It was very hard to understand God’s guidance once I became depressed.
My husband was convinced he was called to work as an overseas missionary doctor. When we met, he thought that in me he had found someone who would partner him in working overseas. We trained in cross-cultural mission, applied and set off to work in a mission hospital in Uganda, thinking we were being obedient to God’s call.
But when the life of a medical superintendent’s wife had me sinking into depression, it was hard to work out what to think about God’s guidance. Had he guided us to Uganda or not? If we chose to return to the UK permanently because of my illness were we being disobedient? Before meeting me, my husband had been gathering relevant medical experience to work overseas for ten years. Was it really right that God had planned that we only work abroad for three?
Following God’s guidance had been key for our fellow students at missionary training college. Most started with the conviction that God had a plan for their lives and it was their job to follow it, whatever the cost. Some seemed to find discovering God’s path for them so easy. ‘The word Namibia keeps coming up in everything I read at the moment’ one girl announced to me. ‘I’m sure that’s God telling me that’s where he wants me to go’. ‘Really?’ I thought to myself. That sounded rather simplistic, even magical, to me. Others had more difficulty, especially when romance complicated things. When a student who was ‘called’ to Bolivia fell in love with someone ‘called’ to Pakistan they had to work out how to make sense of that. Our tutors were used to this issue. ‘God’s far more interested in who you are than exactly where you are’, they would advise. ‘It’s much more about your character wherever you are than the specifics of what you are doing’.
But that advice didn’t help us when we needed to decide whether to continue to work overseas despite my depression. I had married someone who had been convinced for years that he should work abroad. I was less sure; I was torn in two between my loyalty to my husband in Uganda and my loyalty to my parents in the UK. My mother was struggling to care for my father who was descending into early dementia. When we had first left for Uganda she had tried her best to let us go with good grace, but I knew it had been very hard for her. Saying goodbye at the airport had been excruciating. Looking back now, twenty years later, I wince when I realise we took her only grandchildren away. She must have longed for the joy the children brought to balance the agony of my father’s deteriorating health. She never complained, but the tie of a mother to a daughter meant I felt the tension.
The mission agency had gone into all this in great detail when we were being interviewed for the post. Over and over again they asked me how I would cope, how my mother would cope. Eventually they had agreed we could go to Uganda, but recommended that we have more holiday and extra pastoral support. Neither of these materialised in practice, of course. And they were right to be concerned. By the time I accessed help, I was seriously mentally ill.
So here we were, back in the UK on sick leave, spending many months wrestling with what to do. Some people from our church tried to help by having a ‘listening meeting’ where they tried to listen to God for us and advise us what He was saying. But when we left the meeting, we discovered to our horror that we had heard different things. I thought that we had been advised to leave Uganda, and my husband thought we had been advised to stay. Clearly instant ‘words from God’ were not going to provide the direction we needed. There was a lot more struggling to do.
Eventually we made the decision to go back to the hospital for nine months so that my husband could hand over well to his successor. That would mean we would leave just as our oldest child was due to start school. We put lots of supports in place to help me survive. People came out to visit us every couple of months and a gap year student helped with the children so I could have the satisfaction of doing some work in the hospital. We sorted out ways to get more privacy on the hospital compound, and things went relatively well.
But once we came home for good the questions about guidance continued to trouble me for years. My work record was now seriously messed up. A mental illness blotted my copy book. But more importantly I had failed in following God. Or had I? Had we misheard and was it a mistake to have gone in the first place? Should I have listened harder to my initial doubts about whether I could cope rather than trying to submit to my husband?
It took years and a lot of counselling before we could come to any peace about it. It was so tough for my husband to adapt to the loss of his dreams. I felt a failure as a wife as well as a failure as a missionary. I was tormented by the words St Paul said to the Philippians, ‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength’ (Phil 4:13) I hadn’t been able to do that. I had asked God for strength many times, but it hadn’t worked.
Eventually I found a book which helped a bit. In ‘Listening to God in times of choice’ Gordon Smith discusses following God’s guidance. He argues that it is more about learning wisdom than about following one unalterable path that God has for your life. Smith said we were not expected to follow a blueprint from God that was uncompromising despite changing events. We had needed to work out what was the wise thing to do in response to my illness. Before God we were free to adjust the path in response to unexpected difficulties.
Ultimately I could see the whole sad episode as an opportunity from God to grow in maturity and in wisdom. Years on, my husband and I look at each other over the supper table and say we were glad we went abroad, even though it nearly broke our marriage. For both of us it has mellowed us, and in our work as doctors it gave us so much more empathy and compassion for our patients.
Learning the limits of our capability is important for each of us. God didn’t make us to be omnipotent and that is an important lesson, especially when we are young and keen and sure of our own capabilities. When we have had to accept our own failings we become more tolerant of others’ limitations as a result. That growth in wisdom is probably much more important to God than following the exact path of what we think of as our calling. That’s probably what our tutors at the college were trying to say.
There are still many unanswered questions for both of us. I still don’t really understand that verse from St Paul about being able to do anything through God’s strength, because it doesn’t fit with my experience. But I have learned to live with and it and the other unanswered questions. One day perhaps I will understand.
What do you think about how God guides?