Where is God in My Diagnosis?

By Jeff Bulthuis

August 13, 2020

You just received your diagnosis. You finally have an answer, but it’s not the news you want. After the initial shock has worn off, you begin to ask yourself a number of questions. “What do I do now?” “How can I have faith—and maybe even hope—through this?” “Where is God in my diagnosis?”

I asked those same questions when I received a difficult diagnosis, and I’d like to share the ways that I saw God work through my story.

My story

It was Christmas of 2015 and I had just celebrated 10 years of full-time ministry while serving as a pastor in Indiana. My family and I were excited about the many ways that God was working—we were seeing deep revitalization in the church, prayers were being answered, and people from the community were becoming members of the congregation. It was great. I felt confirmed and had deep joy in ministry.

But then the headaches started. And they didn’t stop.

I wondered if it might be a dental issue (since they seemed to originate in my face), so I consulted with my dentist. After reviewing my x-rays, he concluded that a wisdom tooth was causing the trouble. He told me that an oral surgeon should be able to remove it without any problems.

We scheduled the surgery, and the tooth was removed in early February of 2016. We thought the problem was solved, but it was just beginning. It turned out that during my surgery, the oral surgeon had accidentally broken the sinus floor and created an opening between the sinus cavity and my mouth.

That opening didn’t close on its own, so the oral surgeon attempted to close it through another surgery. He failed. All the while, I continued to be in severe pain.

The next step was to consult with an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) at a major university hospital. After seeing the size of the opening, he pulled a maxillofacial reconstructive plastic surgeon onto the case. The two doctors performed a four-hour surgery that successfully closed the opening.

But the pain persisted.

After yet another surgery (this one an attempt to relieve the pain), the surgeons sent me to the hospital’s pain clinic. I began trying different combinations of medication in order to stop the pain. During one of the many visits with the pain specialist, I finally heard the name of my condition; I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia (TN). Later that day, I googled the condition and became extremely discouraged, because it was described as “one of the most painful afflictions known to the medical community, for which there is no cure.”

What’s happened since

Since that diagnosis, I’ve continued trying everything to relieve the pain. I’ve had countless combinations of medications—some didn’t help much, others were effective but with negative side effects, and still others eased the pain until my body built up a tolerance to them.

Eighteen months after the first surgery, my wife and I felt that God was calling us to try another invasive, yet potentially helpful surgery. It was my best shot, but it didn’t help. The pain actually became worse. Afterward, talking—even for a few minutes—caused severe pain.

Through all of this, the church where I served was incredibly gracious and patient. They gave me all the time that I needed to recover from surgery. Other leaders chipped in with visits to church members when I couldn’t go. And after the last surgery—when I was unable to preach because of the intense pain—they found pastors to fill in for me.

In a followup appointment with my surgeon, I was essentially told that it would take a miracle for me to experience complete pain relief. Our church leaders were happy to continue to pray and wait for a miracle, but God put it on my heart that it wouldn’t be fair for either of us to do so indefinitely. I knew I should allow the church to move forward with a new pastor.

But what should I do? My dad had made a career of driving a truck, and I knew the income could pay the bills for my family. Unlike ministry, I wouldn’t need to talk much in that line of work. I couldn’t think of any other possibilities, but then an opportunity came across my Facebook feed: ReFrame Media (which publishes the Today daily devotional and a family of other programs) was looking for someone to provide online pastoral care. Wow! This was a chance to use my gifts, training, and passion in a ministry setting that I didn’t even know existed! And I could continue to serve without increasing my pain levels by talking.

The application, interviews, and overall hiring process went well, and I was offered the job. I started in that role just over two years after my first surgery. It was such a blessing to be able to continue to serve in a new way. Our family relocated for the work, and we’re thankful to be significantly closer to my wife’s side of the family. God has provided our family with new relationships through our new church and school communities.

Six months after starting in that pastoral care role, I sensed God’s leading me to serve as the managing editor of Today. He provided new work for me once again. I’ve found that I need to talk even less in this role, and I’m still able to use my talents in a unique way for God’s kingdom.

What I’ve learned

Looking back on this journey, I can see a number of lessons that I’ve learned.

  1. God has been with us all along. When receiving a difficult diagnosis, we sometimes wonder where God is. Throughout this entire process, I’ve seen that he is right there with me. David says that God is with us in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4), and this experience has taught and continues to teach me that same truth. I had many extremely difficult days along the way, but I was never alone or abandoned by God. No matter what, we can talk to God in prayer and seek peace through the Holy Spirit.
  2. The community of faith provides invaluable support. In all the ups and downs of this health issue, our church communities have been there to lift our family up. Whether it was cards of encouragement, delivered meals, or letting us know that they’re praying, we have seen so many tangible expressions of love. I remember telling our church leaders that I could see how gracious and patient God is through how gracious and patient they were. In ministry, I had grown accustomed to providing care for others; during this time, I’ve learned to receive care from others. It’s good to be vulnerable and accept the help that others offer during our times of need.
  3. God has met one need after another. This sort of spills over from the previous lesson in that God provided for us through the people around us. But there were many other ways that God gave us what we needed. I had access to fantastic doctors who did everything within their power to help me. I’m amazed when I step back to think about all the research and development that went into each of the medications that provided varying levels of pain relief. God ensured that our bills were paid and food was on the table through meaningful work and generous support from family and friends. Deep friendships have filled in what would have otherwise been gaping holes in our lives. In all these things—and so many more!—we’ve been able to see that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).

As you can imagine, this hasn’t been an easy road for my family and me to travel. Even with the assurance that God would see us through, we still hit bumps and potholes along the way. I have been through six surgeries and am currently taking nine pills per day, and—even still—often have extremely painful days. We also recognize that not everyone who gets a difficult diagnosis is able to trace the ways that God has restored what was lost.
Nevertheless, I pray that my story will assure you that God is still working. I’m reminded of the biblical story of when Joseph was betrayed, sold as a prisoner, and wrongly imprisoned, yet God still brought about his purposes. I also think about how Job was tested by Satan—losing wealth, family, and health—and how God restored him in the end. I can imagine Job saying to Satan what Joseph said to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” (Genesis 50:20). May God give you that same sense of faith and hope, as he walks with you through difficulties and struggles of each day!

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About the author — Jeff Bulthuis

Jeff has a B.A. in Psychology from Covenant College and an M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have five young children. They enjoy camping, spending time outdoors, and cheering on Chicago sports teams.

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