They say courage doesn’t always roar.
Sometimes it’s soundless, invisible even.
If we listen carefully though, everyone is battling something.
And I know now, to never take for granted the struggles some people face, even when I can’t see them.
For many years, I lived with what people would call an “invisible illness.” In the fall of 2012, I relapsed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Lyme, my autonomic nervous system fell to shambles, and I developed POTS. For the first time in my life, I began to suffer from near-passing out episodes which led to daily panic attacks. If you have never had a panic attack, think suffocation. Think something very physical. Think something worse than even the fear of dying. This chronic, disabling anxiety went on for nearly a year and a half. At its worst, my kids were about two, six, and eight. I could hardly hold on, and my life became completely overwhelming.
I looked fine on the outside, but it took everything in me to leave my home. I was trapped by very real limitations that no one could see. I cried to God everyday, yet no one knew. Behind my smile, there was so much pain. But only a few could tell.
I hope to never walk that road again. But honestly, sometimes it’s in our darkest places that we see glimmers of light. And for this, I’m thankful.
The thing is, we readily accept struggles when they are visual, when it involves great poverty or obvious physical pain (and let me never discount any of this!). But invisible illnesses, whether physical, mental or emotional, require courage too, and often that courage is never seen.
This is especially true when it comes to mental and emotional suffering, which can be the most uncomfortable kind to talk about, even in our churches.
CS Lewis once said:
Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “my tooth is aching” than to say “my heart is broken.”
I believe though, when Christians grasp the true heart of Christ and the gospel, we go first to compassion even when we don’t quite see or even agree with the depth of another’s pain. In humility, we first see others and their struggles as real rather than bee-lining it to how “they ought to be” or using our own limited understanding to conclude “it can’t be that bad” because it isn’t obvious.
While I agree, the goal is not a complaining spirit or wallowing in self-pity, the heart of the matter is, so many people are needlessly misunderstood, and left to carry their burdens alone. And in a perfect world, a truly struggling person who is seeking support should not have to fear judgment, the impatience of others, or being seen as a big rain cloud on everyone else’s sunshine. I think it is such a tragedy when someone who is depressed becomes afraid to say so in church.
Think about what blogger and pastor Tim Challies says, “Depression can be to the fallen mind what illness is to the fallen body.”
It’s so important to appreciate that invisible illnesses are just as disabling as the seen. We would never, for instance, tell someone in anguish from a fractured skull to simply snap out of it. But we might be tempted to feel that way about someone struggling for years with a chronic pain we can’t see. We might feel tempted to believe the one with schizophrenia has more sin issues than the one with a broken arm. This may or may not be the case … but nevertheless, when it comes down to it, brokenness is brokenness.
It all calls for healing. It all calls for mercy. It all calls for reconciliation.
We all cry for grace.
Now I do believe a great deal of our suffering is because of sin, the fallen nature of this world – things are just not the way they should be. But it’s sad when we lessen the severity of something because we don’t understand or see it. Unless we have walked in someone’s exact shoes – and I mean exact – we shouldn’t make sweeping judgments about their limitations just because they seem so able. Just the same, we must not make judgments about people’s abilities just because they seem so disabled. Ultimately, without empathy and truth, we are mere clashing cymbals, mere noise. Despite our well intentions and spot on theology, we may end up unfortunately punching people where they are already bleeding.
Because when someone is suffering invisibly, they need first to know, you see them.
Because some people – even when they aren’t shouting their hardships from the rooftops or living confined to a wheelchair – expend significant effort to simply show up – to show up to work, to a coffee gathering, to a Bible study, to their child’s game, to the market. Even when their efforts to take the tiniest of step forward looks like sheer laziness, it could be an epic stride of the soul.
For some, getting up and getting dressed, and interacting with the world on the most basic of levels, in a body and mind that just won’t cooperate, is a daily walk through fire.
Empathy and kindness go such a long way.
One of my greatest solaces in my struggle with being invisibly ill for many years, was knowing that God sees and cares. People look at what we can and cannot do, but He sees why we do something. When some people saw in me an exhausted mom overwrought with fear, God saw redemption. I’d like to think He took the little fragile shard of courage left in me, and in His grace, magnified it.
It’s a beautiful thing that Jesus, holy and perfect, in a most rightful seat to judge the whole world, was the master of seeing the unseen. Clearly, He preached against sin and darkness during his earthly ministry, but He also saw it essential to see deep into the heart of people. He never, ever took anyone – the crippled, the bleeding, the demon-possessed – at face value. With compassion, he saw redemption in the most broken, sick and sinful of lots.
If only we could see as He does….
For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7
My friends, I truly believe that God hears the silent, sees the invisible, and walks with the broken.
And whether our battle rages for all to see or quietly burns as an invisible fire … let’s not be dismayed, for with Him, the war is won.
I really do believe that if we saw the sufferings of this world through God’s eyes, I think we might see that some people are a lot more ripe for redemption than we realize, and some of the most broken people we know are much braver than we think.
As someone once said, sometimes the strongest people are not those who display their strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.
Because as we know, battles are not always seen, and courage doesn’t always roar.
And we will do so well to remember that.