In June, 1968, I was afflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” that caused extreme mental and emotional agony and severely affected our young marriage.
Since then, I’ve prayed many times to have it removed. Because I could see how my previous sins might have led to this thorn’s coming into my life so suddenly, I confessed those sins. Since then, I have sought every possible remedy and means of healing: multiple sessions of prayer by those with the gift of healing, including my brother Peter; deliverance sessions to combat satanic or demonic activity; renunciation of curses; counseling for the mental/emotional/spiritual factors that might be involved; nutrition; and supplements of various kinds.
It's been more than fifty years, and God has not seen fit to deliver me. There have been times when grief, anger, and frustration have overcome me. Gradually, however, the Lord has been giving me peace, assuring me that he loves me and is in control of all aspects of my life in ways that I just can’t understand.
In the process, he has shown me more sins that need renunciation, areas of my life that await further sanctification by the Spirit, and even ways in which he has used this awful affliction to grow my faith, hope, and love. I’ve also been able to call upon this experience to comfort a few others with chronic conditions. Many promises in his Word have strengthened my trust in him. His constant presence has enabled me to keep moving forward steadily in my walk with Christ. I am slowly learning to give thanks in, and even for, all things (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18; Ephesians 5:20), knowing that he is sovereign over us, and the he does all things justly and well.
As if that thorn were not enough, starting about 1990 I began to experience symptoms of fatigue and general malaise. Eventually, these symptoms multiplied into whole gang of little “thorns” that made my life pretty difficult. It wasn’t until around 2002 that my family doctor said that most of these could be attributed to mild depression. With his permission, I began taking the Shaklee version of St. John’s Wort. My emotional low went away, but the other problems didn’t. Finally, a friend who is a physician said that my condition resembled that of his wife and daughter, both of whom have fibromyalgia.
Before going to see a rheumatologist for fibromyalgia, I made a list of my symptoms. That bare enumeration, without much description, filled one-and-a-half type-written pages! “Fibro” was little understood then; they still relied on the presence of a number of painful pressure points on your back for a definitive diagnosis. So, the doctor said I had “something like fibromyalgia.” Years later, my family doctor, with new knowledge, confirmed that I had fibro, and his diagnosis has received ratification from several physicians since then.
Fibro is no fun. You can feel as if you have a mild-to-severe case of the flu, without the digestive or respiratory elements, most of the time. Brain fog clouds your head. Short-term memory can suffer. Fatigue forces you to rest and keeps you from getting the aerobic exercise that you must have in order to get more energy. Headaches. Lassitude. Stomach cramps that can last twelve hours. Poor sleep. Etc. Thankfully, God gave me a nearly miraculous remission of most of these symptoms in 2004, after I made a decision to go to China do some teaching of house church leaders. My reprieve ended around 2008, probably because I had once again overtaxed my system with too much work, but the stomach cramps mercifully did not come back. Learning to drink hot peppermint tea rather than cold water in the morning on an empty stomach has mostly prevented further such attacks.
For about ten years, I had to endure those pains that only fellow fibro sufferers understand. It’s the kind of pain that feels as if it’s in your DNA, it goes so deep, and sometimes the sharp pinpricks seem more like daggers doing their work under your skin. No medication can touch that inner pain. My doctor tried everything, finally putting me on Cymbalta, an anti-depressant that has the side effect of telling your brain not to tell your body that it hurts. That worked for a little more than a year. I was almost at the end of my rope, until major relief came in 2016 when that doctor friend told me to get off Cymbalta, since anti-depressants are bad for you; go on a vegan diet; and take some enzymes for gut health. I did all three, and within a month the pains were gone. I am SO grateful!
But the fatigue and general malaise remained.
Sometimes I felt better, than worse again. In January 2013, after once again pushing my poor body beyond its limits for several years, I came down with the flu, a sinus infection, and a “light” case of “early pneumonia. These precipitated a crash that kept me mostly at home for nine months, until I had to go to Taiwan to deliver some lectures. A month-long trip to China in the fall of 2015 led to a severe respiratory illness that knocked me out for two and a half months. The same thing happened when I returned from another action-packed lecture and teaching visit to China in 2015. I haven’t been back since.
2017 to now
What God has been doing in me in the past three years.
“Blows that wound cleanse away evil, as do stripes [from scourging] the inner depths of the heart.” Proverbs 20:30
In the late spring of 2017, Dori and Sarah participated in a conference for women held in New Braunfels. I went along to take care of Blaise, and to be with Dori for a couple of days after Sarah returned home.
We had reserved a suite at the Schlitterbahn resort. On the first night, when they returned, Sarah suddenly didn’t feel well. It might have been because of the gas that we smelled, but we weren’t sure. The next morning, Dori attended the conference until noon, while Blaise and I stayed in the apartment. We spent most of the time playing in the living area, right in front of the stove. Sarah stayed in her room with the door closed. When Dori returned, as soon as she entered the door she exclaimed, “This place smells of gas!” We need to get out of her now!”
I hadn’t noticed, but when I went outside and then came back in, the odor of gas almost overwhelmed me. Meanwhile, Sarah was really feeling sick.
We emptied the room of our stuff. Dori wrangled with the registration desk until they gave us another room in another building. I won’t go into more details about this except to say that Sarah was still feeling awful when she left with another member of her church that afternoon. I didn’t notice any ill effects of the gas, except that I was pretty angry with the treatment we received from Schlitterbahn.
Two days later, however, I began to feel miserable. I wasn’t just fatigued, but in real pain all over. I didn’t’ know what had hit me, though I later surmised that inhaling natural gas for 20 hours had made me sick.
For more than a month, I felt terrible. I finally went to my doctor, who discovered through blood work that I had low thyroid. He couldn’t be sure that the gas had triggered this condition, however. He prescribed a thyroid supplement that I’ve take since then. That gradually took away the physical symptoms, but by then I had a worse condition: I was angry with God. Although I have been dealing with fatigue and general malaise for several decades, for some reason this new kind of discomfort undid me emotionally and spiritually. I just didn’t want to thank God or praise him. Gradually, I realized that I was mad at the Lord for taking away what remained of my health. I couldn’t get over it.
Then, in late June, I learned that a good friend of mine had for years been controlled by a life-dominating addiction. When his wife discovered it, she was outraged. He began a recovery program and started reading some books on addictions, which he recommended to me. I wanted to walk through this with him, so I read several of these discussions of how Christians can become addicts and how God can set us free. All the authors of the books I was reading agreed that most addictions stem from an unhealthy relationship with our parents, especially our father. That made sense to me. My father was a good man and almost always treated me kindly, but he was not able to express love to me in ways that brought assurance that I was fully accepted and even liked by him.
To my utter surprise, as I read these books, I discovered that I, too, was an addict! The more I read, the clearer it became that I had been chained by several life-dominating bad habits for decades, some even from my childhood. These had wrought havoc with my emotions, my physical health, and my relationships with others, including Dori. All this time, though I had known that I did things that weren’t good, or good for me, I wasn’t aware that these actions were symptoms of deep-seated addictions, which I came to see were idols of the heart. I was seeking “life” from them rather than from God. Instead, they had brought different forms of death to me.
One of those idols, I saw more clearly than ever before, was my health. So, when the low thyroid hit me with a new and almost unbearable feeling of intense discomfort, I was outraged – at God. I blamed him for allowing this to happen, and I refused to forgive him for it!
After a while, I saw how ridiculous my attitude was. After all, an idol is an idol. All forms of idolatry must be dealt with ruthlessly: we must recognize them, repent of them, renounce them, and rely on God to deliver us daily from them.
By the end of the summer, I had gained some emotional altitude. I remember vividly how, on the night before I was to have the mercury fillings in my mouth taken out and replaced with amalgam fillings, I committed the whole thing to God. The dentist had assured me that removing that poison of mercury from my system would make me feel better, but I told the Lord that, even if I didn’t feel better, I would thank him. That turned out to be a good attitude to adopt, because, indeed, after I recovered from the surgery, I felt no change in my energy or general well-being. I didn’t regret the procedure, despite its expense, nor was I resentful to God for not producing the effects my dentist had anticipated.
In the fall, I took a trip to Virginia and North Carolina for a Board meeting and to visit prayer supporters. Then I boarded a plane for England, where I spent about ten days trying to encourage two of our co-workers who live in Cambridge. After a grueling flight home, I crashed. It took a couple of months to recover.
From 2017 to 2019, severe pain in my right shoulder, then my left shoulder, sent me to the physical therapist for months.
Starting in January, 2018, our daughter began to suffer from acute pain in her abdomen. Exploratory surgery confirmed a diagnosis of endometriosis. Another surgery in late August removed the “endo” but triggered the onset of fibromyalgia, bringing more pain.
For the first six months of the year, I was eaten up with worry for our daughter and some other things. In April, I got the worst case of poison ivy of my whole life. The pain was so intense that one night I thought God had abandoned me. In May, I was betrayed by some people I had trusted, leading to the loss of old friends and substantial financial support. In early June, I crashed again.
This time I really collapsed physically. I could barely talk. I couldn’t walk more than fifty feet. I felt awful. In July, I had to trust God for miracles to enable me to conduct a wedding in France in Chinese and English for a former member of the Chinese Christian Fellowship in Charlottesville. He answered prayer, and we had a wonderful week in France, but I came home even more exhausted than before.
In the fall, I somehow sustained a hairline fracture in my foot. I clomped around in a big orthopedic boot for about a month.
Later in 2018, I wrote this to some friends:
“Journey into Rest”
What God has been saying to me
In the providence of God, over the past year several people have recommended books to me that get to the motives of the heart and how they drive us. Some address the huge problem of addictions of various sorts among Christians; others speak to Christian leaders who are burnt out or who struggle to know God’s love in a way that is not simply notional and intellectual. Reading these books has exposed idols and addictions in my own life, causing me to ask God to grant inner transformation and renewal.
One author – Bill Gaultiere – has helped me realize that I am a workaholic. I hadn’t seen this before, partly because I don’t have some of the usual marks of someone who’s addicted to his work. I am strict about resting on Sundays, I take a regular noonday siesta, I have a long quiet time with the Word and prayer every morning, etc. Gaultiere’s diagnostic quiz went beyond outward activities to inward drives, however, and revealed to me that my ministry had become an idol to me. I was looking for my writing and personal work to give me significance, a sense of achievement, and security. I had told this to Dr. Roy, who is a neurologist. That is why she told me to “be quiet and let God speak to you.”
Now, with time on my hands, I picked the mostly unfinished books up again and began to read with even more attentiveness.
My daughter has found the Enneagram system of describing different personality types helpful, and recommended that I read The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery. Not having finished the book yet, I can’t endorse it, but I found several chapters helpful. It seems that, in their language, I am a combination of a “One” – a perfectionist – and a “Two” – a Helper. Each has both positive and negative aspects. In my case, perfectionism makes me very hard on myself and pushes me relentlessly to perform. And being a “helper” means that I have an inordinate desire for the attention, affection, and approval of others, leading me to try to “help” people even when they don’t want it or I don’t have the capacity to be of use to them. You can see how these traits could lead to burnout.
The authors of this book and others have helped me see that I’m probably attempting to make up for some perceived deficit of love and affirmation in my early childhood. This is not to blame my parents, but to point to unhealthy ways of satisfying fundamental desires.
People close to me – and some who stay away from me for just this reason – have been trying to tell me for decades that I am far too intense when I speak. I had no idea what they were talking about until this past May, when I noticed that I was starting to get a headache after a long conversation. Increasingly, I found that speaking for even a few minutes made my head uncomfortable. At last, I was beginning to sense what my intensity feels like, from the inside, as it were.
That discovery has prompted me to ask, “What is intensity, anyway? And why can it be a ‘negative’ trait?” After all, some of God’s great saints were, it seems, intense. One thinks of Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Paul. Even Jesus was probably not very “laid back and mellow” when he excoriated the Pharisees for their hypocrisy.
Unhealthy intensity, however, seems to be connected with tension, unnecessary forcefulness of expression, perhaps impatience, and a general lack of gentleness. When I’m intense in conversation, I’m often trying to persuade someone of something “important” to me, or simply to express my delight or disdain. Sometimes it’s a reflection of happiness; at other times, it reflects fear, anger, disgust, or other negative emotions.
It seems to me that the root of this unhealthy dependence lies in unbelief. If I trusted God more, I would rely on him to persuade others or vindicate me, rather than depending on my own verbal ability and energy. If I were looking more constantly to him in humble faith, I would wait for him to prompt me to speak, and then would ask him to speak through me in his own way.
Love for others would also sometimes prevent inappropriate intensity in conversation. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus taught. Paul said we should treat each other “with all lowliness and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:2). “Love is patient and kind; does not behave rudely.”
Pride feeds unhealthy intensity. Why do I assume perhaps unconsciously, that my thoughts, opinions, feelings, joys, and sorrows deserve so much attention, anyway? Must they be pressed with such energy and emphasis? Are they that important? Why not step back and let others talk? Why not dial down the tempo and the volume, and open up time and emotional space for other voices?
“Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,” enjoined James. St. Francis famously asked that he would seek not to be understood, but to understand. Do I really have to insist that others hear and understand me, NOW?
In other terms, could I not reduce the number of exclamation points and replace them with question marks?
Matthew noted that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that his voice would not be heard in the streets and he would not break a bruised reed. Jesus said he was “humble [meek] and lowly in spirit.” I see this attitude in our grandson, who is 2 ½ years old. He usually speaks in a gentle tone of voice, replete with questions.
Alas, even my prayers are often far too intense! I don’t deny that we should pray fervently, of course, but we must do so out of faith. I now see that much of my intercession for others could reflect a strong desire for their welfare, but not an equally firm belief in God’s willingness to answer prayer or do what is best for his people. I suppose that we should sometimes “storm the gates of heaven” in prayer, but I doubt whether my assaults have always been prompted by the Holy Spirit. I now see that I need to learn to “pray in the Spirit,” not in the flesh (Ephesians 6:18; and I don’t think this phrase should be restricted to praying in tongues).
Well, there’s a lot to ponder here. For the moment, all I know is that my intensity has worn me out, and others, too! So it has to be addressed.
Of course, God has been reminding me of his love also. I’ll write more about that later.
While in France for the wedding of the former member of Chinese Christian Fellowship, we saw our old friend Endrina Tay. Originally from Singapore, she has lived in Charlottesville for many years.
Endrina has played a prophetic role in my life on a couple of occasions. When, at a farewell dinner for us before we left for Texas in 2015, I said that I have so many relationships with people around the world that I am “maxed-out” on friendships and don’t want to develop any new ones in Texas, she said, “Wright, God may surprise you.” I objected strenuously, but she insisted. She was right, of course, and I thank God for the new friends the Lord has sent me.
We had a couple of chances to talk with her at the wedding. On the first occasion, she told us how going gluten-free has radically changed her health. At the wedding reception dinner, she related how God has convicted her of self-absorption. The more she talked, the clearer it became to me that I am extremely self-absorbed. It shows up primarily in my conversation, but also in my writing and sometimes my thinking. Tellingly, Dori agreed with Endrina on the spot.
The next day, as we were about to part for our separate destinations, Endrina said – I’ve forgotten the context – “Let it go! Just let it go and allow God to handle it!” I knew at the time that this was another word from God, though I didn’t see the immediate application.
That came to me a couple of weeks ago, after I saw Dr. Roy again. This time, Dori was with me. Dr. Roy, having eliminated almost all other possible causes for my fatigue, etc., repeated what she’d suggested earlier, that I am suffering from “low mood.” I strongly objected. “I’m not depressed!” I almost shouted. “Nor am I anxious.”
She and Dori both insisted, however, that low mood must be a factor, and Dori said that she thinks I’m anxious. This was the first time I’d ever heard her voice this opinion. At first, I didn’t take it seriously, since she offered the example of being nervous about driving in France. I said, “That was a reasonable fear, as events proved!”
Still, neither of them would back down, so I went home determined to bring this before God.
“I don’t think I’m anxious, but if I were, about what sorts of things might I be anxious?” I prayed.
Within a minute, six major concerns, if I may use that term, came into my mind. I wrote them down. Then several more things that were causing me to be, shall I say, tense, popped into my consciousness.
Friends, these were all SERIOUS matters. None of them was trivial. Some had been bothering me for several years; others had been part of the potent cocktail of stressors with which our family has been dealing since our daughter began to suffer pain from endometriosis in January; and others go back decades into structural relationships.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I faced the embarrassing fact that I am anxious. I worry. I don’t “Let it go” and give it to God, but I hold onto it tightly. I may pray about it – in fact, some of these have received a great deal of importunate prayer for many years (see “praying in the flesh,” above) - but I have not cast it upon God. I have tried to carry the load myself, or with minimal help from our heavenly Father.
Worry will wear you out! No wonder I’m tired. I’m bearing burdens I wasn’t meant to shoulder, simply because I wasn’t really following the advice of the hymn that says, “Take it to the Lord in prayer,” at least not in the way that hymn-writer explains. “Oh! What needless pain we bear!”
Needless, that’s the word. Unnecessary.
God knows what we need and will give everything “good” to us as we trust constantly trust Christ (Romans 8:32).
I’m still trying to process these new revelations of the previously hidden sins of my heart, but I thank God for exposing them, that they may be treated by his healing Word and Spirit.
In the fall of 2019, my knees suddenly buckled. The doctors discovered that I had had an attack of arthritis, seemingly out of nowhere. Physical therapy helped, as before. I returned to the physical therapist for much of 2019 and the early months of 2020 to try to get some relief from an arthritis-related pain in my hip that kept we awake in the middle of the night. That one seems t have become a permanent fixture in my nightly routine, however.
God has shown me more since I wrote the above words in 2018. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’m recovering my strength, energy, and emotional resilience. Dori says I am “kinder” now, and easier to live with. When I asked why I was easier to live with, she said, “Well, maybe you are a little less arrogant?”
Elisabeth Elliot’s A Path Through Suffering has guided me along this difficult journey since 2017. I’m now reading it for the fourth time, and plan to read it again. Her own suffering, the thousands of letters from others that came to her, plus her profound meditation on the Scriptures all equipped her to compose thoughts on God’s good plan for us in our suffering. She centers of the Cross and on the Resurrection.
I’m still on this journey, but I trust in God more and more.
Postscript: In September 2020 my functional medicine doctor finally discovered, through a new blood test, that I have had the Epstein-Barr virus for decades. This causes the fatigue, and may also have produced fibromyalgia. He hopes that anti-viral herbal supplements will bring relief. In October, a sleep study revealed that I have sleep apnea. That too can produce fatigue, general discomfort, and memory loss. A CPAP machine may solve that problem.
I don’t know yet what will happen, but I do know that God has called me to trust him at all times and to thank him for all things, knowing that he loves me, will be with me, and will use my very minor trials for my good, the good of others, and his glory.
Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery