A few years ago I came down with a serious illness. A bacterial infection destroyed my mitral valve, which put me in the early stages of heart failure. Not only did I have to follow the medical path laid out before me, I also had to put my house in order in the event that I would not recover. Over the course of the following two years, I took notes on every phase of my journey—from diagnosis to open-heart surgery, to recovery, to rehabilitation, to re-entry.
Experiences like this introduce new sets of questions we never knew to ask. One thing I wrestled with during the months following my surgery centered on the anger I felt. Anger is a common experience in affliction. It’s part wounded pride, part protest against the frailty we intuitively believe does not belong.
As I wrestled with my own anger, this is what I wrote:
One thing I know I must do is pay attention to what is going on not only in my body but also in my mind and heart, and right now my heart is fighting a war. I’m angry.
It’s in keeping with the human condition to want to find some reason for affliction. We utter nonsense like, “Everything happens for a reason.” A cause, yes. A reason? I’m not always so sure. We look for healing, and we look for something or someone to blame.
As we cycle through the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—we face the almost impossible task of trying to pin down what is true and then hold it there. But if I’m going to steward the anger in my heart, I must try.
What if it was God who broke my heart?
I believe it was. Though I don’t know all the reasons he brought this suffering on me, there are truths I know about God that lead me to believe my particular season of affliction comes from his hand and that it’s for my good.
Historically, God deals with those he loves by breaking them. He leads people to the edge of themselves and then shoves them off into the unknown. He topples the towers to heaven we try to build. He confuses us to the point where we have to stop what we’re doing and walk away because we can no longer carry on the work that once seemed so right and so clear.
This is my God, the divine thwarter. He’s fiercely committed to opposing any attempts I might make to claim my independence from him. Because of his loving-kindness he moves me always deeper into a posture of dependence. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because he’s with me.
I don’t like being thwarted, but shall I receive good from God and not also trouble? The voices that say, Recover so you can get back to normal, grossly underestimate the gift of this wrecked life.
Why is it a gift?
Because I’d have no compelling reason to step from my comfortable existence into the quest for what’s next if my present security wasn’t taken from me. It’s rare for a man to plan his own journey toward growth and change. Usually these journeys are thrust on us unexpectedly. It seldom occurs to us to even consider them until the storm tears through and levels what we know.
Historically, God deals with those he loves by breaking them.
If my ego tried to plan this journey, it would be limited by the expectations of what I would already hope to find. There would be no element of surprise, wonder, or faith—just a forced march toward a future my present self assumes is what I need. That would not be a journey of faith but of control—and a fool’s errand. Faith is the conviction to trust that there are good things out beyond what I can see and would never know to pursue—glorious things God himself will bring to pass. I need those glorious things.
I also needed what God has brought. I needed to lose control. I needed a broken heart. I needed to be dipped in the crucible of suffering. Why? I may never fully know. But the God who brings his children low doesn’t do it for spite. He does it to awaken desire, like a pang of hunger in the newly risen phoenix that makes it unfurl its wings to fly. He does it to give us new eyes so that we might see the world in a new light. He does it to stop us from continuing down the path we’re on and to set us on a new one. He grants us weakness so that we might not trust too much in our own strength. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
God deals in a sort of divine wisdom that often leaves earthbound creatures clueless. We emerge after the storm and can’t process the changes we see, but those changes send us down a road of renewal. We can be a good way down that road before we even know we’re on it. What if the bacterium in my heart was a Father’s wise and loving gift to his son? What if it was what C. S. Lewis called God’s “severe mercy”—an act of love meant to return my heart to him by dealing a blow to my self-sufficiency?
If my affliction was a severe mercy to awaken in me my need of God, then it’s a wise gift from a loving hand.
So then, what do I do with the anger that accompanies it? I wait for the fury to subside, and then I study what just came over me. When I do this, here is what I see: My initial flashes of rage are the way my heart rises to say I was not ready for this—like the surliness in a child just waking up.
The God who brings his children low doesn’t do it for spite.
The initial anger I experience is a response to the feeling of being suddenly disconnected from the life I knew. It’s an animalistic reflex; I’m a lion whose mane has been shaved, and I’m looking for ways to make myself appear bigger. Untamed anger has the capacity to be a great danger to myself and others. I must pay attention to it. I must interrogate it. I must apologize for it when I hurt others with it. It’s an open wound in my heart, and I don’t know how long it will take to heal.
But even though it’s untamed, my anger is anchored in something true. My anger is a protest against suffering. It’s a groan for a life free from pain. It’s an ache for the end of affliction and death.
To this I say to my anger, “Amen and amen,” even though I know I must keep one eye trained on it, lest it rise up and consume me.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Russ Ramsey’s new book, Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).