Their third wedding anniversary was just around the corner, but doctors had given Magda, belatedly diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a malignant bone tumour, no chance of recovery. Yet her husband Daniel continued to believe that God still had the last word.
Two years after the events I had only witnessed online, I contacted Daniel to see if he still had the same relationship with the God he relied on in the midst of suffering.
In 2015, Daniel’s Facebook profile continued to flow with messages of hope, even when Magda was in a coma. Daniel remained convinced that this was all a test of their faith, and Magda saw things in the same light. In fact, during the quiet periods of her illness, they began to jot down the details of their experiences and weave them into a book.
Following the online posts that brought updates on Magda’s condition, one question must have nagged at many: What if no miracle were to unfold in a life that seemed so close to its end? How would Daniel’s faith that this was just a milestone in God’s plan that they would soon cross survive?
I empathised with the young family beyond the natural compassion that comes in the face of another’s suffering, because somewhere, sometime, in an incomparably gentler scenario, I had experienced the fervour of prayers being asked for another year, another decade, and a chance at life for my loved one. I lived and knew the pain of starless nights in which the terrible faces of fear are displayed: What if you are pierced by an end that no one, not even He, will choose to rewrite?
The ruins of our dreams—walls or bridges to God
In the book Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Path to Joy, Larry Crabb outlines the problem of the pain our legitimate desires cause when they shatter into a thousand shards that cannot be glued back together, at least not this side of eternity. After all, you only have to “live long enough” to witness the wreckage of your most cherished projects. The book’s author mentions our incurable hope of remaining within the confines of a cheerful scenario once we have made a covenant with God. “We do what we’re told, and God stacks presents under the tree.”
While not attempting to offer answers to human suffering, with its many facets and tangled causal webs, Crabb writes of the rewards that can come from a life in which, even at the cost of suffering, Christians realise that God is the greatest desire of their hearts. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.” A truth so magnificent that only tear-stained eyes can discern it.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” says Paul in his letter to the Romans. However, the author of Shattered Dreams warns that in order to reconcile ourselves to a life that lacks what is dearest to us, we must restore the truth of the biblical message from the incantation into which it has been transformed by “fair-weather Christians.” Our wisdom is limited when it comes to defining the good. That is why Christians are confident that all circumstances can be transformed into an everlasting gain by the One who “took up our pain and bore our suffering.”
Larry Crabb wonders, however, whether Western Christians confuse goodness with a life free of worry, lack, physical suffering, and frustration. Do we think of goodness as a comfortable setting on the pain scale, so that when we hear of the experiences of those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we are horrified and wish we could never experience it? We want to be closer to God, of course, but is it really necessary to pay for this closeness with our most cherished dreams?
A trust built on sunny days
Daniel never imagined that he would have to go through the ordeal of such suffering. When he found God in his parents’ church after a long journey as a wayward son, he was determined to serve Him for the rest of his life. And when he met Magda, they promised to live together for God and nothing else.
The intensity of their declarations and the fireworks of their emotions were counterbalanced by more solid procedures for verifying their love. They approached each step of their relationship and each obstacle with a recipe they had already tested before they met: prayer and fasting.
Magda, who is gifted with a special voice, composed “He Wrote Our Story” for their wedding ceremony—a mixture of melody and words expressing her conviction that their relationship was not destined to be mundane.
And the couple’s life, amid the joys and daily hardships, has been built on the same foundation of prayer and service—through music or any other means demanded by the needs of those around them.
A few months after their second wedding anniversary, a seemingly trivial incident was to change their lives forever. A minor eyelid problem masked a much more serious diagnosis.
Forced to consider the options for tackling the disease, they found that no choice was easy. In an attempt to remove the invading tumour, Magda’s eye would most likely be sacrificed. As they watched their lives turn upside down, Daniel and Magda told God that they were “too little for such great pain” and experienced the peace that God’s presence brings.
The operation was eventually cancelled; it was useless because the metastases had irreversibly invaded Magda’s body. This was the news that made Daniel collapse in despair in one of the hospital’s bathrooms. And it was the same overwhelming news that made Magda sit at the piano in the hospital and sing “Amazing Grace.”
Faith and love, the weapons of a journey into the unknown
Months of illness followed, but love and faith were stronger than suffering and fear.
It was love that kept Daniel at Magda’s bedside days and nights in a row. Sometimes, he slept on the windowsill or in a chair. And it was love that helped him clean and bandage Magda’s eye three times a day, even though he admits that the sight of blood usually made his legs weak.
Their faith tried to pierce the darkness created by the unanimous verdict of the doctors—there was no chance of recovery. It was a miracle, they said, that Magda was still breathing. But through the long nights, their hands joined in a human grasp of the divine: “We’re not alone, we’ve got a Father.”
Promises behind the rain curtain
For reasons that can seem so puzzling to us, the faith of those who grasp God with all their might is sometimes severely tested. And for reasons that are so familiar to us, hope breathes as long as there is even a glimmer of the likelihood of things getting back on track.
Elisabeth Elliot was to describe the eager anticipation of her husband Jim’s return from a very brave missionary escapade, Operation Auca. The lack of radio contact for many hours had already alerted the five missionary wives that their husbands’ encounter with the Auca warriors had not gone well. During those hours of waiting, Elisabeth describes feverishly paging through the Bible in between chores, looking for a promise that Jim would return home safely. “Jacob will again have peace and security” (Jeremiah 30:10) was one of the texts she found and clung to with hope. That was until the news arrived that all five men had been killed by the Auca Indians.
Elisabeth’s faith didn’t die with Jim’s death, but was forged in the two years she spent among the tribe that had killed her husband after only two years and three months of marriage. Her husband, and the father of her young daughter, had been laid to rest, waiting for the dawn of a better world. But this was an answer to her prayer and a fulfilment of the promise in Jeremiah that she had least expected.
Faith that survives disappointment
“Like a bolt of lightning,” suffering had come to Daniel’s family and, he confessed to a Christian radio station, it would pass in the same way. Only this end would follow a scenario Daniel had not foreseen, even though he had prayed over and over for God’s will to be sovereign. On the 4th of July 2015, Daniel’s phone received persistent calls from an unknown number. Before he answered, he already knew the message on the other end of the line.
Daniel’s faith still shows when he talks about the unspeakable pain that accompanied the separation, about the difficulty of finding his place in a world where he could no longer hear Magda’s voice, about how, when nothing seemed to make sense anymore, he saw in all that darkness the light of his old creed: “I belong to the One who does not change. I believed in a God who is alive. And He is alive. I believed in a God who heals. And He does heal. I believed in a God who gives life. And He does give life. God remained the same.”
The anchors of faith when there is nothing more to hope for
When one’s universe collapses, a trail of painful questions rolls over what remains after one’s collision with the unexpected. Theological dilemmas follow, trying to draw the strictest possible line between divine sovereignty and human freedom, or to unravel the mysteries of God’s will—a God who can do anything, but Who remains silent at the cry of a legitimate demand, thus giving rise to a maelstrom of responses and reactions.
Elie Wiesel killed in his heart the God who allowed an innocent child to die on the gallows of a Nazi camp. But beyond the walls of that same citadel of horror, Corrie ten Boom saw the footsteps of the One who had walked this arduous path before her, and as a result, she recounted how her life in the death camps “grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory.”
“Is that so?”
I asked Daniel if his disillusionment at Magda’s death was matched by his hope that she would be healed. He replied, starting with the comment he had heard over and over again: “You have an unshakable faith!”
“Is that so?” he would respond to these triumphalist statements. And he confessed that on the day of the funeral, all he wanted to do was go under the stone where Magda lay, that his zest for life had disappeared, but that his friends had patiently reintegrated him into an everyday life devoid of joy.
But one of the anchors he clung to in his distress was his trust in a God too good to be questioned. This relationship can either crumble or endure, Daniel believes, depending on the foundations on which it is built. Perhaps love of God is easily confused with interest in what He has to offer, at least on a clear day. However, in the storms that rewrite the script of our lives, motives become transparent.
The promises of Scripture have been another means of staying above the waves of bitter sorrow. There is a biblical message that Daniel recommends to anyone crossing the wilderness of separation from a loved one: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). In fact, at the beginning of Magda’s illness, the two were thinking of calling their story, when it was to be published, When God Warms Your Furnace Seven Times. Looking back, Daniel says the bright side of the whole experience focuses on a reality he cannot deny—He was with them, in the fiery furnace.
“I don’t want anyone to go down that painful road,” Daniel says, concluding that “you can lose everything in this world, but if you haven’t lost God, you haven’t lost anything.” You haven’t lost anything irretrievable, in fact. For at the heart of this existence, which often seems left to chance, is His promise that we will see our loved ones again, in a world that no longer bears the familiar mark of evil.
Someone has suffered greater loss
While we long for the happy endings that only a universe free of evil can offer, we often forget that we live in a world of war. And every war has its victims.
God did not create this state of affairs, Jesus himself assures us in the well-known parable of the weeds. The master of the field sowed seeds of impeccable quality in the soil, as the Book of Genesis confirms, where the Creator praises everything that comes from His hand. But along the way there was someone who sowed weeds among the wheat, causing much confusion among the Master’s servants.
They must have been just as confused by His decision to postpone the weeding of the field—a necessary exercise, but postponed until harvest time. Good and evil will continue to exist until the end. And yet, in all this strange logic of the Master’s (which David Asscherick also talks about in the book God in Pain), we can clearly see the motivation behind His decision: “…because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them” (Matthew 13:29).
God’s concern in a world that has evaded His authority is to minimise loss—precisely because He knows how they will reverberate in a loving heart. Christ’s words imply that the divine strategy is to put an end to evil when it has reached maturity, so that there can be no confusion of identity between weeds and wheat.
“An enemy did this” (Matthew 13:28), says the parable, pointing to the origin of evil in a perfect universe. But God knows this enemy well, for he was once a guardian cherub, described in Scripture in superlative terms. In fact, He knows him because he was one of His sons, to whom His heart was bound as only a God of love can be. He created a shining light who chose to become a devil.
Pastor David Asscherick looks at the biblical text in Luke 10:20 (“Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven”) from the perspective of the losses suffered by the One who created only free beings. He knew the risk of this choice—His creatures were free to love Him or to hate Him, to obey Him or to rebel, to worship Him or to spit on Him and slap Him. To some of His disciples who were excited that even demons had been subdued on their first missionary journey, Jesus replied that there were better reasons for rejoicing. For example, the fact that they had chosen to be part of a kingdom that some of His angels had contested. None of the demons had been demons to begin with; they had lost their status as good angels, seduced by the lies that Lucifer had woven into the web of his rebellion.
But the God who had created them knew each of them individually, with their unique names and characteristics. Their rebellion had not been happy news, but a moment of irreparable loss to a father’s heart. This is why Asscherick sees this passage as a window into God’s wounded heart. The rebellion of the angels (and then of humanity) was not a theoretical matter; it caused Him a deep wound, a permanent one.
So, although God did not start the war, it exists. And the losses caused by the war have affected Him first and foremost. Until the day God ends the war, we have a Friend on whose shoulder we can mourn our loss, for He has drained the sorrow to the last drop.
We may, sooner or later, be the recipients of heartbreaking news. We may mourn losses that brutally alter the contours of our most cherished relationships. But the One who writes our story surely weeps with us. He weeps although He knows that this is not the final chapter.
I’d like to find Magda and Daniel for a photo of the beginning of another story, also written by Him and sealed by eternity. I’d like to hear Magda’s version of a scenario that went in the opposite direction to her expectations. But until then, her favourite message from the Scriptures, to which she added a personal touch—of a life that, beyond the transience of death, was enveloped by Life—remains as a testimony: “God sits on His throne and does whatever He pleases. And whatever He does is perfect.”