Until about seven years ago, I was fit and healthy, happily raising a family and enjoying a successful career. Then my life was turned upside down as I suddenly became very ill. Gratefully, I survived but in a matter of weeks I was left with a wide range of health issues, significant limitations, and disabilities, most of which are permanent.
As I struggled to cope with those drastic changes in the ensuing months that turned into years, the Lord initially told me that my afflictions were given to make me humble. Without doubt, I could feel—and grieved over—the substantial loss of independence, fitness, and ability. With the loving support of my family and a caring Christlike bishop, I turned to and clung to the Saviour for strength, guidance and understanding.
Several years into my disability, the Lord shed further light on the purpose of my trials. He revealed to me that He had given me the mighty challenges and enduring limitations so that I would feel what it was like to live with such disabilities, and thus be better able to reach out to those who were suffering equally from their afflictions.
Indeed, before the onset of my disability, I thought I could understand other people’s suffering and empathise with them. Yet, it is only by experiencing or living with my ongoing health issues that I have been able to connect with people experiencing similar challenges, in a way I couldn’t have done without experiencing them myself.
Through personal experience, I have come to understand that some situations, and moral values and Christlike attributes (such as faith, empathy, compassion, patience, resilience) can only be superficially appreciated intellectually. They are only truly acquired through personal, stretching experiences involving both mind and body.
Elder Neal A Maxwell (1926-2004), a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, related a similar experience, though much more intense than mine. While he was enduring debilitating treatment for leukaemia, the Lord whispered to him: “I have given you leukaemia that you might teach my people with authenticity.”¹
Another lesson I have learned is akin to what Alma’s people experienced in the land of Helam when they were brought into bondage by the Lamanites (Mosiah 23-24). After Alma and his people had endured oppression and had petitioned the Lord for some time, the Saviour spoke these words to them, “I will ... ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions” (Mosiah 24:14).
As part of my condition, I experience constant pain. There have been times when I could not cope with it on my own. In those instances, I have experienced in the flesh, to my very bones, the tangible power of the atonement of Jesus Christ working in me—what it means to be yoked to Him (see Matthew 11:28-30). The Saviour has literally lifted my burdens. As was the case with Alma’s people, He has given me strength such that, at least for a few minutes, I could not feel the pain anymore. This relief would be brief but long enough to give me time to catch my breath, acknowledge the Lord’s strengthening grace, and be able to patiently shoulder my burdens again.
Because of what I have experienced physically and emotionally, I can now more genuinely testify to the reality of the Saviour’s atonement, that He visits His people in their afflictions, and that He truly and tangibly reaches out to us in our weaknesses, sorrows, and disappointments.
In this light, my weakness (my disability) has become my strength (see Ether 12:27); the experience and understanding I have gained enable me to reach out to others who are suffering, to listen to them, to show empathy and compassion, and offer them comfort and hope in and through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
I still have a long way to go on the path of discipleship. The refinement of the Spirit through the body or flesh is an ongoing process, not a one-time event (see 1 Nephi 20:10; Mosiah 23:21-22). However, I cherish the spiritual lessons I have learned and continue to learn from my physical and emotional trials, along with the close relationship I am developing with my Saviour. And I rejoice that I can share those gifts with others that hope in Christ.
¹ As quoted in M. Joseph Brough, “Lift Up Your Head and Rejoice” (October 2018 General Conference).
Elder David A. Bednar, “The Atonement and the Journey of Mortality” (Ensign April 2012).
Elder David A. Bednar, “That We Might ‘Not... Shrink’ (D&C 19:18)” (CES Devotional for Young Adults, March 3, 2013, University of Texas Arlington).
Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Apply the Atoning Blood of Christ” (October 1997 General Conference).