I AM Merciful

The following excerpt is from Storm Clouds of Blessing by Janice Cappucci and published by Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland (www.christianfocus.com) and is used with their kind permission. (You can learn more or purchase your own copy here.)

Growing up in China, Eric and Wendy Su knew what they were supposed to believe: There is no God. Religion is for the superstitious and uneducated. Missionaries are the tools of western imperialists. Whether these things were true or not, they couldn’t say, only that they knew no Christians and if anyone had ever described the miracles in the Bible, they surely would have considered them fairy tales.

Never did they imagine when they came to the U.S. to pursue their doctorate degrees that they would meet educated people who claimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus—and all the rest of it—were historical facts. More astonishingly, these otherwise clear-thinking people spoke openly about their beliefs. Eric and Wendy felt so conflicted; the families who had befriended them—their host family and later a neighbor—were so loving and yet, at the same time, seemingly oblivious to the Sus” total lack of interest in the subject. “I just wanted a friend,” Wendy said, “without all this religious stuff.”

But now they were in the emergency room of a large Chicago hospital. Their nine-month-old baby girl was dying. Without a miracle, she wouldn’t make it through the night. How did it come to this? Wendy wondered. The doctor she had called that weekend told her that chicken pox was nothing to worry about—“just keep her comfortable.” But Janet’s fever had spiked and now, somehow, within forty-eight hours, it had become life-threatening. The virus had gone systemic, causing sepsis, a secondary blood infection. When the ER physician said she wasn’t sure they could save her, Wendy trembled from head to toe. And the only thing running through her mind, and Eric’s too, wasn’t atheist ideologies—it was something they had heard much more recently—that Jesus heals.

And so, for the first time in their lives, at 2:00 in the morning, Wendy and Eric hesitantly but fervently laid their petitions out before a stranger. “Please, God, save Janet. Don’t let her die. In Jesus’ name.” It was all they knew. It was all they wanted. And having said it all, they both fell asleep on the sofas outside the operating room.

When they awoke three hours later, the doctor said Janet was critically stable. If she made it through the next twenty-four hours, she would live. “That was the beginning of our spiritual journey,” Wendy said, “because she did survive, but she wasn’t the same. Over the following year, every time we went to the doctor we received a worse diagnosis.”

“Over the next twelve months,” Eric recalled, “she stopped saying “Momma.” She stopped clapping and waving bye-bye. Instead of reaching milestone makers, she was regressing. Then, just before she turned two, she started having seizures.” The chicken pox had probably caused encephalitis, the neurologist said. It was precisely what Eric and Wendy had feared: the virus had damaged Janet’s brain.

Janet is twenty-one now, with severe mental and physical disabilities. Wearing a helmet with a plastic shield, she slumps over on the family room floor, playing contentedly with a stuffed animal. But to call this highly-modified space a family room is a misnomer, for it is clearly Janet’s room. A Dutch door protects her from harm, as do the thick wall-to-wall gym mats. A stack of diaper boxes dominates a corner. Janet’s wheelchair is nearby, as is a stash of G-tube supplies, the components needed to keep her hydrated, since she cannot swallow liquids normally. And yet, as grievous—as ubiquitous—as these signs of vulnerability, brokenness and utter dependence seem to an outsider, to Eric and Wendy, they are signs of God’s mercy.

Mercy!? Yes, the word is continually on their lips—as they speak about how God not only used Janet to bring about their salvation, but how He has comforted them in their sorrow, healed their broken hearts, forged maturity, nurtured trust, bestowed peace in their anxiety and sustained them through physical and emotional exhaustion.

Not that they’ve always seen it that way. Getting to this place has come only as a result of grappling day by day with hardships that have impacted every aspect of their lives. Mostly, it’s the routine things that take their toll—things like having to wrestle with Janet to floss her teeth, change her diaper, or to take a brief walk around the house— or to stop walking when other chores are waiting. When Janet really doesn’t want to cooperate—like when it’s time for her shower—she lets loose an ear-piercing squeal, flails her arms and struggles to escape. “A twenty-one-year-old has a good set of lungs,” Wendy said. For all these tasks, when they need Janet to stand or walk, she must be supported, but strategically, so that if she starts to fall—which she sometimes does as a result of a petit mal seizure—she won’t take Eric or Wendy down with her. Thankfully, Eric and Wendy say, their visits to the physical therapist haven’t been for traumatic injuries, but “only” for wear and tear on their shoulders and backs. Looking at their wispy frames—skin and bones in Eric’s case—another point of thankfulness comes to mind: that Janet is small for her age, and not like her older brother Leon, who towers over the rest of the family at a solid six feet.

Trial and error have helped Wendy and Eric settle into a workable pattern for managing Janet’s care, but that too has taken time—time and a near catastrophe. When Janet was nearly three years old and Leon was seven, Wendy found herself pregnant again. When their son Enoch was born, they rejoiced, feeling consoled and comforted to have a healthy baby in the house again. And yet, there was no denying that a third child, with two in diapers now, meant being stretched even further, physically, emotionally and spiritually. When Enoch was three months old, Wendy’s immune system took a nose dive, resulting in a kidney infection and sepsis so severe that for six days, she teetered between life and death. It was startling. When Wendy recovered, the first thing the Sus did was put themselves in survival mode—only the essentials, giving first priority to reading and studying God’s Word.

A lifestyle of “only the essentials” has meant sacrifices, too, for Janet’s brothers. Leon, now in medical school, loves spending time with his little sister and helping with her care; but when he was in junior high, Janet’s disability meant that he wasn’t able to join the basketball team. “From the standpoint of time and energy, we knew we couldn’t manage driving Leon to and from practice every day,” Wendy said. Enoch too, is well aware that getting one of his parents to sit down for a chess match is a low priority compared to getting Janet walked, hydrated, changed, bathed or fed.

Of course, nobody in the family finds leaving the house a simple matter. “We can’t just decide spontaneously to run errands or go out for dinner as a couple,” Wendy said. “If we want to have respite care, it must be arranged well in advance, and if the one nurse who has been trained for Janet’s care is not available, we don’t go. It’s just too time-consuming to try to re-train new care-givers every time we need to go out.”

When they speak, however, about the road they’ve been on, their focus is not on these things. Without trying to sugar-coat the hard realities, they are quick to point out that these difficulties—the nitty-gritty details, the way-too-personal care needs that assault the senses and leave the uninitiated aghast—these are not the whole story, not by a long shot—not when they look at the trajectory they had been on and the “vain and meaningless life” they would have lived, had it not been for Janet.

“Before Janet was born I had so much selfish ambition and vain conceit,” Eric said. “I was in a post-doc program at a hospital affiliated with Harvard. It was supposed to be an atmosphere of collaboration in the name of medical advances, but so many of our interactions were colored by strife and professional jealousy. Because of my pride, I didn’t have a very good relationship with my professor. I thought I was better than he. So when my fellowship money ran out, he wanted me to leave. I was humbled. For the first time I realized I am not what I thought I was. I began to question my attitudes and to think critically about the darkness and hopelessness that I was a part of at work.”

Painful as that experience was, it prepared him for the trial with Janet. “I would have lived a pagan life if we had healthy children.” Eric said. “My heart was so hard. It had been twelve years since our host family had first spoken to us about Christ, but I had no heart for the Bible. My life was about pursuing worldly things and I was blind to my own sin. But the Lord did have mercy on us. He was patient. When we moved to Chicago, the Lord gave us a Christian family in our neighborhood that reached out to us and invited us to a Bible study. I wish my heart was not so hardened that I could have believed before disaster fell on me. But the Lord used all those disasters—job and family—to humble me. People like us—we are from an atheist environment. And the sinful nature is so deeply rooted. It took a long time and a lot of discipline to uproot those things. It is God’s mercy. He says: ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.’[1] It is God’s mercy.”

Eric and Wendy see God’s mercy in other aspects of the trial too: in how the truth about Janet’s condition emerged so gradually, in giving Janet a sweet and pleasant temperament, in His directing them to a Bible-believing church, in giving them the grace to trust Jesus for their salvation there, and for their church friends who brought countless meals and babysat long hours during Wendy’s difficult recovery from sepsis. Surpassing all of these things (with the exception of their salvation), the Sus see God’s mercy is the way He gave them a profoundly different and deeply healing perspective about life with Janet. “After Janet started having seizures,” Wendy said, “we came to the end of ourselves. We realized we couldn’t do anything to help her. We just handed her over to Jesus. We were baby Christians and all we wanted was to see Janet healed. The hardest thing was she was born normal. We had dreams for her, like all parents do. But she wasn’t developing. My heart was heavy with grief— worse than if she had died, I felt. If somebody happened to mention walking their daughter down the aisle, I would weep. One day, after hearing some women laughing, I thought, I don’t know how to laugh anymore.”

And that’s the way it was for two years. But then they heard about a family retreat held by “Joni and Friends,” an international disability ministry led by Joni Eareckson Tada, who has been a quadriplegic for fifty years. “That retreat was the turning point of my healing,” Wendy said, “to hear Joni say that Jesus wants to heal our broken hearts—it was life-changing—because my sole focus before was on Janet’s physical healing. Also, Joni helped us to think about our time on this earth as just temporary—that we’re just sojourners, passing through. It was exactly what we needed to hear. God used these truths to bind up our broken hearts. If we had missed hearing about that retreat, our lives would not have been the same.”

Eric agreed. “The healing of our hearts and the salvation of our souls is God’s main concern. Physical healing can be a sign, it can be a blessing. But it’s not the ultimate goal. Those of us who know the Lord will have new bodies in eternity.”

“One Sunday after that retreat,” Wendy recalls, “I realized—through a song—that God had healed my heart. We were singing ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus.’ With tears rolling down my cheeks I felt myself affirming those words in my mind, saying, Yes, it’s true. If we had three healthy children we’d still be living in darkness. I’d rather have Jesus.”

“Since that retreat,” Wendy said, “my life is not focused on Janet getting better. It doesn’t matter anymore. We have eternity. In eternity, Janet will be healed. The important thing is that we seek His kingdom and His righteousness first[2]—that we grow, mature in Christ and glorify God with our lives. How we live our life here matters in eternity. We want to think about our lives here as storing up treasure in heaven.[3]

But is having an eternal perspective all it takes? If it were that alone, if their minds hadn’t been renewed in a hundred other ways over the years, Eric and Wendy might be living a kind of grinding existence—a life characterized by a doleful resignation or perhaps a steely determination. But what comes out in their speech and demeanor is a sweet humility, a quiet joy and an inspiring kind of fortitude—attitudes they attribute to God’s grace and the comfort and strength they’ve found in the Scriptures.

“Soon after we got baptized,” Eric said, “I started listening to Christian radio and the Scriptures on CD in the car. I remember sometimes the tears would just flow. God’s Word is so comforting and so healing.”

The verses that have been his daily sustenance roll off Eric’s tongue. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” he quotes. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”[4] I realized that Jesus was humble. He is gentle and humble in heart. That was really shocking to me. Great people aren’t humble. And Jesus was great. So when I realized He humbled himself and suffered for our sins, even to the point of death on a cross—that was healing. Compared to Him, my suffering is nothing.”

“Without God’s Word,” Wendy said, “I don’t know what kind of condition I would be in or how I could have handled all our problems. Our pastor taught us that the Greek word hupomeno[5] means to bear up under, to endure. When we have trials we don’t just pray for deliverance or healing. We also pray for God’s grace and strength to endure it.”

Toward that end, one day Wendy decided she’d create a list of all the Scriptures related to suffering and endurance. “Sometimes,” Wendy said, “I would think, ‘This is so hard. There’s so much work.’ And I could feel myself sliding into self-pity. But then I’d remember reading that Jesus said when we serve ‘the least of these’ we are actually serving Him.[6] So I said, Okay, Jesus, I’m doing this for you. I’m serving Janet, serving one of the least. This is the assignment you have given me. I’m doing this for you. That’s just changed my perspective—doing it for him, for the glory of God.”

Unbeknownst to her, Wendy’s response to their family’s hardship made an impression on one of her neighbors. “Look at your life,” one of them said. “You have every reason to mope and to isolate yourself and yet you are the friendliest neighbor.” The comment took Wendy by surprise. “I can’t explain it. It’s been a gradual transformation. It has to be from the Lord. ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength.’[7] I don’t think, ‘Woe is me.’ Peace and joy—that’s really from the Holy Spirit. Life is not easy, but I feel joy.”

Another friend, Luanne, noticed that the boys seem to have actually been blessed by their unusual home life. As a volunteer at Joni Eareckson Tada’s family retreat, Luanne has an insider’s perspective of the Su’s family life. “Janet is a grace to that whole family,” she said. “There’s a noticeable wholeness with the boys—always happy to serve others while at the same time always ready to join in the fun with friends. And when they speak of Janet, their voices are full of obvious warmth and affection.”

For Eric, humility is where he senses God refining his character—and not just at home. Five years ago, when the pharmaceutical company underwent lay-offs and re-structuring, Eric was moved from a high-profile position in molecular biology to a service-type position in statistics. “It was impossible,” Eric said. “I had no statistics background. But I realized it was the Lord working to nurture humility. I think of the verse that says, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.’[8] But being in statistics, I don’t have to consider everyone better than myself. Everyone is better than I am.”

Eric says the whole experience has been a way to learn from Christ. “Jesus taught his disciples: ‘those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many’[9] So I need to practice that. I am in a service position; I do need to serve everyone. Once I know God’s words and Christ’s work, it’s a joy to practice that. The Lord showed me the results. It’s very rewarding.”

The biggest reward Eric sees is the benefit for his family life. “It is the Lord’s mercy that I can’t be on the rat race at work,” he said, “climbing the management ladder or the technical track ladder. I have a full-time job at home. God’s grace has been sufficient and the job he’s given me is sufficient to provide for the family. That’s good enough. I am very content.”

Even so—with their maturity coming at such a high price—isn’t there even a wee part of them that wishes for a “normal” life, an easier life? Their answers come quickly. “I’ve thought about it many times,” Wendy said. “Do I wish the doctor hadn’t said, ‘Just keep her comfortable,’ that there hadn’t been that human error? Tragedy happens everywhere. But God uses it for our good. Whenever times get hard, I stop and think, ‘Okay, without Janet, where would we be?’ Without a doubt we’d be just like our peers and relatives from China—trapped by fear of death and living in darkness and despair, without hope, without joy. When I think about our old life, it’s just depressing. No, we don’t want that at all. We wouldn’t trade places. We have found the truth. We’d rather have this.”

Eric, too, is sure about what they’ve been spared. “Without Janet,” he said, “I know I would be just like any worldly man, very unhappy because I would not ever be able to fulfill my selfish ambitions. My family probably would fall apart. The thing we’ve learned with Janet is that the greater thing to heal is not a disease; it’s our sin. It’s a disease of the soul, not a disease of the body. All of Jesus’s miracles— healing the blind, the deaf, the crippled, those with leprosy—they represent the spiritually blind, deaf, crippled and unclean. That’s the real healing. We are healed. ‘By his wounds, we are healed.’”[10]

[1] . Revelation 3:19

[2] . Matthew 6:33

[3] . Matthew 6:20

[4] . Matthew 11:28-30

[5] . In 1 Corinthians 13:7, Paul used this word in writing, “Love endures all things.”

[6] . Matthew 25:31-40

[7] . Based on Nehemiah 8:10

[8] . Philippians 2:3 (NIV)

[9] . Mark 10:42-45

[10] . Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)

 

Janice CappucciJanice Cappucci
Janice is a published author, ACBC biblical counselor, and public speaker who loves, more than anything, using words to talk about the Word made flesh, and hearing other people do the same.