Four years ago, I nearly died of pneumonia. It is something I have looked back on ever after to help me understand strength in the face of trials. Not my own strength. God’s.
It wasn’t just that He gave the doctors wisdom, or that He enabled me to get the right antibiotics, or even that He spared my life, although He did all these things, and I am tremendously thankful. But the reason I look back so often is for what it taught me about fear–and about the difference between imagining a trial and actually going through that trial.
See, I have a very vivid imagination and a really rotten habit of letting it run. It used to be worse. When my mind was quiet, like when I was exercising or driving somewhere, I’d start thinking, and before I knew it, the thoughts would turn to fear. What if our house burned down while I was out, and our little dog was trapped? What if I get a call that my dad had a heart attack in the night? What if my husband gets in a car accident? What would I do if God let something awful happen? Stuff like that happens to other people. I had no guarantee it wouldn’t happen to me. As I went about my peaceful, happy life, I’d live through one horrible thought after another. One of the things I was most afraid of was that I would die somehow, and my children would be left without behind without a mother. The thought of letting my babies go nearly always brought tears to my eyes.
You might ask why I would think about awful things that weren’t even true, especially given verses like Philippians 4:8 and all. The answer is that I had an undisciplined mind and also that I lacked faith. Because my life had been so relatively easy and beautiful up to that point, the idea of trouble was a great specter of the unknown.
Then I got pneumonia. I got very sick, very fast and one morning I could hardly breathe. I was so out of breath, I could barely even get dressed to go to the ER. I remember my shallow breaths fluttering like fragile wings and my husband’s desperate hand on my back, pushing me from behind as I slowly shuffled the endless few feet from the curb into the emergency room door. Once I got there, the nurse took one look at my blood oxygen level, and started yelling, “I need respiratory in here STAT.” They gave me an oxygen mask, and I just sucked and sucked on it, trying to stay conscious while listening to them talk about transferring me by ambulance to a bigger hospital and possibly putting me on a respirator.
In the midst of all this, my mother-in-law came to take my children to a friend’s house. I couldn’t nurse my four-month-old. He’d have to be on formula. Such an unthinkable thing to a breastfeeding advocate like me. Now a matter of course. I reached out to my baby boy in his car seat next to me and softly touched his cheek. He cried. And I drew back my hand.
“Say goodbye to Mommy,” my husband said. And my children disappeared out the door.
Just like that. I let them go.
At that moment, neither my husband nor I were sure if they’d ever see me again. I wasn’t able to talk. I couldn’t tell them I loved them or say goodbye. I was facing my worst fear. And it was OK. It was OK.
In that awful moment, there was perfect peace.
Martha Peace wrote about exactly this in one of her books. (I think it was The Excellent Wife.) She pointed out that when we are simply imagining chilling scenarios, we are facing the horrible emotions without any of God’s sustaining grace. Every time we imagine something, we put ourselves through agony of a kind we will never have to go through in real life. Because when awful things are actually happening, God walks with us through them and gives us His grace and strength. The peace of God’s presence through a trial is something I can never conjure up in my imagination and something that only comes with real trials, not the pretend ones I make up while driving. Now I know the difference.
So today, when the what-ifs come darkening the clear skies of a quiet moment, I try to remind myself that if something like that were to actually happen, it wouldn’t be like I imagine it. I have no idea the peace, strength, and grace the Lord would give me. I’m sure you’ve heard that trite little saying, “The will of God will never lead us where the grace of God cannot keep us.” It’s true.