over the last 20 years “weakness” has served several purposes: 1) to keep me humble, fully aware that I cannot rely on my own strength; 2) to keep me grateful, knowing that life is short and every day I have on earth is a gift; and 3) to give me motivation to use what limited time I have to serve God’s kingdom here on earth. Even more important, my weakness has contributed to my dependence on and intimacy with God. That is of higher value than any accomplishment.

Where Is the Healing?

I fully believe in God’s power to bring miraculous physical healing. He does it all the time! Supernatural healing can bring Him glory and push the recipient and other witnesses closer to God. It can strengthen our faith to see His sovereignty over disease! Yet, there are also times when allowing physical problems to continue can perform the same purpose to a greater degree for a longer period of time.

There are numerous stories of God using suffering and struggles for growth and glory to a far greater degree than could’ve been obtained by a single miraculous event (e.g., Joni Eareckson Tada or Nick Vujicic). Seeing or experiencing a miracle can be inspiring! But faith can grow to a deeper level when we are forced to surrender our lives completely, to give back to God our skills, talents, ministries, and other strengths, and to trust in His will, especially when it makes no sense to us.

It is also in our weakness that God often shows us an opportunity for another form of healing: that deeper brokenness of the heart, mind, and soul. We all have those internal struggles, ranging from doubt to depression, anger to anxiety, bitterness to a battered self-esteem, and many more. Most are deeply rooted, influenced by painful past relationships and memories. Those sources of pain that inhibit our relationship with God and warp our perception of Him are ones that He wants to remove.

When we approach inner healing, the goal is not to simply feel better and be happy. The purpose is to draw nearer to Jesus, to find intimacy with Him. Out of that relationship comes joy that is not dependent on circumstances. In John 15, Jesus emphasizes the importance of abiding in Him, and He in us, with the outcome being His joy made complete in us. Inner healing is getting rid of any muck in our hearts that is taking up space we could give to Jesus. It is not based on our own capacity to change, but instead on allowing Jesus to shine His light of truth and redemption into the darkest places.

Grace in Weakness

Many times I’ve received prayer (and myself prayed!) for physical healing. For a long time, I wrestled with the question of why those prayers were not answered. Was it a lack of faith? Unforgiven sin? Was it my fault? I now realize that my view was based more on works—enough faith, enough righteousness, enough repentance, than on grace. God used a season of incapacity to debunk the subtle lie that my value was found in serving God and making a difference for His kingdom, which was especially rewarding when recognized by others. He loves me, even when I’m receiving instead of giving.

Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not after we had demonstrated our wholehearted dedication, true faith, and passion to serve Him. We are His beloved children, the Creator’s work of art. My weakness taught me that intimacy with God was the first step, and out of that emerged the love that empowered me to help others. I know can’t do it by my own strength, and that knowledge relieves me of any burden or responsibility to see results.

The invitation to take on Christ’s yoke is a beautiful picture of sharing in His work without being the one to carry the bulk of the weight or choose the way to go. “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). It is the stronger ox that bears the load and directs the pair. For us, there is joy and reverence in the invitation to participate in His work. For me, that has become witnessing Jesus transform lives in need of healing far deeper than physical ailments. I get to participate, but He does the healing!

I have reached a place where I see spiritual and emotional healing to be of greatest value, coming from intimacy with Jesus, only by His grace and love. Because our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls are inseparable, I often see physical relief as a “side effect” to emotional and spiritual healing. When our physical problems are linked to emotional wounds, encountering Jesus and receiving His healing in a painful memory also frequently brings reports of feeling better physically. Fantastic! But even more significant is the freedom from fear, anger, bitterness, and countless distortions of beliefs about God, self, and others.

The Ultimate Outcome

Healing is a powerful tool to demonstrate God’s power and sovereignty, His nature as Creator and Healer. It is an effective testimony that can also point others back to God. Keep asking for it, inviting God to use it for His glory!

Yet, I believe we must also be ready to welcome whatever God wants to give us or teach us THROUGH our times of weakness. What obligations needs to be released, strengths surrendered, sins confessed, and lies replaced with truth? What deeper wounds are being exposed, dark places in the heart where God wants to bring His light and life? What work of refinement and sanctification is He performing? How can He use this for His glory?

Either way, our confidence can rest in faith that He loves us, that He knows what is best for us, and that He can use the outcome for His glory. The hope found in these promises allows us to rejoice in all circumstances and embrace our position in His plan, slowly learning to trust in Him.


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    • Denise Beckhart on August 10, 2022 at 5:52 pm
    • Reply

    Yes and Amen! Love you, Emily!

    1. Thank you, Denise! I know there’s a lot you can relate to.
      Love you too!

    • Kelly O'Donnell on October 4, 2022 at 10:46 am
    • Reply

    Thank you Emily! You are an encouragement and model to me and many!

    1. I appreciate your encouragement to me, Kelly! I’ve always admired the work you do globally.

    • John Hervey on October 4, 2022 at 11:34 am
    • Reply

    Emily, this is a wonderful message, beautifully told. I so deeply respect you and admire the glory of God shining through you. More people need to read this and remember grace. Thank you for your vulnerable authenticity and clarity. Love you! Dad

  1. My heart response is what your Dad so wonderfully wrote above! I’ve respected you, prayed for you and loved you since April 2005…far shorter than your Dad!…and am not able to be in your presence nearly as often, but I love hearing your heart! Thank you for listening to the Lord’s nudge, and taking the time, to write this blog. I’m sharing it with Elisabeth as she walks hand in hand with the Lord through a challenging health condition. Love to you and Dean ~ Margaret

    • Maritza Hamann on November 3, 2022 at 4:54 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you, Emily, for these words of truth from a fellow sojourner. I looked this up after our zoom call, but did not read it till today, when God spoke to me through your words. My brother died two weeks ago, and God knew I would need these words today! Thank you for allowing God to use you, even in the pain and the uncertainty. Know that he is using you, even your words at a distance. I pray blessings over you, my friend.

    • Dana E McKee on November 12, 2022 at 8:22 am
    • Reply

    I am so humbled and encouraged by your story, Emily. Thank you for sharing. I so agree and rejoice – God is often more glorified in our weakness than in our strength. He is glorified in you.
    How are you and Dean? How did flights go that day? Are you getting situated?
    Mrs. Dana

  2. Emily, I was deeply moved by your courageous article about your struggle with chronic illness. My heart goes out to you as you navigate such difficult challenges to your health and spirits. Though I cannot directly relate, I found your words resonated with the universal feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and exhaustion that accompany trials of the body and soul. Most of all, I admired your humility, wisdom and resolve to find meaning, gratitude and grace despite the pain.
    Your commitment to healing – physical, emotional and spiritual – is humbling and inspiring. I wish you comfort, community and continued resilience on this journey. Thank you for offering such an honest, compassionate lens into an experience that many know too well.
    You have a gift for articulating life’s most daunting tests of faith. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers. Wishing you brighter days ahead, my friend.

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