At one time, Shelley was easy to identify in our church family. She was a frail young woman, sometimes on crutches or in a wheelchair. But whenever she had mobility she was entwined with small handicapped children. Refusing to acknowledge the negative prognosis of her own illness, she lived each day, as she still does, to her maximum capacity. "Gutsy," some would say.
Shelley has had her arguments with God. It was wrenching to come to terms with her physical disabilities. And only the invalidated know the struggles with pride, anger, and impatience in the specialized tension of helplessness. Independence was to Shelley a treasured mode of life, but that luxury had to be sacrificed to practical needs which made her dependent upon others There were many days when either asking or receiving help seemed sheer indignity, adding insult to her physical distress.
What does all of this have to do with joy? Everything, really. It was in the frying pan of unanswerable questions and frustrated plans that this young woman opted for letting God be God. It was a traumatic surrender of her will, and she would be the last to claim that it was perfected in one single act. But doubt and confusion, resentment and anger, the despoilers of joy, gradually yielded to the growing conviction that behind all of her life was a loving Father God, whose purpose is to transform earth's tragedies into triumphs. Now a window was opening on a dimension of joy she had never before experienced or even envisioned.
As she yields to her new identity as God's woman, seeing herself as made in his image, she finds herself released to the wider world of loving others. The singular excitement of being part of God's plan to love and redeem a lost and hurting world dwarfs her own physical struggles. Seeing herself as part of the eternal plan makes her time-related burdens lighter.
Shelley had worked several years with handicapped children as a para-professional, during which time she was motivated largely by a need to perform. There is small satisfaction in service rendered for credits, because one is always dependent upon approval, and stockpiles of guilt and frustration easily accumulate. When Shelley learned of the free gift of forgiveness and acceptance through Christ, she received the good news with joy.
Now Shelley was embarking upon a new adventure, a new life which embraced a new perspective. The professional approach toward the handicapped which complemented so well her need to perform was about to be radically changed. Through the teaching of others and through her own personal Bible study, she was learning what it could mean to have the living Lord Jesus Christ at work in her, to produce the fruit of his Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians. 5:22, 23).
But trouble was brewing in her own body, and soon she was confronted with some painful and debilitating handicaps. Then the struggles ensued, the arguments with God. Wasn't she supposed to serve him by serving others? Then why the recurring, physical weakness which diverted more and more energy from her desire to help the handicapped? There were angry days, mingled with deep physical distress. There was the frustration of unmanageable circumstances, the apparently futile prayers, and fear of the unknown future. It was not only her future, but I the future of all the handicapped "projects" for which she had now assumed responsibility, that she was angry, frustrated, and fearful.
Then a flicker of light began to shine in Shelley's heart. (Could it be in answer to her prayers that God was now speaking?) Did the weight of her life, with its desires and despair, its gains and losses, actually rest on her shoulders? Could her mind contain all of God's answers to human dilemma? Did she indeed have to sort out all the causes and effects, then set out on a solo course of redemption?
Or could it be true, as she kept reading in God's Word, that God is great enough and wise enough and loving enough to put together a redemptive plan quite apart from and independent of human weakness and frailty and sin? Could it be that John 3:16, so glibly quoted, could have a profound implication she had somehow failed to grasp? Was all of this what was meant by "Christ in you, the hope of glory"?
The light grew brighter! God loved the world! The proof of that love was infinite giving, the gift of himself! One thing was clear: God is at work, now, infinitely involved in all of our distresses because he loves us. Redemption is his initiative. Our unbelief and distrust of him are the obstacles.
Now in the clear, pure light of Truth, Shelley could see that the burden did not rest on her, but on a loving Father-God, who was continually offering himself in every situation for whatever need. Did she need wisdom? He would be her wisdom. He would not provide all the answers, but he would be the answer. She could trust him, and he is perfect wisdom.
Did she need a sense of worth that would not rest on performance? His gift to her was the impeccable righteousness (worth) of his Son, reckoned to her account. She had only to believe it and rest her case with him.
Did she need--yes, she desperately needed--changed attitudes, mature relationships, wholeness of person? He offered her the fruit of his Spirit working within to produce the character of his Son and give her a whole new perspective on suffering, on every kind of human testing.
Now the focus was clearing. Love that is directed toward wholeness--God's kind of love-- does not promise trouble-free, comfortable, easy living. Stresses and sorrow are a necessary corollary to maturity and joy! But the joy that issues from these disciplines is purified of illusion and fantasy and undisturbed by perplexity and difficulty. It is joy that believes and trusts and rests in an Almighty, Eternal, All-knowing, Ever-present God of Love! It is joy from a threefold source:
A reason to rest: faith
A place to stand: love
A direction to walk: hope
And it all rests on the character of God himself!
Now a subtle and significant change is taking place in Shelley's life style, the result of her changing mind-set. Relieved of the staggering burden of playing God, knowing that he is willing and able to assume responsibility for global redemption as well as individual needs--that is a liberating joy indeed! It means the persons she serves are no longer her projects, by which she can approve herself before God and people, but redeemable, loved human beings in whom God has invested his own love and life, and for whom he has a plan for wholeness, just as he has for Shelley.
As she yields to her new identity as God's woman, seeing herself as made in his image, she finds herself released to the wider world of loving others. The singular excitement of being part of God's plan to love and redeem a lost and hurting world dwarfs her own physical struggles and emotional stresses. Seeing herself as part of the eternal plan makes her time-related burdens lighter.
It is this birth of freedom from self-confinement that gives meaning and perspective to serving others. Her own physical distresses have added identification and compassion to these relationships. Her sense of God-at-work gives her access to restful activity, since the ultimate responsibility and resources lie with him, not with her.
One such redemptive relationship is taking place with Shelley and a tiny girl born with cerebral palsy. This relationship traces growth in both Misty and Shelley, and therefore the widening vista of joy for each of them.
They found each other through an encounter with an institution for handicapped persons. By the time they met, Misty was three years of age, and more vegetable than human--totally incapable of communication, helpless as cooked spaghetti. If Shelley and Misty had met before Shelly's encounter with Christ, Misty would have been a project, a job to be done, a body and mind to be healed. The deep mother-instinct Misty stirred would have seemed more a handicap to the relationship than an asset.
Now, as Shelley is learning to serve the Lord in serving others, the threat is being removed from her relationships, so that love and joy and hope are becoming a valid and substantial option to demand and despair and anger. And Misty, among others, is responding to that quality of love. As Shelley is learning to serve without demanding results, the result in Misty's life is emotional and physical response that once seemed sheer impossibility.
In the current apparent remission of her own illness, Shelley is forming a core of people, like her committed to serving in love such small handicapped persons as Misty. They share a vision for serving as God's instruments to bring healing to all aspects of these young sufferers. Not all who serve are physically handicapped, but as they serve others in response to God's love in their own lives, they too are becoming more whole.
It is this quality of loving response to the hurting and the helpless that brings deep joy to all involved, a joy that will culminate in the sweetest words of all, as the Lord himself speaks: "Well done, good and faithful servant...enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew. 25:21 RSV).