I thought I had prepared myself for losing at least one of my parents at college. Much of my faith was born out of depression from fear of losing my parents at a young age. Before high school ended, we had already paid for their funerals, bought the cemetery lot, and placed the tombstone. However, I was never prepared for a mental illness.
During the first semester of my junior year at John Brown University, my father, Clifford Russell, went in for quadruple bypass surgery. At seventy-four, this was a big procedure, but I was not worried. My father was born during World War two, raised in a 15’x15’ house with 5 other siblings, and grew up to be a welder in the coal mines. He knew tough times. This time was different.
My father seemed fine at first but contracted a slew of infections. He ended up losing nearly every bodily function overnight, with his mind leading the departure. If this was not enough, in the months following, one of my brothers was diagnosed with stage-three colon cancer, the other one was admitted to a mental facility multiple times, my mother suffered a heart attack, and my grandmother had a crippling stroke.
Overwhelmed? No. I was drowning. Taking 18 hours of engineering courses, being a Resident Assistant, and being an officer for multiple campus organizations only made it harder to stay afloat. I was tossed back and forth between inserting catheters and planning hall events and between cleaning soiled sheets and designing circuits.
For one class, I had to memorize a section of James. The first few verses were hard enough. James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” James didn’t say, “Find joy despite trials.” but instead to find joy in them. How could I ever find joy in such immense pain and suffering? The audacity of God.
I turned to the book of Job. This time I read the book with anger and harsh questioning of God, until chapter 38. Job 38:1-4 says, “Then the Lord spoke out to Job out of the storm. He said, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?’”
He went there. He called me out on my attitude of entitlement, commanding me to stand before Him and justify my depression, bitterness, and angst toward him. I could not do it. He convicted me of my sin even in my darkest hour. This seemed uncalled for: that God would ask more of me when I already could not handle what I had. But God had every right to convict me. He never asked me to handle any of it myself. He could handle it.
I wanted so badly a God that would take away my suffering. Distant and effective. I wanted God to make me comfortable again. Instead, I found something so much better. I found a God that experienced my pain with me, a God that felt what I felt. I found a God whose heart tor with mine as my dad screamed in pain and confusion, a God that cried with me when I zipped my father’s body bag. This was the biggest joy I could ask for: a God that shared my experience.
The biggest connection my father and I had was through our stories. As a child, I would belly-flop onto his bed and beg him to tell me “stories when he was my size.” I loved hearing stories, and my father loved telling stories.
Near the end of my father’s life, he and I were sitting in silence. After a few hours, I broke the silence by saying “Dad, I wish you would talk. I really miss your stories.” He responded, “You are my story, Jacob.” and was silent again. I found joy in the pain of taking care of my father and of losing him because I had the privilege of telling my father’s story through my life.
No matter the context or caliber of our suffering, we all can experience joy through our suffering. As the body of Christ, we endure our suffering with Him. In this, we also get to be a part of Christ’s story. We get live out the Gospel. And oh, what a joy it is.
This post is an abbreviated version of a “Gathering” message presented March 12, 2017. You can experience the original testimony here.
Jacob Russell is from Lamar, MO, and a John Brown University Alumnus. He is currently an avionics design certification engineer at Garmin International in Olathe, KS. He loves to work with his hands and go on adventures with his wife, Kenna Russell.