Finding Hope in the Dark
- Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
- 2003 4 Apr
"Your tumor is malignant."
"The layoff is immediate."
"Your son will never walk again."
Life's storms can crash in with a fury and intensity that is unexpected. Other times the clouds accumulate more slowly. Each day dawns gloomy, with thoughts such as, "No one will ever love me," "I hate my body," "I will never have enough money to send my kids to college" subtly darkening the horizon.
Life is not fair. Suffering is inevitable. No human escapes pain. It's true. Yet, in spite of the most searing hurt, joy can thrive. Hope can live.
Just ask Nancy Guthrie. Her daughter Hope and son Gabriel now reside in heaven. Guthrie buried both children within three years of each other - both before the age of 1.
Or talk to Kathy Troccoli, a singer, author and speaker who has battled bulimia, struggled with singleness, declared bankruptcy and buried both parents before she even turned 40.
You could also listen in as Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry share how it felt to be locked away in a prison in Afghanistan, never knowing whether execution or death by bombing would come the next morning.
In the most dire of circumstances, each of these women found the strength to endure. Yes, they wrestled with anger, depression, fear and doubt, but now each of them says that victory and even joy can be found in spite of suffering - and more importantly - because of suffering. All four women discovered through their ordeals that hope still works.
How did they hold onto hope? Each woman speaks of having consciously deciding to believe that God is good and trusting that He must have a purpose in allowing pain. All four emphasize the importance of renewing their minds with God's truth, of the value of supportive and uplifting friends who allowed them to cry and feel their pain, and of looking to eternity.
What is Hope?
"I think it's important to start by defining what hope is," says Nancy Guthrie, who feels most people use the term in the sense of wishing for a better outcome. "That's where most people place their hope, that's what hope looks like for them - it's hope for good, hope for success and hope for health."
Guthrie knows about hope - and about storms. When Nancy delivered her daughter, Hope, on Nov. 23, 1998, she had no idea that the very next day Hope would be given a death sentence. Genetic testing showed the infant had Zellwegger Syndrome, a rare metabolic disorder. There is no treatment, no cure, no survivors. Hope died on June 9, 1999.
"Hope's life and death forced us to dig a little deeper to what real hope is," Guthrie says. She found a definition for hope that is now engraved on her daughter's tombstone: "Hope ... the expectation of a favorable future under God's direction."
"That is something we hold onto, that's what hope is and that's what was accomplished in her life," says Guthrie. "Hope has two aspects that are central - it is the promise of purpose in this life and the promise of perfection in the life to come. Hope is founded on an understanding of a future in which God sets everything right."
This belief was quickly tested. To prevent future pregnancies, Nancy's husband David underwent a vasectomy. It didn't take. Toward the end of 2000, Nancy discovered she was pregnant. The couple's initial excitement over the possibility of having a healthy child to raise was forever dashed after prenatal testing showed Nancy was carrying another Zellwegger baby. Gabriel Guthrie lived almost six months. He died on January 15, 2002.
"It is through this storm that I believe Jesus is calling me to step out of the boat and to trust Him in a way that I never have before," Guthrie told friends when she was pregnant with Gabriel. "If I turn and I look at the wind and the waves, I'm sunk. But if I keep my focus on Him, He can enable me to walk on water in a way that the world will say, 'You can't do that.'"
Guthrie admits she hasn't been able to make sense of it all. "I don't think I ever will. There are mysteries about suffering that I don't think we'll ever understand in this life," she adds. "Unless we come to the place where we believe He allowed it, it did come out of His love for me and it's for my ultimate good, that's where people end up turning their backs on God."
Kathy Troccoli also speaks of trusting the Lord: "I've lost two parents to cancer. I struggled with bulimia for 10 years. I claimed bankruptcy when I was 30. I've struggled with the issues of singleness. I battled my own seasons of depression.
"What I tell women first," says Troccoli, "is the fact that we'll all go through storms. The second thing I tell them about is the anchor - about knowing who you are in Christ and knowing who He is."
Troccoli says she offers hope to women by reminding them, constantly, of who Jesus is and who they are in Christ: "Do you know that you are beloved? Do you know how precious you are? Do you know He is crazy in love with you? Do you know that the Word says that He is going to accomplish what concerns you today? Psalm 138:8 says He will accomplish it. Do you believe it, or do you not believe it?"
Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry asked themselves that very question last year. The two women were among eight Christian aid workers arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan for preaching Christianity, a charge that usually brings execution. Although they were rescued by U.S. Special Forces on November 15, 2001, they spent over three months wondering if each day would be their last.
Prison life was hard, Mercer admits. Fear was a constant struggle, and she speaks of being terrified during the interrogations. She also battled doubt and wondered, "Why?" when war made their situation even more precarious.
She cried out: "God, are you really real? Are you who you say you are? Do you really answer prayer?"
During this phase of her imprisonment, Mercer describes herself as "a mess." There were days she felt she'd rather be dead. "I fought with God. I fought with Him hard. And I lost." That was the turning point, when she surrendered it all to Him. "I had the choice to either grow up and find God in the situation, or to become bitter. I chose to find God. He built character in us and gave us hope. And I experienced freedom like I never knew before."
But to come to that point of surrender and healthy resignation, Mercer says she "had to start with the presupposition that God is good, that God's ways are higher than mine. Without such a foundation, wrestling with God becomes an excruciating ordeal. You have nothing to stand on."
Curry agrees. "After the Sept. 11 attacks on America, and then again after the United States started bombing Kabul, I had to regroup. I determined that I would believe in God's goodness. In prison I said, 'Okay, Lord, I believe that You are good. I trust that if I die right now in this situation, then it must be the best thing for me.'" *
Renewing Our Minds
Such trust is really a choice, a choice to believe what God says rather than what we feel. Guthrie points out that the struggle for us as humans "is a constant battle between what we feel and what we believe."
She admits, "Even when I believe in that eternal future, it still feels bad that my children died. Even when I believe that there's a purpose in whatever God allows to happen in life, it doesn't feel good.
"I think that's where a study of God's Word comes in, so that more and more of what we believe and know to be true as revealed to us in God's Word is allowed to transform our minds," Guthrie says. "As we inform our feelings by having our minds transformed by the truth, then that dichotomy between how we feel and what we believe starts to come closer together."
Troccoli agrees that words bring life or death. "I believe that's why the Word says, 'Think on things that are pure and lovely and good.' What we read, what we watch on TV, that brings life and death." She chooses daily to feed her soul with good things. "Women don't realize how much light they can put into their own lives by their own choosing. We don't take the time to see where we can get our thirst quenched. Before we know it, we feel our spirits shrivel up."
According to Troccoli, everybody wants that magic wand. "Unfortunately and fortunately, it's a process. What I tell people is that you have to be patient with yourself, you have to patient with God's working in you because we've got to let the river flow a different way, and that takes time."
Choosing to stay in the light is hard, Troccoli adds, "but that's how you get out of pits. It's the sovereign hand of God, but it's our choice every day. Do we want to bring our pain to the light, or do we want to stay in the shadows?"
Each of these women emphasize the power of supportive friends. "Our testimonies help each other," says Troccoli. "What I am finding when I get on stage is that women are saying, 'Kathy has gone through what I have gone through, and she is making it, and she is telling me I can make it.' I think it is very important for women to choose good women to be around, women who pursue holiness, substantial women who can help you discern," she adds.
Curry says she gained a great deal of strength from the other women in her prison cell. "They believed we were going to get out of prison alive, which helped sustain my hope. From the minute they walked through the courtyard gate, our friends began encouraging us with Scriptures."*
Mercer found comfort with a special person who allowed her to cry: "I was truly comforted. I never felt like I had permission to cry. [She] let me be free enough to cry without trying to fix me."
Guthrie sounds a similar note: "God has blessed me with people who allow me to feel how I feel and think how I think and be who I am. I have not felt pressure to be or to do anything else, for which I am very grateful."
Ultimately, all four women found that seeing purpose in their pain has spread a healing balm on their hurting hearts. "I'll often speak about the fact that God is using all that pain right now when women ask me a ton of questions about their own lives," Troccoli explains. "The places where I've been wounded, where I have bled, God is using those same places now to pour His healing virtue in. Those are the places that are actually comforting women."
Mercer calls prison "the most terrorizing" experience of her life and also "the greatest privilege" of her life. "I stand in awe at all the millions around the world who have heard this story," Mercer says. "It was God who put us in prison. It was not the Taliban. He used them for His greater purpose. Now I am seeing more of what that purpose is."
God has given Heather Mercer "an amazing platform" from which to proclaim His glory. This self-described "simple servant" says she never thought she had anything to offer. "I hope the world sees that we are not heroes, but because of our obedience, He used us." And through this story, "God is telling the world that He is real, that He answers prayer and that He works miracles."
Guthrie too finds reassurance in purpose: "God has given us visibility and a platform." Now that the story has been told via numerous media reports and Guthrie's book, Holding On To Hope, the response from fellow sufferers has been overwhelming. "I can hardly believe that God is using such hard things that on the surface look so bad - and they are - to draw people to Him.
"As I see that, I literally fall on my face and say, 'Thank you that you can give Hope and Gabriel such meaningful lives.' They are significant because they are being used by God. A lot of people live 70, 80, 90 years and they never come close to fulfilling the purpose that God had for them."
She now sees the big picture. "I feel like we were privileged to be forced to see hope in bigger, deeper terms, to have our perspective altered about where our hope lies.
"This world is fallen. It's broken," Guthrie adds. "It doesn't take looking around very far to see that. If our hope is limited by what we can experience in this life, on this earth, if our only hope is in getting what we want here, we will be disappointed.
"But when we embrace a biblical hope that is built on a foundation of not only God's promises, but God's character, that is a safe and secure place to place our hope."
This article first appeared in the Holiday 2002 issue of FaithTalk magazine, a publication of Salem Communications.