The principal of my daughter’s school gently pushed a sheet of paper across the table so I could see it more clearly. “This is a list of the markers of dyslexia.” My eyes filled with tears. I didn’t want this for my girl. I wanted an easier road, one that didn’t include painstaking slowness to read, the embarrassment of not being able to spell simple words, or struggling to not give up reading because it’s too hard.
In my sadness and frustration, a wise friend reminded me of an important truth: “A life of ease is not your deepest desire for your daughter. Your deepest desire for her is that she learn to fully trust in the Lord rather than in herself—and the Lord is serving her up an opportunity to begin to do just that.”
My friend was right. I want above all else for my daughter to hope in God and for him to use her mightily in his kingdom—and often the path that leads us there is one of great difficulty. A quote from Charles Spurgeon came to mind: “The Lord gets his best soldiers out of the highlands of affliction.”
In their book, Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and an Overcoming Love, Jay and Katherine Wolf chronicle their journey through affliction. In 2008, as a new mom at the age of 26, Katherine suffered a sudden and massive brainstem stroke, which she miraculously survived. The surgery that saved her life entailed removing part of her brain, leaving her severely disabled. The couple went from being happy, healthy new parents to a disabled mother and her caretaking husband. The book alternates between the perspectives of Katherine and Jay as they process and struggle through the new life that’s been thrust on them.
Not Explanation but Exploration
As a memoir, Hope Heals isn’t an explanation of the reasons for suffering, but an exploration of hope in the midst of it. The Wolfs chronicle their spiritual struggle through questions like: Why would God allow such loss? Would he bring about complete healing? What if he didn’t?
The beauty of this book is watching God meet them in their pain, one step at a time. Katherine allows us a peek into her soul as she shares her raw, unfiltered responses: “Has God made a mistake?” and “Sometimes I just felt like God had hurt my feelings” (163).
Katherine and Jay detail how God ministered to them by aligning their thoughts and feelings with biblical truths that reminded them to place their hope not in physical healing, but in God.
This hope includes his providential care and purpose for them on earth, and the ultimate hope of heaven. They conclude, “This is our truest healing—the healing of our souls—and it sustains us when we wake up tomorrow to an unknown but hopeful new day” (237).
Immersion into Suffering
The benefit of Hope Heals, especially for those in the furnace of suffering, is empathetic identification with the Wolfs. We walk alongside them as they enter the refiner’s fire and emerge with deeper trust in God. Their experience was arduous, and parts of the book may feel lengthy or heavy, but the inclusion of details allows us to feel the depth of their despair and difficulty.
For readers like me who haven’t experienced intense suffering, it’s a blessing to gain a deeper understanding of long-term suffering. And such an understanding is beneficial even in the smaller sufferings we all experience. For those who’ve known deep and prolonged sorrow, there is true fellowship and encouragement in walking with the Wolfs.
Because Hope Heals isn’t a systematic theology of Christian suffering, the authors aren’t as theologically specific as they otherwise might’ve been. For example, the Wolfs write, “[Jesus’s] body still bore the scars that had saved us all.” I don’t think the Wolfs mean “us all” in a universalist way, but some clarity here and throughout would’ve gretly strengthened the book. Along these lines, the Wolfs rightly conclude, based on Hebrews 6:19, that “anchoring in Jesus is the thing that heals our souls, and our souls are where we need the most healing anyway” (216). They state several times that the healing we need most is spiritual, not physical, but they don’t explain how Jesus heals our souls. This would’ve been a wonderful addition, since the Christian’s true hope for healing hinges on Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection. Only Christ’s redeeming work on the cross can secure the promise of a day when we will no longer experience sickness or sorrow of any kind.
Beauty in Affliction
There are many marvelous gems of encouragement to mine throughout Hope Heals. One of the most powerful is the beautiful picture of covenant marriage amid unexpected loss. The Wolfs also showcase the blessing of the body of Christ, as church members faithfully surrounded this hurting couple and supported them through presence, prayer, and meeting physical needs.
Katherine includes some moving realizations about true beauty that she learned after the stroke ended her modeling career. There is also testimony to the importance of Scripture knowledge in the times before the storm. Many of the truths Jay and Katherine lived on were verses they’d memorized long before the stroke, as the Lord brought them to mind in moments of great darkness and uncertainty.
Just this morning, I was hugging the neck of a tearful friend who longs for motherhood and had recently experienced a failed adoption. “Have you read Hope Heals?” she asked. “This morning, as I was thinking through all my sadness and all that happened, their story reminded me that the Lord is caring for me through this, that there is hope even in this, and that he can use my suffering to bring him glory.”
That is exactly the message the Wolfs are desperate to share with fellow believers. Their story refreshes the Lord’s soldiers in the highlands of affliction. And they do this by bringing us near to “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our suffering, so that we can comfort those in all their suffering, as we ourselves are being comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3–4).
Katherine and Jay Wolf. Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and an Overcoming Love. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. 256 pp. $22.99.