My wife’s father is struggling with the final stages of dementia, and his suffering is intense. Hallucinations, delusions, and night terrors afflict Daddy’s mind; tremors, rigors, and convulsions wrack his body. His pain must be intense, though he can’t communicate what he is experiencing. Only medication gives him any relief.
As he suffers, those of us who are with him suffer as well — not just because of our empathy, but because we are inseparably connected with him. We are not just separate individuals sharing space; we are family. We are one with each other, and our oneness is intensified by our shared bond in Christ.
The apostle Paul notes that “God has put the body together in such a way that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other equally. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.” (1 Corinthians 12:24b-26 NLT)
Nothing is less dignified than late-stage dementia. You have little or no control over your body. Everything you need must be done for you by others. But as stronger believers step up to help the weaker one, everyone is strengthened and the harmony between you is deepened. The weaker one does not suffer alone; those around him share in his suffering. As we share in Daddy’s suffering, we are changed. Our relationships are deepened, and God’s grace works in a profound way to mold us more closely into the image of Christ.
The most intense suffering experience I have had was when I was afflicted with Crohn’s disease. Beginning Thanksgiving Day 1991, I was mortally ill for three years, without insurance. I lost 25% of my body weight in just a few weeks. I didn’t have the strength to push my mower across the yard or put a shovel into a flower bed. Fever, chills, cramping, night sweats — I’ll spare you the details. It was hell — or the closest I’ve been to it. But God used it to do a profound work of grace in my life. He took me through the valley of the shadow of death, to a place more beautiful than I’d ever dreamed possible. I wouldn’t want to walk that valley again, but I wouldn’t trade where it took me for anything in this world.
The Lord deepened my faith and opened my understanding. Like Romans 5 says, the trial was good for me — more than good. I learned to endure, and endurance developed strength of character, which in turn strengthened my confident expectation of salvation. I knew beyond all doubt he would not disappoint me. When I was utterly helpless, Christ died for me. When I was utterly helpless, he came to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and flooded my heart with his love.
I sit next to Daddy as he writhes on his bed. His forehead is deeply furrowed, his back bowed off the bed, his legs rigid. His eyes stare vacantly toward the ceiling, and gnarled fingers reach toward something, or someone, unseen. A groan filters up from deep in his soul, and my spirit weeps in reply. But the Lord’s presence is tangible.
Paul wrote a lot about suffering — born out of painful personal experience — and he said some amazing things. Pressed on every side by troubles, but not crushed or broken, Paul said his body “constantly share[d] in the death of Jesus so the life of Jesus may also be seen” in his body. (2 Corinthians 4:8,10) In suffering, Paul is “completing what remains of Christ’s sufferings for his body, the church.” (Colossians 1:24) The suffering wasn’t Paul’s alone. In some mysterious way, Christ was suffering through him.
Paul suffered because of his witness for Christ, and neither Daddy nor I can say that. But we have suffered. Rather, I have; he is. And as the Lord used my suffering to further his work of grace in my heart, I’ve got to believe he is using Daddy’s suffering to finish the good work he began in him decades ago. (Philippians 1:6)
Through our suffering, we understand a fraction of what Christ endured on our behalf when he made peace with God for us on the cross. As Paul promises, what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will give us later. (Romans 8:18)
My suffering was not wasted 20 years ago, and I promised Daddy today that his suffering will be worth it — when he sees what is waiting for him on the other side.
We have the Lord’s Word on it.