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Surviving Traumatic Brain Injury: From “Why Me?” to “Why Not Me?”

Written By Matthew Job Tan, Singapore

Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Most Christians have probably heard this famous Bible verse at some point or another. That being said, knowing is one thing, to experience it is another. Unless it is experienced, this idea remains a mere abstract belief.

 

The trial

“For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground.” (Job 5:6, ESV)

When I was 16, everything in life was going well. I excelled in academics and sports (Judo), and I had a promising future ahead of me. Yet, my triumphant days came to a cruel and abrupt halt on April 20, 2010. I was in the semi-finals of a Judo competition—this close to my first gold medal—when I landed unsafely while receiving an attack from my opponent. This resulted in me sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

The injury put me in a two-month-long coma, which caused muscle deterioration in addition to the brain trauma. These combined factors rendered me incapable of virtually every human function. I was given nourishment through the UV-drip (for water) and the rouse tube (for food). My core muscles were too weak to keep my head or body upright. Speaking and moving were impossible for me. In a split second, my life fell into ruins.

The journey to recovery and reintegration into society was nothing less than tumultuous. In the initial days of rehabilitation, getting my functions back was a nightmare. Reduced to an invalid who could neither speak nor move, I dreaded waking up every morning to face my broken body.

One year later, I returned to my previous secondary school on a wheelchair, only to encounter more difficulties. Apart from having to attend weekly outpatient therapy sessions, I struggled to focus and keep up during lessons because of my limited mental stamina and delayed thought processes. That was when I discovered the irreversible damage the TBI brought upon my cognition.

I could not keep up with my peers in school even though I was taking a reduced number of subjects. I took only five subjects while my classmates had nine. From my repeated flunking at exams, it was evident that I was no longer the achiever I once was.

Moving on to polytechnic, not only did I continue to struggle with my academics, I toiled to fit in socially. This was due to my awkward demeanor caused by my delayed mental processes. Despite consolation from those around me, I felt alone and disliked myself.

Yet, of all the difficulties I faced, the worst was questioning God’s purpose in allowing the disaster to befall me. If God’s plans for my life were meant to prosper me, and give me a hope and a future, I simply could not fathom why God did not stop the accident from happening.

“Did I commit any grave sins to deserve such a great punishment? Why does He still keep me here to suffer? Wouldn’t it be better if I had just died on that fateful day? Why me?” These were questions that hurled me into the pits of despair. At one point, I even considered ending my life. The storms were simply too overwhelming. Nobody would blame me had I given up.

 

Understanding the “why”

“You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.” (Job 10:12)

My distrust of God’s perfect plans did not diminish His love for me. Through my family, teachers, friends, mentors and even strangers, God provided His support, encouragement and miracles to tide me through the times. As I look back today, all I see are His fingerprints in my life: it must have been His Grace that has sustained me and gave me strength to bear my cross.

Though a failure when I returned to secondary school, I strove hard with tremendous support from my teachers, and I did so well in my ‘O’ levels that I achieved a scholarship to further my studies in a polytechnic.

The use of alternative methods like acupuncture, swimming, and meditation were introduced to me along the way. Coupled with intense daily exercises, I finally regained my ability to walk after two years, and went on to complete many long distance races, including a 10 kilometre run in 2016.

Despite being hit with the reality that I would be unable to handle an educational or work industry for normal functioning persons during polytechnic, I did manage to obtain employment as a music therapy therapist assistant in a faith-based nursing home that was willing to invest in me with unconditional support.

My occupation has enabled me to improve in terms of my rehabilitation and in my professional work competencies. For one, the immense nursing home compound requires a lot of footwork, giving me plenty of practice for my walking. And I am proud to say that my gait has improved!

I am also challenged to think of ways to add value to the tasks I am given at work, and to suggest these ideas to my co-workers. Daily clinical hours with the residents has allowed me to develop in my rapport building and people skills. Furthermore, the need to juggle duties like preparation, execution, and clean-up of group and individual sessions has given me opportunities to work on my time management. Apart from tangible professional growth, I am beginning to see a fragment of why God allowed me to go through my devastating experiences.

 

Experiencing God’s redemptive purpose

At work, I interact with those who have approached the eventide of their existence on a daily basis. I journey with persons who have, either gradually or suddenly, lost control of their lives and who are basically counting on people around them for their own survival—those who show me a reflection of my past.

Utilizing the power of music, I get to bring joy and comfort to these people I can relate to the most. Of course, my pain and suffering cannot be compared to theirs, but the Lord has given me this history of hopelessness, helplessness, hurt, and loss for me to empathize more deeply with the residents of this nursing home.

With this empathy, I have become more patient and sensitive to them during my engagement sessions, and I persist in journeying even with difficult or unresponsive residents. My awareness of the loneliness within the confines of institutionalized care has prompted me to reach out and visit residents on a daily basis even if there are no scheduled engagement sessions.

To be sure, my extra dedication to work means that I am not spared from substantial fatigue at the end of every day, but I am content to head home from work with no regrets. I stand in awe of God’s love for me, for my unique circumstances has certainly magnified the meaning and joy I find in my work.

As time goes by, I am starting to see God’s purpose for my life revealing itself. He must have known that I would suffer, and yet He gave me adequate support to survive this TBI in order to prepare me for my current beautiful vocation. By the mercy of God, I have successfully turned my greatest trial into what may be potentially the best thing that ever happened to me.

Having experienced the truth and beauty of God’s promises, I cannot begin to imagine what the future holds. Had I given up on life back then, I would not have been able to see His works in my life and enjoy this walk with the Lord today. My prior question of “Why me?” has turned into “Why not me?”, and it was only made possible because I persevered through my temporal sufferings.

God never promised an easy life, but just as He walked with the Israelites through their period of exile, He has also promised that He will never leave us or abandon us in the midst of our trials and sufferings.

God’s plans may sometimes involve pain and suffering, but He will be there to see us through (Isaiah 41:10). Whatever you may be going through now, I invite you to hang in there, for when you “Let perseverance finish its work”, you will emerge “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). That vision of being perfected in Him will be what gives us hope for our future. Amen.

Episode 5: How Can I keep My Faith During Suffering?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the Gospel Transformed My Life

Written By Agnes Lee, Singapore

I sank into near depression after giving birth four years ago. My days were spent in tears of self-pity as I faced many issues on my own as a new mom, combined with misunderstandings with my husband and in-laws. My marriage was on the rocks. I had no joy. My life was a mess I could not get out of.

I never expected this mess when I got married. I had thought that things would be beautiful. If not for a mentor pointing me back to the Word of God, I would not have had the strength to reconcile with my husband and family. The words of God spoken to us are full of Spirit and life, and when we face trouble, there is no better place to run to except to the Word of God.

Having seen God’s Word work in my life, I want to share it with anyone else who has encountered difficulties in their lives. I find my own past experiences often make a good starting place for sharing God’s Word, and I especially want to share God’s good news with those who have regrets, those have suffered, and those struggling with anger.

 

1. Those with Regrets

Regrets trap us and prevent us from starting afresh and making things right. But the Bible tells us that we are new creations when we are in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Because of the gospel, we are no longer slaves to regrets when we accept Christ, but we are able to move forward, to press on in our new identities and pursue salvation (Philippians 3:14).

I used to murmur about marrying the wrong man, but as I lived in Christ, I realized that murmuring such comments prevented my marriage from growing. In embracing Christ, I began working on my marriage and seeking maturity in Christ-likeness. I realized how God’s Word brings renewed life and purpose to regretful people.

I had the opportunity to share this with my colleague one day, while walking to the train station after work. I told her how God had used His Word to renew my mindset about my marriage, and that this freed me from past regrets. My colleague was encouraged by this and decided that she would do the same for some of her current regrets.

 

2. Those Who Have Suffered

People suffering from sickness, emotional or physical abuse, or hurt by the wrongdoings of others will not find solace in the world. The word of God is the only place where we can find a safe hiding place. God is a refuge in times of trouble, and He cares for those who trust in Him (Nahum 1:7).

I found solace in God’s Word when I was in the most trying times of my marriage. I embraced God as He assured me that all things happen for our good according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Without knowledge of the gospel, I would have missed out on God’s purpose for me to know Him intimately through my struggles. I would have wasted in despair. But we do not waste our suffering when we know God.

During my unexpected marriage struggles, I prayed and waited upon the Lord, but at times He was silent and things only got worse. But even though I questioned God, He kept using His Word and my church family to remind me that He was in control. As I struggled in my marriage, I increasingly looked to God’s Word for comfort, and God turned my sorrows to joy and hope.

I took comfort in the fact that God can turn all harms for good (Genesis 50:20), and I had an opportunity to share my struggles and joys with a friend at church who was also struggling in her marriage. God used this to show her that her struggles could be an opportunity to mature in the faith, and that even in the midst of her difficulties, she can experience God’s love, blessings, power, and glory.

 

3. Those Struggling with Anger

Some of us become easily angry when things are not going our way, and we tend to react in our own unrighteous ways. I am especially short-fused. Whenever someone close to me offends me with words, I react with harsh words. This has led me to many quarrels and hurt relationships. Thankfully, the gospel guides our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:79). With God’s Word, we can discern situations better and respond with peace.

We have God’s Word so that God’s joy may be in us and complete our joy (John 15:11). Joy should always be our motive of sharing the gospel, since we have such a joy and want to share it so that unbelievers around us can also learn to walk in the light and experience the joy of God.

I often share my struggles with unbelievers, as well as how God has been my refuge for each time of difficulty. Even when we are persecuted, instead of using harsh words or actions to attack the other party, we can learn to be still before the Lord. The more trouble comes, the more we should equip ourselves with God’s Word and pray unceasingly for strength (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Some people say that this is easier said than done. But instead of being angry and relying on our own unrighteous strength, we need to stay focused on the Lord, and watch Him deliver us out of every trouble.

 

When we share the gospel, we remember that salvation belongs only to the Lord and He will save whomever He wants to save. However, we must not give up sharing even when our efforts seem futile, as we simply do not know how God is working in each individual faith journey. Till today, I am still grateful that someone shared the gospel with me when my heart was far away from the Lord. God was faithful to me even when I was unfaithful. The person who shared the gospel with me answered the call of God and persevered to help me see the beauty of the gospel, and she never gave up sharing till I believed. He who calls us is faithful (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

What Should Christians Do About the Pain and Suffering in This World?

Written By Karen Kwek, Singapore

A lifelong scribbler, Karen enjoys the company of friends, a great cup of tea and seeing the gospel transform hearts and lives. She worked as a book editor until she and her husband traded peace and quiet for parenthood. It seemed a good idea at the time.

I never expected celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain to take his own life. No one did. Few guessed the internal struggles that sapped his zest for living, even while publicly he personified vitality itself. Sad news comes as a shock, even when there is so much of it.

We will never be immune to the pain that is part of living in this world: war, genocide, terrorism, poverty, natural disasters and other horrible events on a global scale. . . . And then privately, too, innumerable instances of personal pain: broken relationships, physical or mental illness, loved ones lost. For a time—occasionally a very long interval—the shock can be so great, the hurt so debilitating, that the world as we know it comes crashing down around us. Little wonder that in his book The Problem of Pain, the great writer C. S. Lewis called pain God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” “We can ignore even pleasure,” Lewis wrote, “but pain insists upon being attended to.”

Given that our own and the world’s brokenness confront us daily, how should we respond to pain and suffering? What do we do as believers? In the face of terrible struggles, we have no easy answers. Others have written helpfully about the whys of suffering and about individual responses to loss and emotional hurts, so the focus of my thoughts is more on our response as a Christian community. What is it about believers that will stand out to the world, in our approach to pain and suffering?

 

1. Cry

Pain alerts us to the fact that something is wrong with the world and with people. So it is right to grieve alongside one another, to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

We also cry to God. If we aren’t honest about admitting our vulnerability and hurt, we risk becoming jaded and cynical, soldiering on in our own strength without experiencing true comfort and safety in God. In his greeting to the Corinthian Christians, the apostle Paul describes God as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). In affliction Paul turns to God, the giver of comfort.

This is not to say that there is no place for questioning, even struggling against, what God has done in our lives. In fact, the psalmists poured out their broken hearts and laid their wrecked plans at God’s feet. Their raw emotions ranged from fear to anger, confusion to despair, self-pity to remorse. Like David, who at least on one occasion sought comforters and did not find any (Psalm 69:20), we may not always feel comforted. Nevertheless, just as David still called on a “sure salvation” (Psalm 69:13), we can trust that God is tenderly present, “close to the brokenhearted”, promising salvation for the believer (Psalm 34:18). That is ultimate comfort, even if our present sufferings are hard to bear.

And it doesn’t end there.

 

2. Share the comfort of God

Crying to God brings His comfort, and Paul says God’s comfort is given us to be shared with others (2 Corinthians 1:4). The reason? Jesus. Following Him brings both suffering and comfort, and unites all believers on a shared journey:

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:5-7)

What an extraordinary picture of unity in Christ, expressed in a Christian community’s togetherness, even camaraderie, in enduring suffering! In fact, community is one of God’s means of sending comfort. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:6-7, for example, that Titus’ visit and the Corinthian Christians’ concern encouraged him. Eugene Peterson paraphrases 2 Corinthians 1:6 like this: “Your hard times are also our hard times.” We are in this together.

Comforting our friends with the comfort we’ve received from God is more than merely relieving discomfort. It suggests that in all our circumstances, whether distress or well-being, we should consider and act for others’ well-being and salvation—so that they might continue trusting Jesus. Our encouragement should help others patiently endure their difficulties and not give up believing in Jesus, because our common goal, the hope Paul mentions in verse 7, is to live forever with God.

With this goal in mind, we can contribute many practical forms of comfort and help, depending on our friends’ specific needs: our presence, cooked meals, financial assistance, occasional childcare, providing transportation, words of encouragement, and so on. These come to my mind because I have, in times of bereavement or illness, received these comforts myself from brothers and sisters in Christ.

What about you? What comfort have you received from God and other Christians? What can you share?

 

3. Pray for God-honoring endurance

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always prayed to be spared pain in the first place, and prayed for the removal of suffering, and prayed this for my loved ones, too. No-brainer?

But recently an older Christian remarked to me that our times have become very pain-averse. She wasn’t recommending that people masochistically seek out painful experiences. She was merely observing that many new pharmaceutical drugs now provide relief where people of the past would have put up with a great deal more discomfort.

We wondered if choices in medicine and health were also reflected in other areas of life, with people increasingly pursuing the greatest ease over the greatest good (or equating the two). I think our prayer life may reflect this desire to be comfortable, too. And I was stunned to read that Paul and his Corinthian prayer supporters seem to have prayed quite differently!

In Asia, the early Christians faced such intense persecution that they felt they had “received the sentence of death.” Yet, Paul says, God was in control and this suffering “happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:9). God graciously answered the prayers of many Corinthians and delivered Paul and his companions. But look at what Paul means by deliverance—in verse 10 it is clear that he doesn’t mean they didn’t suffer, only that they didn’t die!

In fact, Paul is certain that the Corinthians’ prayers will result—not in the absence of suffering—but in God continuing to preserve his life. This means that Paul fully anticipates getting into more trouble preaching and defending the gospel!

This observation has radically changed my prayer life. Not that I now pray to be experiencing pain per se, but I long to seek in my circumstances—whether painful or not—whatever speaks loudest about my Lord and Savior, Jesus. Do we dare pray this way as a church? It would be such a powerful testimony of our identity in Christ: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (2 Corinthians 1:17)

 

4. Keep doing good

Even as we endure for Jesus’ sake, the world is watching. Paul urges the Galatian Christians “not to become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). We should extend this generosity in good deeds to fellow Christians as well as unbelievers—in the words of Galatians 6:10, “to all people.”

In fact, the radical stand of Christians in the face of the most horrific kinds of suffering has always been a powerful witness, winning many for Jesus. Think of the Christian martyrs during the persecutions of the Roman Empire, for instance, or Bonhoeffer and other German Christians who defied the Nazis during World War Two, or the Cambodian Christians who eventually forgave their Khmer Rouge torturers.

 

5. Look heavenward

When we continue repaying evil with good, others begin to recognize that suffering doesn’t dim our hope as Christians. This is because we don’t live for the brokenness of earthly things but for a perfected world to come. At that time, God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

In God’s sovereign scheme, pain and suffering are not only powerless to destroy the believer, they can result in a refined, resilient faith that perseveres and spurs others on in the same way, until we see our Lord and Savior face to face. As pastor and author Tim Keller puts it in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, “suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption. And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.”

If you, like me, are sometimes baffled, discouraged or paralyzed by the hurt and pain of this world, won’t you take heart? On the cross, Jesus overcame the worst evil of all, for our sake. In all hardships, then, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Of all people, we who trust in Jesus have received the utmost encouragement to face pain and suffering with empathy, courage, practical initiative, and hope.