My brother and I are as different as night and day. He has an olive complexion with deep brown eyes, while I have lighter tones and eyes of blue. Whereas I am passionate and can be easily ignitable, he has a calm and even keel to his demeanor that I’ve come to admire. These and countless other differences I could list should come as no surprise because we are not biologically related. My brother was adopted as an infant, and sixteen months later, I was welcomed into the same family.
Our parents were generous and loving, and they provided a stable home for us. We grew up in an idyllic middle-class neighborhood in a 1950s-era two-story house. We walked to our elementary school, memories of which I cherish to this day. While we both had experienced the tragedy of being separated from our birth families, our adoption was a beautiful redemption. My brother and I are forever grateful for the gift of our wonderful mom and dad. But tragedies, no matter how lovingly responded to, can still produce wounds that eventually must be attended to. Both my brother and I were thus wounded from the beginning. As with most other things, we dealt with our wounds very differently. I began asking questions in search of my birth mother as soon as I understood what being adopted meant. These were questions my brother resented and would not himself ask for twenty more years.
My brother was also born with a physical deformity. A surgery performed in early childhood only served to provide painful memories and later complications. Whereas I was physically healthy, my brother always seemed to have health struggles. While this wasn’t “fair,” we didn’t think about it. We simply lived our lives, walking to school together, teasing and fighting with each other, and spending more time in our backyard pool than out of it during the summer. This continued until one summer when I went for an extended stay with relatives, including a sexually predatory uncle. Never to be the same, I returned home and withdrew into my room. I did not laugh with my brother any more, and my strong propensity toward depression began to manifest itself. I was ten.
Meanwhile, my brother’s struggles increased. His physical problems made him the target of merciless teasing that would reach a hellish crescendo in high school. I was isolated, depressed, and infected with shame over the sexual abuse that I still kept secret. At age twelve, I began to experience same-sex attraction, which greatly added to my confusion. By the time we were fifteen and sixteen, I was clinically depressed, wearing a tuxedo to the school dance, and contemplating suicide. My brother was getting drunk during lunch hour just to get through the days. Blind to each other’s pain because we were absorbed in our own, he and I led parallel lives of dysfunction. There was minimal interaction and even some enmity between us.
Somehow we survived and graduated. Though I had experienced a genuine conversion to Christ that undoubtedly saved my life in the midst of my suicidal, gender-bending days, the festering wounds remained. In college I abandoned my faith to embrace a lesbian identity and life. My brother’s life lacked direction, and his penchant for numbing his pain through alcohol increased to full addiction. In our quests to quell our aches, we both walked away from our Creator and His revealed will. This demonstrated that our problem went much deeper than our hurts. We were not only wounded. In C.S. Lewis’ words, we were “rebels who needed to lay down our arms.”
Eventually, by God’s grace, we were both roused to repentance by the “megaphone of pain.” For my part, to shorten a story told in other places, I traded my lesbian-centered identity for one centered in being a beloved child of God, and I sought to obey Him once more. For my brother’s part, he was finally diagnosed as having a degenerative disease of his muscles, more damage from the womb revealed. This diagnosis brought my brother back into the arms of the Good Shepherd who was searching for him.
My brother has a tattoo on his upper arm: “Live free or die.” Though it probably resulted from a drunken dare, it expresses a valid desire. We were created for life and freedom. But true life and true freedom can’t be found apart from the Creator, the source of Life. And as any recovering addict or repentant sexual transgressor knows, the one who commits sin is the slave of sin. Real freedom comes only in walking in harmony with God and thereby maturing into virtue, goodness, and self-mastery.
I have not seen that tattoo in over twenty years. My brother always wears long sleeves because long ago his disorder left his upper arms wasted and skeletal. The tattoo I do see is the one on his wrist to remind him of the One who suffered on his behalf by being nailed to a tree. This helped him maintain sobriety. When he was tempted to drink, he would look at his wrist and connect his pain to Jesus on the Cross, where suffering becomes redemptive and Christ’s pain heals all who are willing to say “yes” to Him.
I had a different journey of dealing with depression, seeking sexual sobriety unto chastity, and recovering from much dysfunction. My twenty-seventh birthday came during a season of facing some deep wounds. I didn’t feel like celebrating and decided to go away. I told my friend Diane before leaving, “It’s not like it’s been just one thing, but it’s been thing upon thing upon thing.” That day, my friend Karen gave me a birthday card saying she had a sense that Joel 2:25 was especially for me at that time. I knew the verse well, a comforting and well-known promise, but in her handwriting, the second half of the verse leapt out at me. “I will restore the years the locusts have eaten: the swarming locust, the stripping locust, the creeping locust, and the gnawing locust.” Not just one thing, but thing upon thing upon thing.
Thus away to a rustic cabin I went for three days of solitude, prayer, and fasting. I had one purpose: to question the Author about my life script. Under a large wooden cross on a hilltop, I sat down to talk to God as I enjoyed the evening sky. I had a list in my hand, a litany of complaints over life events that I would have written differently, beginning with the circumstances of my conception.
As soon as I began to speak, the wind began to blow. A storm of some kind was coming, but the sky was cloudless, and I was undeterred. As I continued, the wind picked up and lightning began to strike. Each time I raised my voice, the wind whipped harder, until I was practically shouting. I watched in wonder at the repeated and increasing flashes that were streaking across the darkening sky. I finally fell silent, bested by the wind and in awe of the magnificence and beauty of the most amazing and continuous electrical storm I have ever seen. Lights danced in the firmament, and the only time I used my voice again that night was to praise their Maker.
This glorious display was followed by two days of silence. I received no answers to my questions. I reread Job and was reminded that I was the one who would give account for my life to God, not He to me. In my final time of prayer before departing on the third day, under the cross once more, I laid down my life’s list and declared that I would choose to trust Him though I could not understand His ways. Then in the silence, as clearly as I have ever heard anything, I heard His Spirit whisper: “Love would not allow what Love could not restore.” In this gracious promise, I was given something far better than understanding it all. I was given the peace that surpasses answers and understanding, along with the hope of the gospel.
The Serenity Prayer is a blessing and gift used in almost every twelve-step model of recovery there is. Most of us know the first four lines:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Currently, however, there is less and less acceptance of things we cannot—or should not—change. With the increased power of technology, there are more and more “scripts” that we simply refuse. Don’t like the biological sex and body you were born with? Get hormones and surgery. Change it. Dealing with the wrenching pain of not being able to have your own biological children? Don’t worry about commodifying other humans and even your own hoped-for progeny. Change it. Are you pregnant but with too many babies or a baby with too many chromosomes? Abort and try again. Change it. Have a disabling condition that you can’t remedy? You don’t have to accept this script. Change it. Prepare your “final exit” with “dignity.” And the list goes on . . .
True serenity becomes a distant illusion and true acceptance nonexistent. All gives way to our culture’s new form of “courage.” This “courage” refuses any limits and seeks to alter, medicate, and assuage every experience that gives us pain or pause. Wisdom is lost completely. Believe me, I am all for alleviating suffering. Explore every moral means available to you. But there is ultimately a limit—ethical, medical, or otherwise—to many of our efforts in this regard.
As my brother ages, his disability progresses and his pain increases. It is a disease of dystrophy, not a terminal condition. But there is no cure, and there is a limit to what can be done palliatively to assist him. For him, to live in the body involves daily suffering. In our culture, many will rush to offer him the “on your own terms” option glorified by Me Before You if ever he should decide his pain is too much. Regardless of his responsibilities to his wife and child, our culture tells him that he has the right to self-determination—that he can set his own limits about the script he will “accept.”
As a same-sex attracted woman, I was offered a rewritten script from some Christians in which celibacy was not required of me. While I’m sure they thought it was compassion, it was also an easier path for them than accompanying me in the midst of my storm. If I thought I was transgendered today, I’m sure they would encourage me to seek surgery and applaud my “courage” to change, considerations for husband, children, and my long-term health and well-being notwithstanding.
But there is a second half of the “Serenity Prayer.” It provides the component needed to achieve the genuine serenity, courage, and wisdom sought in the prayer’s opening lines:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
“Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.” Read that again: Suffering can lead to serenity. If only we respond to that suffering with trust in a loving God who will make all things right. If only we receive His hope that extends beyond this life and world. The Lord is patient. He will help us come to that trust. He never stops pursuing us, longing to have compassion on us, if only we surrender and turn to Him in our aching anger.
Suffering and sorrow. Which of us would ever script our lives in such a way? My brother wouldn’t have chosen disease, addiction, or loss as part of his story. My birth mother would not have chosen a crisis pregnancy and the loss of her firstborn, nor my adoptive mother her infertility. On and on it goes. I never would have allowed sexual abuse or same-sex attraction to be written into my story. And yet it is that very suffering that helped lead me to serenity because it has led me to God.
I am many years down the road from being twenty-seven and the words I heard on the hillside. Since then, I have known joys I never could have dreamed or planned along with trials so stunning they left my prayers wordless and tear-filled not just for weeks or months, but for several years. But I have also now lived long enough to catch glimpses of at least a few “other sides” of these sufferings. There is a beautiful work in progress. God can triumph over any twist of plot the enemy of our souls scrawls across our pages, and He writes a much better story than we do.
This is not just my story or my brother’s story. It’s all of our stories. All of us are wounded from the womb. Sin has separated us from our Father. Life is our journey to find our true identity as beloved children of God and to let the Good Shepherd of our souls lead us home to Him. The Author behind both your story and mine is the King of Love. Give Him your “litany of locusts,” trust Him in your pain, and hear His promise anew: “Love would not allow what Love could not restore.”