Is God’s grace bigger than our intense suffering?
“I specifically remember a lot of, I just don’t understand. I just don’t understand. I don’t understand why now. I don’t understand why this, why us?” – Terra
We think we understand grace. We recognize it in our daily struggles, our relationships, and in our personal transformations. But what about in the really big situations? What about when the floor drops out and everything falls apart and we have no idea how we’re going to move forward?
Our guests this week, Terra and James, appear to be just another adorable couple living a normal life. They have five kids, 10 and under. Terra is a functional medicine certified health coach and James is a corporate chaplain.
But they carry the unmistakable compassion of those who have walked the deepest valley.
They have experienced more suffering in the last few years than most people experience in their lifetimes. But they’ve also seen grace greater than they ever imagined.
Their story begins with a rash.
For seven months, James had been suffering with some intense skin problems and he had been in almost constant misery. He had gone to every doctor he could possibly get into, every dermatologist. He’d been to the ER. Nobody knew what was wrong with him.
“It felt like rashes that just didn’t go away. I mean I just kept accumulating starting from my ankles to my legs into my back to my chest.” James remembered. “And the itchiness was just tremendous. I would probably get three to four hours of sleep every day. I’d do salt bath to just calm my body down, because it was uncomfortable whether I’m moving or sleeping. It was always worse at night.”
The family exhausted every avenue trying to find a cause for James’ health mysteries. One day, as Terra was doing a class for her health coach certification, she noticed a case study about a child whose home had toxic mold. His symptoms lined up with theirs, and because they had nothing left to lose, they had their house tested.
Their home was less than 10 years old. It had nothing visible that would have indicated mold. It looked like a perfectly normal newish home in a nice neighborhood.
The discovery of toxic mold in their home came as a total surprise, but they were at the very beginning of the grief they were about to experience.
From Physical Suffering to Material Loss
After they found out, it took them about a week to find another place to stay. Fortunately, a local church offered up their mission home, and they moved in right away. They never stayed in their home again.
They decided that they were not going to go back to the house, because the specialist they’d seen in California told them that because they had already been sensitized to the mold, they would continue to react. They decided to sell the home.
They also had to go through their belongings. “We were told anything that wasn’t glass, stainless steel, or ceramic had to go, which would probably be about 95% of what we owned.” Terra recounted, “We went through a lot of really challenging stuff. On top of it already having the health issues that my husband and our family had, I was homeschooling at the time, and just life was crazy and chaotic and our finances were tight, because we were spending all of our money on every doctor on the planet and getting our house sold and our things done. I felt like I was going to lose my mind in the midst of it all.”
James felt that way, too. “That was overwhelming. In some ways, we got affirmation, but yet knowing we had to make this really tough decision, and it was for the best of our family, and even for our souls because it was definitely survival for quite some time, and we didn’t realize that it was survival.”
In addition to losing the house they’d brought each of their babies home to, they had to let go of basically everything they owned. Clothes for seven people. Toys, beds, towels, furniture, books, and photos. Baby blankets, favorite t-shirts, scrapbooks.
It’s a bit like Job. He who was just trying to be faithful, suddenly dealing with debilitating illness and loss.
Navigating Loss and Suffering with Five Kids
How do you recover? How do you walk your children through that situation?
It was particularly heart-breaking for the older kids. Terra remembered an especially sad moment. “My oldest had just saved up her money and bought her first American Girl doll with her own money that she had saved up from birthdays and everything. She’d had it less than a year, six months, maybe or so. I remember just when we were telling them everything that was going to happen and what we were going to have to get rid of and everything. I just remember her asking me, ‘But what about my doll?’”
It was a difficult process to watch their kids let go of their belongings and special things. They understood, because they knew that their daddy had been in a lot of pain and those things were a part of that. They could practically understand, but it was still hard. They were also going to be leaving their friends in their neighborhood.
The kids miss the old house and their things sometimes. Their oldest daughter wears a locket with a picture of the house inside. They talk about the memories. Sometimes it makes them happy. Sometimes, sad. They now live just a few minutes away from their first home, and James and Terra have realized it’s important to drive by and remember when the kids need that.
“I think they were looking to us for perspective and safety. If Terra and I were doing well, then you could see that reflect back to them that things are fine.” James said. “Individually we would take time, just ask them questions about how they’re processing. It really taught us as even parents how important place is for kids.”
He went on to add, “Helping them revisit those places has been healing for us. It’s still hard for me to go back to the old house, because so many of those memories are there. But we can go just to let them know that life was lived there well, and that it’s OK to want to go back. I just realize that you never get over grief. It just becomes part of your life.”
Suffering From Unexpected Loneliness
As they navigated this grief, loss, and change as a family, they expected pain and questions. But there was also an isolation as they walked through a journey that was intangible to those around them.
Just like Job’s friends came with questions and accusations, James and Terra experienced the loneliness of loss.
James admitted, “I knew deep inside God understood, but I think the disconnect for me was feeling lonely as we go through this. Will people check up on us three months, six months down the road? There are moments where I’m like, ‘God, I’m just lonely. Help me to connect.’”
Terra added that a big part of the loneliness was because the situation was so bizarre, so unheard of. There can be a stigma with things people don’t understand, and well-intentioned advice can sting and isolate. She remembered, “People would say, ‘Well, mold’s not a big deal. All you got to do is scrub it with some bleach.’” People trying to be helpful, but it wasn’t, and so that was really hard, because in some ways, we felt like we were kind of in it alone.”
In their moments of loneliness, God was faithful and His grace covered their isolation. Friends and family circled around them. They were able to connect with others who had similar experiences, which gave them the freedom to be understood. And they took joy in knowing that they were a big family and could lean on each other.
But beyond those individual connections, grace showed up through the Church in an undeniable way.
Grace was Greater
People they’d met over the last 10 years began to step up in a huge way. Some of their friends began a fundraiser, and businesses that James had been a chaplain for began their own fundraisers, and before they knew it, almost $25,000 had been given for their expenses. This helped cover their medical bills, moving costs, and replacement clothes, furniture, bedding, etc.
Terra basks in the grace every day. “We left our home just over a year ago. Now, we’re in a new home in a neighborhood I absolutely love, in a home that I love, in a school district I love. Just about every day, I pull up to our house or I’m mowing my lawn or I’m cleaning, and I’m just constantly saying, ‘Thank you, God.’
“Those things that you don’t realize how grateful you are to have until you’ve lost them. Kind of the story of life. You don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it. Just being in this place where we are now on a very daily basis, I just find myself just thanking the Lord just for everything that’s He’s done along that.”
On the Other Side of the Valley
Now, a year later, James and Terra are different people. They have experienced a lot of physical healing, which is its own blessing, but they’re also looking at the world through another lens. They’ve learned a lot. They’ve navigated unexpected depths together, and they’ve arrived at the other side, certain of God’s faithful grace.
“God being present with us especially through loss,” James reflected, “It’s in the places in life where you don’t sense the Lord’s nearness, and you feel that He’s distant. Grief was the opportunity to experience God’s presence even in that and how it’s been tough. Also, experiencing Him pursuing us through his people. It’s been overwhelming to see the church be an embodiment of grace to us, because at a time when we’re having to figure it out, it seemed like the Lord knew exactly the people that we needed to connect with and experience grace.”
Terra agreed, “I think there’s definitely been a huge amount of growth in receiving God’s grace, and realizing it doesn’t always look like we think it’s going to look like. Oftentimes, the hard things, the difficult things, are the things that – on the other side – are more beautiful. We change more coming out of those difficult moments.”
They also think they’re more compassionate now – more ready to listen to situations they don’t understand and not offer suggestions or judgement. They have more humility in realizing that they don’t always know the whole situation, person, or circumstance.
James has a new appreciation for his wife. “Just her resiliency and grit through this – because she literally fought for our family when it came to our health and how for me to get better. Really in some ways, there were days where she probably felt like she put her whole family on the back of her shoulder. Again, I think that was God’s grace being demonstrated through her.”
Loss Recovered Fourfold
And while they learned that God was present in their suffering, they also realized that suffering was serving a purpose. “I think it’s not even so much like getting even at the end of our suffering,” James reflected, “it’s who you’re becoming and the journey that’s what’s more important to the Lord. Because we could have come out here at the end of this bitter or angry and confused and more overwhelmed, but I think we’ve become people who really saw God’s grace show up in profound ways.”
Terra and James and their kids walked through so many of the same sufferings as Job: excruciating and unending physical pain, unthinkable material loss, loneliness and isolation. But through it all, God was faithful. He covered the family in grace through His church, through His peace, and through their marriage. And like Job, they feel that they have received what they lost fourfold.
Now, on the other side of a long and deep valley, they have no doubt that God’s grace was greater than their suffering.
Stories of Grace was inspired by Grace is Greater from pastor and author Kyle Idleman. Find the book, video series, and a full line of resources from City on a Hill and Kyle Idleman at GraceisGreaterStudy.com.
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