I woke up that morning with thoughts of the walk I had taken the day before. Did I walk up any hills? Did I walk too quickly? Is it possible I strained something? As the fog of sleep cleared, I focused on the pain in the soles of my feet. My ankles and knees felt stiff, too.
A few days later I sat in the doctor’s office trying to hold back tears. My mom had driven three hours from our home in Washington to Portland, Ore., where I had just started my senior year of college.
The nurse called my name, and I stood slowly and limped after her. She asked me to step on the scale; I weighed five pounds more than the previous day. The doctor explained that my swelling joints had caused the rapid weight gain.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” he said. “My suspicion is an acute onset of rheumatoid arthritis.” He explained that my body was attacking itself. Something had caused my immune system to turn on my own joints and muscles. The doctor put me on an immune suppressant drug, hoping it would snap me out of the reaction.
Over the next few weeks my condition worsened—to the point where I could hardly walk. My mom stayed with me at the college guesthouse and helped me get dressed each morning. I was exhausted and struggled to drag myself to class.
Not My Plans
As the oldest of four children, I was destined to be a planner. As an 11-year-old, when I wanted to go to an expensive horse camp, I looked in the want ads and found a job picking raspberries. When I decided I wanted to write for my favorite teen magazine, I wrote to the editor for advice and implemented her suggestions. I knew how to set a goal and reach it. I rarely faced a problem where the solution wasn’t in my pocket.
At first I viewed my illness the same way. I’ll find a way around this, I thought. I’ll overcome. I was determined to stay in college. I’d worked hard during the previous three years, making A’s and securing the position of student newspaper editor. I was right on track to take on an internship, graduate with honors and go after the job of my dreams in Christian publishing.
But as my physical condition worsened, it became impossible for me to keep pace with my plan. When my test results for rheumatoid arthritis and lupus came back negative, my doctor diagnosed me with an unknown connective tissue disorder. The reaction was not reversible, and I could expect to experience joint pain for the rest of my life.
My senior year was supposed to be my best. Just days before the onset of my symptoms, I had moved into an apartment with three of my friends. I had been anticipating an exciting year, living an independent, off-campus lifestyle. But it soon became apparent that I would not be able to care for myself.
A friend invited me to live at her parents’ home just 20 minutes from school. The family gave me a basement room and bathroom and allowed me to use their computer for homework. It was a relief to come home each night to a warm meal and a loving family.
But despite this great blessing, I fought discouragement. My joint pain was so debilitating that it left me unable to stand from a sitting position, raise my arms to slip on a shirt or even lift a hair dryer. For the first time since second grade, I cut my long hair into a short bob.
I continued attending the few afternoon classes I needed to graduate. In God’s provision, I had unknowingly gathered enough credits to have a minimum fulltime schedule.
In November I moved back to the apartment. Although I was encouraged to gain some of my independence back, the strain of attending classes while battling constant joint pain and fatigue started taking its toll. I also lost my once beautiful singing voice to chronic laryngitis.
One day I sat in my car at the end of a hectic afternoon of classes, and tears began rolling down my face. I realized I couldn’t drive back to my apartment because my hands and feet were too stiff.
I tracked down my brother, who was a sophomore living in the dorms, and tearfully asked him if he could drive me home. That night as I lay in bed feeling so helpless, I prayed. I realized I had been ignoring God because I believed He might ask me to do the unthinkable—drop out of school. I didn’t believe that God could possibly have anything better for me than what I desired for myself.
That night as my roommate lay sleeping across the room, I agonized before the Lord. I cried out to Him in anguish. This time the solution was not in my pocket. In fact, it seemed far beyond my reach.
As tears rushed down my face, I told my Abba, Daddy, that I would drop out of college if that was His will. This was my Isaac. I knew God wanted me to give Him my future, my hopes and my dreams.
I hadn’t trusted Him with those things before. Throughout my high school and college years, I had pressed ahead, making good plans and doing good things but rarely consulting my heavenly Father. That night as I relinquished my future to Him, a great peace settled over me. I knew that whether I stayed in school or moved home, He would provide for me.
Beauty From Destruction
Since that time, I’ve experienced other similar moments of struggle. Sometimes it has come in a failed relationship. Other times it has resided in numbing discontentment with some aspect of my life—singleness, finances, timing.
I believe this war I sense between my plans and God’s began in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were content in perfect fellowship with God. But Satan planted a lie. He made Eve question God’s goodness. He essentially told her that God did not have her best interest at heart—that He was withholding something from her.
The night I told God I would drop out of college, I experienced one of my darkest moments as my deepest desire crumbled before me. But as the dust settled around my pulverized agenda, something beautiful took its place—total dependence on God’s love and provision. I suddenly knew that God saw my broken heart. And He cared for me—and my future—more deeply than I understood.
God provided for Adam and Eve, and all humanity, by providing a Savior. And in my life, I began to see His daily, moment-by-moment provision. He gave me just enough energy and improvement to continue with my classes. He led me to doctors who could help me. He put people in my life who poured on the encouragement and support I needed.
I still had rough days. But my illness enabled me to experience the compassion of others in a new way. They were part of the solution that God was providing. I hadn’t needed them before, but now I did.
Change of Plans
I graduated in May with no idea what was next. I still struggled with pain each day, and I thought I might have to move home and live with my parents. Not exactly a college graduate’s dream-come-true. Still, I had peace and confidence knowing that God was in control.
I didn’t actively pursue any job possibilities, but when a former classmate called me to tell me there was an editorial position with the children’s magazines at Focus on the Family, I applied.
Even though I had doubts about my physical capabilities, I sent in my application and trusted that God’s will would be done. By the end of the summer, all my earthly belongings were packed into my family’s two vehicles, and we were on our way Colorado.
God had given my dream back to me and made it even more extraordinary. I hadn’t gotten there the way I planned, but what He had for me was far better than anything I could have orchestrated.
In His grace, God chose to heal me. But it was a process that had its share of dark, uncertain days. One by one my symptoms began to fade. First my energy increased. Then my voice returned. And one day, two years after the onset of my disease, I realized my joints no longer hurt. A year later there was little evidence of me ever having had a serious illness.
I don’t know why the Lord healed me; He didn’t have to. I do know that my darkest time taught me that I can trust my loving Father with my future — even when His way hurts.
When God shatters dreams, He rebuilds them into something beautiful. Perhaps not beautiful by worldly standards but more akin to what is captured in Isaiah, when God says He will give His people “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3). That is the beauty God gave me, and I will always be grateful for His tender touch.
Copyright 2009 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.