My Suffering Has Not Defined Me
(article by: Joni Eareckson Tada)
A strange thing happened when word first spread that I had stage III breast cancer: I began receiving all things pink. Pink quilts, teddy bears, and t-shirts covered with breast-cancer symbols. Even letters written with pink ink on rosy paper. Each gift welcomed me into a special club. The sisterhood of cancer warriors.
Long after my surgery and treatment, whenever I encountered other Christians in the sisterhood, they immediately connected with me as their fellow cancer survivor. If other women were among us, I sensed they had to stand outside our intimate circle of shared suffering. I congratulated these survivors for being cancer-free, but I’d glance at their breast-cancer pins and think, Are you ever going to move on? Is there no better topic of discussion than, “Have you had your annual breast exam?”
Hear me: my intention is not to disparage anyone who has survived the tough rigors of breast cancer. But I wonder if some of these Christian women are longing for security and significance that’s more touchable than a faith whose substance is merely hoped for and frustratingly unseen — longing to be a part of something that actualizes one’s identity. Although they would never discount their Savior, they want something more tangible than their name written in an invisible book of life: Who am I? My backdrop is a Christian, but I’m a warrior, a cancer survivor. Know and respect me by that.
In Christ Alone
In a way, I understand the struggle. My quadriplegia constantly clamors for my undivided attention: empty leg bag, deal with pain, arrange for help, adjust corset, charge wheelchair, look for access, and grab that handicap parking spot before someone else does. It’s my world. Then again, it is definitively not.
My world, my breath and very being — my identity — is in Christ and Christ alone. I am not my own; I was bought with the price of God’s blood (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Satan hates that. He will do everything he can — use my wheelchair, my notoriety, ministry, whatever — to focus me away from Christ.
So, I heed the warning of Deuteronomy 11:16: “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them.” Am I saying that my ministry to people with disabilities or your precious Shih Tzu with her tiny bow is an idol? If they compete for our singular devotion to Christ, then yes.
Putting Things in Their Proper Place
It takes the fight and fire of God’s Spirit to not be enticed away by these things. The apostle Peter says to make no provision for the flesh, for these things “wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). To find your identity, worth, and value in anything other than Jesus Christ is to believe that your distinguished career, your prized pet, your parenting skills, your valiant victory over cancer and quadriplegia, or your sin itself makes life more meaningful, rich, or fulfilling. But Christian, your identity must never be in things that compete for space in your heart. Don’t diminish the price paid for you or minimize God’s adoption of you.
Only in Christ do we find breathlessly fulfilling joy, peace, and meaning. When we live like we died in Christ, our career finds its balance, our pet finds its place, our children benefit unbelievably, and our victories over trials become reasons to make God famous and happily laud him before others.
Since Christ is the source of peace, joy, strength, and rest, and in him we live and move and have our very being, we can be secure and feel significant when we see ourselves “in Christ.” Jesus is ecstasy beyond compare. Why would we supplant him with anything lesser?
Who Are You?
Do you want to know who you are? “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). It’s like those hand-painted Russian dolls that twist open to reveal — surprise! — another doll inside. Take out that one, open it, and there’s another. This is fun, you discover. Every time you reach in and pull out a new one, you are sure it’ll be the last. But not by a long shot — the joy continues as you relish one delight after another over all that’s hidden inside.
It’s a vivid picture of unfolding and delighting in your identity. Who are you? You are in Jesus and he is in the Father. So, start opening up Christ and — voilà — there you will find yourself. As you reach inside the layers of Jesus, you see more of yourself, transformed by the very discipline of knowing him better. “The Bible does tell us who we are and what we should do, but it does so through the lens of who God is. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of self always go hand in hand,” says Jen Wilkin.
Follow the mandate of Colossians 3:2–3, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Every day get actively engaged with the Holy Spirit in knowing Christ better, in discovering “what’s inside.” The more you look, the more you will be enthralled by his beauty, captivated by his love, and overcome by the excellencies of his mercy and grace.
Boast in your identity in Jesus, and lead someone else to Calvary, like he would. Lay your life down for others as he did. Cherish God’s word as he does. Carry your cross daily in the manner he would. Pray the way he does. Worship the Father like he does. Most of all, ask the Spirit to expose your sins that killed him. He lost his life so that you might find yours, so begin each day asking God to show you the “you” he designed you to be. For you are a treasure, hidden in him.