Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
Dave Jackson, August 2005
When one of my visual migraines used to begin with a blind spot, I often wondered, “What if this one doesn’t go away?” But within a few minutes they usually transformed into a jagged kaleidoscope of flickering colors, migrated to the periphery, and disappeared, sometimes leaving a mild headache or cramping in my back, but nothing debilitating.
But the blind spot in November 2004 did not transform, migrate, or disappear—not in an hour or a day. Furthermore, it was only in one eye. This was different, and something was terribly wrong! My mind splattered to macular degeneration, total blindness, brain tumors. I had no idea.
How could that be? I had so much more to do for God. On the other hand, he hadn’t given me anything to write lately. Neta’s Yada Yada novels were going wild, but I hadn’t landed a contract in a year and a half. Maybe he didn’t need me anymore. But the possibility that I might spend the rest of my life as a blind invalid … well, I was sure too old to adjust. I did not want to learn to serve him in some new, horribly hard way.
My eye doctor was able to give me some reassurance. It definitely was not macular degeneration, but a couple weeks later, after some other tests, he confirmed I had a macular hole, which on rare occasions occurs when the eye ages. However, there was a procedure for treating it with good chances of restoring most if not all of my vision. That was good news, since by then I was legally blind in that eye. Even better news was the fact that macular holes sometimes healed spontaneously, and it wouldn’t hurt to wait a few weeks to see if it cleared up on its own.
For six weeks I prayed and prepared for the surgery … if that was the way the Lord was going to answer my prayer. It’s tough being blind in one eye, especially knowing that the same problem could show up in the other eye. But, given the hopeful prognosis, it was relatively easy to pray “with faith believing.” And so I prayed and believed, and believed and prayed.
In the preceding year or so, I had hungered for two things from God. One was another important writing assignment. Neta and I have always considered such “divine commissions” a great privilege, but at this point I didn’t even have a contract to earn my bread. Secondly, I had been asking God to teach me what it meant to ask him for supernatural intervention in the way the New Testament seemed to urge such prayers. I wanted to see an unequivocal, undeniable physical miracle, not for my benefit or as the result of my prayers but just to learn, to strengthen my faith. The Bible encouraged this kind of crazy faith, and yet we see so few results that most Christians hesitate even to ask.
I began thinking God was going to use my eye problem to answer my request. My faith—no, my expectancy, which may be part of faith—soared. God was going to work. He was going to give me a testimony!
My first eye surgery—during which I was awake and marveled at what I saw from the inside out—went well. God protected me from the two main risks: hemorrhage and infection. People commiserated with my recovery assignment to literally remain face down 24/7 for three weeks, but other than the fact that I had the flu during part of the time, it was a manageable discipline, something in which I even took an I-can-do-it pride.
And then, when I thought the ordeal was over, things started to go wrong. And they kept on going wrong and getting worse. Retinal tears. Retinal detachment. More tears. More detachment. I felt so battered by bad news on top of more bad news … What was God doing? I mean, I know we all must go through trials, and they produce patience and other good things, but he wasn’t bringing me through.
By this time, I’d gained an enormously appreciation for the gift of sight. And I think there is a reason why the eye is called the window to the soul—operating on it, cutting into it, sucking part out of it, burning little “rivets” into its wall with laser beams, wrapping a silicon belt around it—comes very close to messing with one’s psyche, far more traumatic than what happened to me later when a surgeon removed my cancerous thyroid or when I had open-heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. Losing my sight was no Outward Bound adventure; I was going down for the third time. What I didn’t realize was that adventures exercise your strengths, and that’s good. But a real trial takes you way beyond your own strength until you cannot help but sing with Bebo Norman, “I am nothing, I am nothing without you.” Only God knows what will take you over that edge. It might be physical, emotional, relational, or financial, but I’m convinced it’s out there somewhere for everyone at some point.
I thought I was trusting God. I believed I had examined myself and had not found any unrepented sin. I thought God had my attention, and I was not aware of any major lesson I was resisting, so why hadn’t he brought me through that first surgery triumphantly so I could give him the honor and glory and be on my way? That this hadn’t happened, and didn’t happen, and still didn’t happen beat me down to where I began to feel God had forsaken me, forgotten me, and didn’t need me anymore.
But since the Bible says God never forgets or forsakes us, I began to fear something else must be wrong. Either the Bible wasn’t telling it straight, or—I began to titter on the abyss of unbelief—maybe there was no response because there was no God! That thought terrified me. If there was no God, then there was no meaning!
Suddenly, something became far more important to me than my sight. At the prospect of there being no God, recovery of my eyesight paled in comparison to my need to be aware of Jesus’ presence. I had to know if he was really there.
And then, as I acknowledged my desperate need to know he was there, I was shocked to realize that my trial was not meaningless. A portion of God’s purpose was to teach me something I might not have learned any other way. He wanted me to become aware that Jesus’ presence was more important to me than regaining my vision. And in realizing that, I knew God really was there, proven by the fact that he cared enough to teach me something. After all, a nonexistent being can’t teach you anything.
There’s an old hymn that says, “Jesus is all the world to me, my life, my joy, my all.” I think it’s good to make such affirmations, but I now wonder how many of us realize what we’ve said. Or are we more like Peter who boasted he would never forsake Jesus … before he faced the actual trial?
Neta and I have written a lot about Christian martyrs, and we’ve grown to love and admire them. So, having been someone who often waded into “dangerous” situations, I sometimes fancied that if God led me through a martyr’s trial, I, too, could remain faithful. Another hymn says, “He giveth more grace when the burden grows greater,” and I always imagined that was the way the heroes rode the crest of their trials, and perhaps some did. But somehow I had missed the second verse: “When we have exhausted our store of endurance / When our strength has failed ere the day is half done / When we reach the end of our hoarded resources / Our father’s full giving is only begun.” In spite of having learned one lesson, my trial was indeed less than half over, and I had already reached the end of my spiritual resources.
I could barely declare, “I believe,” before crying out, “help my unbelief,” and if it were not for the prayers of my brothers and sisters, I would not have made it through. They believed on my behalf. They held up my arms when I had no strength.
In the end, I was humbled to realize that I am no Christian hero … but I am a veteran of sorts. I have been through the battle even if I did not comport myself with the strength of faith that I fancied I had. As the Scriptures say: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:6-10). It remains a season of humbling.
As my troubles increased, I began to wonder whether my desire to see a miracle and my request for an important Kingdom writing project had attracted Satan’s personal opposition. Rather than continue to seek those gifts, I shrank back. “If they are going to cost me this much, forget ’em. Just leave me in peace in some spiritual backwater. Let someone else do the important writing. And I’ll be glad to wait ’til heaven to learn about miracles.”
I am embarrassed by such cowardice and even the grandiosity that imagines my writing or my spiritual education is so important that Satan would bother to target me. But then I flip-flopped. Important or not, I believe God’s saints are immortal until their work for him is done. I’ve seen the truth of that in the lives of too many Christian heroes. But I was not feeling very immortal. If God was not bothering to give me a job or heal my eye, why should I expect him to forestall any complications with my leaky heart valve? Would I be left with nothing but doctors to heal me? “Give me a job, God,” I prayed, “so I will know you will preserve me to finish it.”
While I had earlier searched my heart for any unrepented sin, there was another issue that Satan, the great accuser, taunted me with from time to time. Our church recently underwent a painful crisis, one that came to light shortly before my initial blind spot in November. I was one of the elders and took a strong stand concerning action I believed was pastorally and biblically required. I did not act alone or without counsel but submitted my insights and perspectives for testing to mature leaders. Still, it was perhaps the hardest church crisis I have ever been through, and I’ve seen several.
The line Satan whispered in my ear from time to time was: “You were wrong! You were totally and entirely and destructively wrong, and now God is chastising you. How else can you explain the timing? Your eye problems started just after you began speaking out in the church. If only you had repented quickly and shut up, this would all be over, but your stubbornness required God to up the ante! When will you yield?”
While I knew Satan was the great accuser, these words caused me to ask whether I’d been fooling myself. Had self-righteousness blinded me? I could have kept quiet about the church problems, not rocked the boat and called silence “love.” So even though I believed I had acted in obedience to God’s Word and the truth, I again submitted my actions to the Lord and tested them with others. Undoubtedly, I could have conducted myself with more grace and wisdom, and I truly regret any unnecessary hurt or pain. But God showed me that acknowledging inadequacies is different than being plowed under by Satan’s condemnation. And the Apostle John’s words were reassuring: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us” (1 Jn. 3:18-20).
When I had both of my eyes patched for five days while remaining as quiet as possible, I began to feel more and more cut off from the rest of the world, as though I was in one room while everything else was happening in an adjacent room, and the door between was slowly closing. Eerie! Helpless! I longed for the connection achieved by the mere touch of my wife’s hand or foot—anything to know someone was there.
This sense of isolation, reminiscent of Isa. 53 prophesying that Jesus would be “cut off from the land of the living,” was exactly where Satan worked his mind games of confusion and doubt. But I found weapons with which to fight. The encouragement of Scripture, especially the Psalms, which often show triumph following despair. And praise music that glorifies God so boldly that Satan flees. And prayer.
I believed enough to know that there was no one else to which I could turn but Jesus, who healed so many sightless people (why not me?), and yet my unbelief and doubts frightened me. My faith was so thin. Those were the times when I didn’t even know what to pray. My human speech was so inadequate that I asked the Holy Spirit to pray for me as I prayed in some unknown tongue. Romans 8:26-27 promises: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
One Sunday we went to hear our friend, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, preach on the Three Hebrew Children thrown into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar. When threatened with painful death if they would not bow down to the idol, they declared their confidence that God could deliver them—a brave and powerful testimony. But Dr. Brenda’s message focused on their caveat: “But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
They were fully prepared for how they would proceed even if God did not do what they believed he could do and undoubtedly desperately prayed he would do. She emphasized how we need to affirm a “but-if-not” attitude. She pointed out how this preparation is not faithless but a response that honors God’s sovereignty to be God all by himself and do what he thinks best.
I felt challenged to look to the future. Could I approach it with a “but-if-not” peace, or was I still betting so much on God rescuing me that I would not be able to tolerate any other answer?
I wasn’t shy in asking the brothers in my men’s Bible study for prayer. One of them, Gary Baker, reminded me of the promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” I had usually seen this verse in terms of temptation to sin, and that certainly applies. But the Greek word translated temptation can also be translated test or trial, and it is the same word that appears in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” The Revised Standard Version actually says, “Do not bring us to the time of trial.”
While temptation to overt sin was not so apparent in my circumstance (though doubt certainly saddens God), the obvious trial or test I was undergoing gave new meaning to these verses. (1) What I was going through was common to human experience, not that everyone’s vision is threatened, but most people face something in life that takes them to the edge. (2) Like Job, even though Satan may be administering the test, God won’t let Satan go beyond what we can endure—that’s a universal promise to all believers. (3) I will be able to make it through if I keep seeking his path. (4) It is appropriate to pray (as in the Lord’s Prayer) for relief from the test and that no new test comes.
James 1:13-17 says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.… Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Again, the Greek word does not distinguish between what we typically understand as testing and temptation. But the passage clearly says God is not the one who administers it. However, in the Book of Job, we see that God sometimes gives Satan permission to test the saints … but only within the limits noted in 1 Corinthians 10:13. He will not allow more than we can stand. And where is that limit? I thought it was long ago. We all do. But it was not, and I did not quit trusting him … at least not for long. I do not know what the future holds or how I’ll manage it, but now I know more fully the one who holds my future.
Why does God allow Satan to test us? According to James 1:2-4, one reason is to strengthen us and cause us to rely more deeply on him. Why, then, would Satan cooperate in a process that can produce stronger saints? Because he gambles that some of us will fail. And sometimes we do. If a trial does not draw us closer to God, it can drive us into despair or bitterness and render us useless until Jesus comes and lifts us up again. This may be why in Luke 22:31-32, Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” In fact, Peter did fail and denied Jesus, but there was also forgiveness, so Jesus could say, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
I know many people have endured far worse than I have experienced and often more valiantly, but enough terrible things had happened while I had been praying and hoping for better, that I felt like I was experiencing post traumatic stress, fearing that at any moment an even more frightful “boot” would fall. Prayer, praise songs, and Scripture beat back the devil for only a few hours at a time before a cloud of dread would envelop me again.
Then one evening while I was still legally blind in one eye, had just been diagnosed with cancer, and didn’t know whether my heart rhythms were stable—a frightening array of circumstances—the Lord spoke to me and said, “The nightmare is over.” Obviously, I longed to hear that, but was it just wishful thinking? The first test of any prophetic word is whether it comes true. In this case, I experienced an immediate release from the dread I’d been under, but would it return the next day? And how would I feel if more circumstances “went south” as they seemed to repeatedly do earlier?
I don’t know how I might have weathered a continued attack, because the circumstances did start to change. It was as clear a fulfillment of 1 Corinthians 10:13 (“He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear”) as if God had said, “That’s enough, Satan! Let him up.” My heart rhythms proved stable, my heart tested stronger than the year before. The cancer was removed without pain, and the doctor declared me “cured.” And I got my contact lens. True, my vision in my left eye remains quite inferior what it was, but the doctors are still working on improving it. Over a month has passed since the Lord gave me that word, and it’s still true: “The nightmare is over!”
For someone accustomed to going to the doctor once or twice a year, my 40-plus trips this year alone were overwhelming. However, recently I was at my daughter’s church in Champaign, Illinois, and as I approached the communion table, I was praying, “Yes, Jesus, it is more important to me that I am aware of your presence than that I can see or that I can write or that I am right. Thank you for showing me this truth, and for coming to me in my distress.” Just then I reached out for the bread and wine, and recalled Jesus’ words, “This is my body broken for you … This is my blood shed for you.” He was right there in my hands, in my mouth—as close as anything could be, just as he had promised: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson