October 5, 2016

7 Lessons From My Mystery Illness

, executive secretary, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

As an adult, I have never been really sick. 

The occasional flu and cough are inevitable, but major sicknesses have somehow eluded me thus far.

That is until I recently went to the Philippines to attend meetings hosted by the Adventist Church’s Southern Asia-Pacific Division.

I was to make several presentations to a group of about 100 leaders. After making my first presentation, I began to feel sick. In fact, I had begun to feel sick in the airplane on the way to Manila.G.T. Ng, executive secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. (David Sherman)

With severe bloating and no appetite, extreme fatigue came over me in a way that it had never done before. At the headquarters of the Southern Asia-Pacific Division, I lay in the guesthouse bed with absolutely no energy to get up. After missing a speaking appointment, division leaders decided to send me to the hospital emergency room. The doctor gave me some medicine for my stomach, but that was about all.

I canceled the rest of the trip and returned to my home in the U.S. state of Maryland. After recovering somewhat, I was able to travel to Moscow two weeks later. While there, I began to struggle with my physical balance.

When I returned to Maryland, Peter Landless, the General Conference physician, recommended that I be thoroughly checked by the doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center. That began a two-month quest involving 10 doctors of various specialties to find the cause of my ailments. Aside from the regular blood tests, I had an MRI, two MRAs, one CAT scan, one vestibular test, an endoscopy, and numerous consultations.

When each result came in, the doctor informed me: “We have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have found your brain.” (That was really good news to me because I sometimes wonder if the brain is still there when I try to remember people’s names.) “But the bad news,” the doctor said, “is that we have found nothing inside!”

Dark Moment of My Life

So the search for the cause of my illness continued. The results of the CAT scan accounted for all my abdominal organs, but they were found to be “clean.”

The last physician I was asked to see was a specialist in infectious diseases. He was supposed to come to a final conclusion on the causes of my symptoms, give a diagnosis, and prescribe the right medication.

He peppered me with many questions, but made little headway. He was mystified that all the tests had turned out negative. Finally, he said: “The best conclusion for the time being is that we don't know what’s bothering you. The best hypothesis is that you have a viral infection. The viruses will stay in your immune system for two to six months, or longer. I can draw your blood right now and identity those viruses, but it would be an exercise in futility because I can’t make you well. There is no cure for a viral infection. This is where medical science ends.”

That medical consultation was one of the darkest moments of my life. There is nothing more devastating than to discover the end of human ingenuity and solutions. Bad thoughts hounded me day and night. Thank God that my wife was my angelic companion through it all. She prayed for me incessantly and cooked exotic food to awaken my appetite.

By and by through the passing of weeks, the bloating dissipated; nausea became a distant memory; food tasted better by the day; and my energy returned incrementally. Neurons that had been damaged or destroyed by the viruses were replaced by new ones, thus restoring balance in gradual progression. Praise the Lord that healing began to take place without medication. Through it all I learned seven precious lessons.

1. Unanswered prayers. I had never had a major sickness before, so I didn't know what it was like to be sick. I was probably the most impatient patient on Planet Earth. It is no accident that a sick person is called a “patient.” All that a patient wants is relief and healing. I wanted relief, and I wanted it yesterday. I had prayed for healing, but it was long in coming.

I was expecting the doctors to tell me what was wrong with me. I was looking forward to receiving medication to address the illness, but the doctors couldn’t come up with a satisfactory diagnosis on which to base a prescription. They were baffled by all the negative outcomes of the testing.

My prayer was not answered. Why? Because God had a better plan for me. He healed me without any medication. Could I have believed that from the outset? No! I did not realize until much later that God’s plan was always the best plan. Surely my wife and many physicians contributed to the healing process, but the actual healing came from God without medication. God and God alone is to be praised. It’s only the Creator God who heals and restores.

2. Dealing with darkness. When I was in the darkest moments, I was buffeted with many negative emotions. First, there was denial. How could a healthy person like me get sick? A conscientious person maintaining a healthy lifestyle should become a centenarian in the course of time and should have “none of the diseases” suffered by the Egyptians (Exodus 15:26). What had I done that deserved this illness? Was this sickness a punishment for wrongdoing?

Then there were doubts. Lots of them. I felt like I was back at the time of creation when darkness was upon the face of the Earth (Genesis 1:1). What do you do when you don’t see light at the end of the tunnel? How do you deal with darkness? During the prolonged uncertainties, I found the answer. I sang myself to sleep. It was the hymn therapy that brought tranquility to my weary soul. My favorite hymn was “Only Trust Him.” When I memorized and sang that song, peace came over me in a way that only Christ could grant.

“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27). I realized peace means the world to a patient. With the peace of God, there was no room for insidious doubts and subtle imaginations. God was at the end of the tunnel. All is well when God is in charge of my life. Come what may, God is already there, and He is never caught by surprise.

3. God’s perfect timing. God’s perfect timing amazed me. Why didn't God choose to heal me at the time I thought I needed it most? Why the silence from heaven? Why the seeming unconcern for my physical plight and sufferings? Where was Jesus of Nazareth who had walked on the face of the Earth healing the sick? What about my angel? Why was he not lifting a finger? Though I was healed eventually, but why not earlier? Does God have a time structure to answer prayers? What could I do, or avoid doing, to expedite the answering process?

The response, I discovered, was that I didn’t have to do anything to merit healing. Christ had done it all on the cross on my behalf. All I needed was to depend on God’s mercy, which endures forever (Psalm 106:1, 107:1, 118:1-4). The song “Learning to Lean” has become another favorite. When I leaned on the Lord, no matter what, I had peace that surpassed understanding.

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

When was God’s perfect timing? It was when I had been thoroughly checked and medical science had reached its limits that healing began. It was when humans had exhausted all possible solutions that health started to return. It was unreal and yet exhilarating. Why did God choose to heal me at the end rather than at the beginning soon after the first symptoms began?

Perhaps God wanted humans to exhaust all human possibilities and human solutions first. Perhaps He wanted to show how futile human solutions can be. It was when humans tried and failed that God said: “It’s my turn now. Watch.”

Indeed, human extremity is God’s opportunity. It is when man’s best efforts are frustrated that God can manifest His healing which defies human logic. It is at the lowest point of human experience that God can reveal that He alone brings about health and healing (Jeremiah 33:6). Slowly but surely the bloating began to dissipate. The appetite returned. I felt a new surge of energy even without medication.

According to the Psalmist, human glory must be laid in the dust (Psalm 7:5). No one is to be credited with the gift of healing except God. The ultimate healer is the living God. God and God alone did it. Any wonder that the song “God and God Alone” has become my constant refrain?

Be grateful for what you have; and never complain about what you don’t have.

4. Gratitude for the minutia. Paul’s admonition appears illogical when he says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). How can one give thanks in everything, in joy and sorrow? In prosperity, yes, but certainly not in adversity. It’s counterintuitive to be grateful in suffering. 

What Paul is saying is that we have to develop a perpetual thanksgiving as a thank offering to God for the gift of salvation. In other words, thanksgiving doesn’t come just once a year. Every circumstance is an occasion for thanksgiving.

Have you ever thanked God for being able to change your pants without falling over? Have you ever thanked God for the autonomic nervous system?

I have never thought of being grateful for these things until I got sick and could only walk around unsteadily like a drunk. I could not have performed the DUI (driving under the influence) test, not because of alcohol intoxication, but because of impaired balance due to the damage of my autonomic nervous system. The incredible system acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, and the respiratory rate. When the neurons were impaired, it affected the vestibular system. The outcome was a balance disorder, or a “false sense of motion” as my doctors put it.

Having been healed of that impairment, I am most grateful that the Lord in His mercy created the autonomic system so we don’t have to think about many bodily functions. Along with the gratitude to the system, I am also grateful for the minutia of life such as the ability to move and walk, the pleasure of appetite, the ability to comb one’s hair unaided.

I also learned to be grateful for my wife and her driving. In the past, when I used to get sleepy while driving long distances, my wife would take over at the wheel, and I would immediately lose my sleepiness! During my sickness, I learned to appreciate my wife’s driving and was able to sleep like a baby.

5. Bad news is good news. The good news to my doctors was that they had found my brain, but the bad news was that they had found nothing inside. The comment of not being able to find anything inside is understandable because physicians tend to be clinical in their approach and make comments without realizing their hilarious implications. Their job was to identify ailments and treat them. So it was a disappointment when they “found nothing” inside my brain. The bad news to them was actually good news to me because they had found no sign of cancer, tumor, or aneurism.

Praise God that the Adventist lifestyle that I tried to follow had paid off handsomely. I have been blessed by the Adventist advantage many times over. The Adventist health message is far more advanced than the bestseller None of These Diseases by Drs. S.I. McMillen and David E. Stern.

6. Slow down and smell the roses. Slowing down is a challenge for many people. The more responsibilities one has, the more one risks being unable or unwilling to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life. Mohandas Gandhi used to say, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

My wife told me after I was well: “You used to be abnormal in living a fast-paced life. Now, after this sickness, you are normal again.”

She was right. I had to canceled some trips to be normal. I had to say “no” more than I say “yes” to invitations to speak. I had to remind myself about what comedian Lily Tomlin said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

7. Spared for a purpose. After I had recovered without medicine, I had to learn to walk again through the professional assistance of physical therapists. I had to learn how to drive again without being pulled over on suspicion of DUI. After one week, I was able to keep the car in the middle of the lane instead of the middle of the road. Life has taken on new meaning.

There are no words to describe my gratitude for being given a new lease on life. I have been miraculously healed for a purpose. An exciting service opportunity awaits. “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

God Is Always on Time

I’m living proof that God exists and cares. The fact that I was made alive physically and spiritually is nothing short of the results of the sin-pardoning love of Christ. There are no credits to me. I least deserve the unmerited favor from the Redeemer who alone is to be praised. God deserves all the credit.

You and I are not accidents. God knew you from the very onset, before your parents knew you even existed. God knows your name and your address. He has anointed you for a special purpose since you were in your mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5).

What a privilege to be the recipient of such lavish grace and care. Whatever ailment you think you are suffering now is but a blip on the screen of life. God will bring it to pass sooner than you think. When your prayers are answered in a manner of God’s choosing, you will glorify His name and let the world know He exists and miracles are not a thing of the past but a present reality. God is more than eager to bring about healing at a time of His choosing.

“The love which Christ diffuses through the whole being is a vitalizing power. Every vital part — the brain, the heart, the nerves — it touches with healing. By it the highest energies of the being are aroused to activity. It frees the soul from the guilt and sorrow, the anxiety and care, that crush the life-forces. With it come serenity and composure. It implants in the soul, joy that nothing earthly can destroy — joy in the Holy Spirit — health-giving, life-giving joy” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 115).

“The prayer of faith is the key that unlocks the treasury of heaven. As we commit our souls to God, let us remember that He holds Himself responsible to hear and answer our supplications. He invites us to come to Him, and He bestows on us His best and choicest gifts — gifts that will supply our great need. He loves to help us. Let us trust in His wisdom and His power. Oh, what faith we should have! Oh, what peace and comfort we should enjoy! Open your heart to the Spirit of God. Then the Lord will work through you and bless your labors” (Manuscript Releases 8, pp. 195, 196).

God is never late. He is always on time.