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A Life of Purpose with Chronic Illness (Part 1)

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This is the first of a planned series of blog posts on the topic of purpose.  It is being fueled by the writing of my new book, Weak and Indispensable, A Life of Purpose for the Chronically Ill and their Families, which I am hoping to complete by September of 2017.

Living with a chronic disease or disability is a rough road.  Incurable physical afflictions have weapons that are painful and relentless: the progression of symptoms, disabling pain, discouraging longevity, and envy-tempting restrictions.  Just in the past year Margaret has experienced the development of early stage heart failure, coupled with blindness in her right eye.  These conditions have been added to her deluge of chronic fatigue, searing chest pain, shortness of breath, joint pain, and abdominal discomfort.  As her husband and primary caregiver, I have had to look at the progression of her symptoms with a helpless sorrow.  My wife is losing her medical battle in a painful, sequential, physical progression. One thing in all of this is certain—apart from a medical miracle, “normal” for us in the foreseeable future is a life permeated with an array of symptom-induced troubles we wouldn’t wish on anyone.

On a deeper level, I have had to ask myself if there is a beneficial purpose for a family like ours.  Are we destined to just play our version of “Christian Survivor,” where our major accomplishment in life is to simply persevere?  Is the primary point of our disability and pain to burden others?  Are we facing our medical challenges to be a living counterexample to people, so they can be thankful they don’t have to suffer like us? Or is it possible, despite our daily limitations, there is something with immense significance we are called to do?   Is there a truth-based mission to be embraced and followed when our medical prognosis is so discouragingly negative?

Let’s face it—in our action-orientated culture that promotes worth based on ability, activity, and achievements, for those of us whose lives have been slowed by chronic illness there can be a heart-crushing crisis of purpose.  The world of disabling physical affliction can leave you to wonder if your life now has substandard value.  After all, you can’t do the things you used to, or the things you want to.  As a patient, the key accomplishment of your day may be to safely navigate your home for a few trips to the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.  As a caregiver, your daily list of successes entail providing quality care for a loved one while at the same time shouldering the weight of life’s typical challenges.  Whether you are a patient or caregiver, our performance-driven culture may make you feel like you’ve left a life of once productive value to one of seemingly burdensome, fatiguing irrelevance.

Is this the case?  Are the sick, disabled, and those who care for them somehow less important?  Since they can’t be “doers,” does that mean they have lost their significance in our churches and communities?  Thankfully, the answer to these questions is a resounding “NO!” As you shall see, God has designed a life of significance for the chronically ill, both individually and in the lives of other people.

So, stay tuned.  Over the next few months, our blog will be highlighting key truths that will inspire you to live a meaningful life with your chronic illness.

May God richly strengthen you in your medical battle.

Comfort in Your Loneliness

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In the early years of Margaret’s illness, occasional flare-ups were more of an annoying nuisance, not an all-consuming trial.  Her most challenging health days were typically during times of bad weather, so we adjusted our lives around the theme of “with the rain comes the pain.”  And, since we lived in Arizona, these rain-pain combinations were quite spread out, which allowed us to live a fairly normal, active life.

Chronic illnesses, however, are seldom content to lie dormant.  In our case, about a decade after her initial diagnosis, we experienced the development of persistent, non-weather-related symptoms.  Sunny days morphed into days of pain.  Even something as simple as removing a can of soup from the cupboard became problematic.  Her autoimmune disease (called sarcoidosis) was on the offensive, and despite much prayer and numerous medical counter-offensives, her body steadily deteriorated.

On the relational side of things, the decline of her health transformed us from a “go to” outgoing couple to a pair of chronic disease captives, bound by the chains of disabling affliction.  Where once our phone rang frequently with a multiplicity of invites and requests, within a short period of time we were beaten down with a deafening relational silence.  We struggled with feelings of an acute loss of purpose—and felt the pain of loneliness by omission.

Can you relate?  Chronic disease has an inescapable and oppressive companion called loneliness.  It makes itself known through the combination of having few who understand what your world now looks like, coupled with your inability to consistently interact with others.  So, is there anyone who truly gets what we are going through?   Is it possible, even with a serious health condition, to know you are accepted, loved, and understood?

Margaret and I’s present reality is that she is 99% home-bound.  The remaining 1% is only for special doctor’s appointments.  At the time of this blog post, she has only been out of our home twice in the past ten months.  Though not in hospice care, the magnitude of her disability makes it virtually impossible to leave the medical safety of our house.  So, we are an easy couple to find.  She is here all the time, and except for my hours at work, I am home quite a bit as well.

In preparation for writing this blog post, I asked Margaret, “Are you lonely?”  Without hesitation, she answered, “No.”  How is this possible?  With all her symptoms and her land-locked reality, how is she truthfully able to say this?

Well, her answer is rooted in a precious biblical truth.  You see, there is One who truly understands the loneliness of chronic sufferers.  His name is Jesus.  Hebrews 4:15-16 tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect  has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”

Jesus is the Person who completely understands your world of medically-induced loneliness.  He knows all about it.  Read about his life as recorded in the Gospels. There you’ll find that throughout his lifetime he often dealt with being maligned, misunderstood and rejected.  And, in his ultimate act of love on the cross, for the first time in Christ’s eternal existence, he experienced the rejection of God the Father.  When he bore the penalty for our sins, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Knowing Jesus experienced this incomprehensible separation from the Father gives us our greatest comfort—for we know he can fully sympathize with our medically isolated lives.

The Lord wants to break the cycle of loneliness for those suffering with chronic health conditions.  It begins with prayer.  Set aside a time this week and talk to him about it.  Tell him how lonely you feel.  Tell him why.  Tell him what you’re frustrated about.  Share with him about all the people you feel have let you down.  Then ask him to bring people your way, faithful friends who can provide for you the comfort and companionship the Lord desires.

We had few friends in Colorado when we moved here. As we settled into our new life in the Denver area, there were some painful lonely times.  But during those early years here we learned that only the Lord is a “friend that sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).  And, as we learned to talk to him openly and honestly about our loneliness, in his time he brought to us compassionate, wonderful friends.

My primary encouragement this month would be to make Jesus your closest friend.  Ask him to reveal to you how much he loves you and cares for you.  Then, prayerfully, aim to connect with a local church in your area where Christ is proclaimed and folks demonstrate a loving care for each other.  With God’s help, may you see, as we did, your loneliness displaced with a fresh expression of the Lord’s love for you.

 

The Cure for Bitterness

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See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Hebrews 12:25).

Over the years, I confess there have been times when I have let the strain of Margaret’s illness drive me to a point of despair and hopelessness.  During these periods of discouragement I have also found myself getting angry with God.  Perceiving our situation to be too big a load for a family to carry, I have either given the Lord the silent treatment, or blatantly told him that our situation was not fair.  During these times I found myself living a two-faced Christian life: externally I wore the facade of loving and trusting God (my Christian happy face) while internally I stewed with anger and distrust.  Can you relate?  Today do you find yourself gripped with anger as you think about your medical challenges?

Throughout the twenty-seven-plus years of our health struggles, often folks have asked Margaret and me questions like these:  “Why aren’t you bitter?  How can you possibly have joy and thankfulness in your heart in light of all you have been through?  Your medical challenges have lasted so long, and they are getting worse—don’t you feel you have a right to be angry and complain to God?”  These are great questions.  With the longevity and severity of her disease, common sense would say we should wake up most days grumbling, murmuring, and harboring all kinds of angry thoughts toward God.  Yet as I write this month’s post, Margaret lies in her in-home hospital bed with peace, hope, and joy in her heart.  I too, find my soul grateful for all the Lord has done for us.

How is this possible?  Why isn’t Margaret habitually whining, complaining, and showing animosity aimed at the Lord and our family?  Has she somehow worked up a happy face?  Is this a manufactured joyfulness due to an abundance of human fortitude? On the caregiver side of things, is the peace and contentment I regularly feel in my heart the result of a gutsy resolve to not let her illness get the best of me?  Have I somehow been given a special dose of caregiver hope due to my strength of character and my personality type?

Just to be clear, both of us are still prone to sin.  Neither of us has attained a level of maturity where anger and bitterness issues have been permanently resolved.  Yet, with God’s help, most days we sense hope, peace, joy and gratitude in our hearts.  How can this be?  The only explanation I can provide is this: it is the miraculous fruit of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you are bitter today, I have good news for you: the Lord can set you free of your anger and bitterness.  You don’t have to clean up your life first, nor do some measure of good deeds to get God’s attention.  Jesus would implore you to come to him just as you are.  He stands before you with open arms and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

For us, there truly is only one reason we have joy, hope, and peace in the midst of our medical struggles: His name is Jesus.  He is the only lasting remedy for bitterness of the soul.  The life-changing power of his gospel has transformed our lives, and it can transform yours as well.  Jesus is the “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).  Christ wants to (and does) comfort and encourage medically broken people with his love.  He is the good shepherd, and by his power he can “restore [your] soul” (Psalm 23:3).  His precious soul restoration can change you from a bitter person to a thankful person.  Fear and distrust can be quenched by his assuring words, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Doubts about the dependability of his care can be annihilated by the knowledge that he brought full provision to the greatest need you and I will ever have—being separated from God because of our sins.

Friend, come to Jesus today.  What he has done for us, he desires to do for you as well.  Yes, your bitterness can be cured by the living Savior who died for your sins, rose from the grave, and is coming again.  If you would like some help in the understanding the good news of Jesus Christ, feel free to email me at mmrobble25@gmail.com.  I would love to assist you in any way I can.

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Seeing Your Marriage Strengthened in Times of Sickness (Part Two)

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Margaret and I have been married for almost 27 years.  For all of our years together, she has battled health issues to one degree or another.  Over the years her symptoms from the autoimmune disease sarcoidosis have progressed from occasional flare-ups to our current all-consuming, disabling reality.  This morning as I write this blog post, she tries to rest, propped up by her hospital bed, and getting breathing assistance via her oxygen concentrator.  She is now in early stage heart failure, and recently lost the vision in her right eye.  Yet we still have hope and peace.  How is this possible?  How have we been able to endure all these years of illness, and face the future with a poor prognosis on our medical horizon?  Why aren’t we just another example of the casualty of divorce, since so many marriages don’t survive when they are invaded by a serious health condition?

Well, the answer these questions is linked to three practices I would encourage you to prayerfully consider.  In them lies the key to how we have been able to endure, and how we continue to endure.  And, I might add, not just endure, but actually grow in our love and commitment to each other.  Here they are, and I pray they are an encouragement to you.

  • Cultivate Your Personal Relationship with God. You might be thinking, “Come on, Mike, give me something practical here.  What do you mean cultivate your personal relationship with God?” Well, let me put it this way:  Enduring illness in your marriage for the long haul cannot be achieved by relying upon human strength or fortitude.  Frankly, left to our own resources, there is no way we could have dealt with Margaret’s illness for a year, let alone 27 years.  We have needed (and still need) supernatural help.  And that help can only come from the living God.  A.W. Tozer said, “Acquaint thyself with God.”  The Bible tells us, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:4).  This is the most important thing you can do for yourself, and your marriage:  Seek the Lord.  Ask God to reveal himself to you through the Person of Jesus Christ.  Dig into God’s word, the Bible.  Apply the promise of Jesus, when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
  • Make Your Marriage Relationship Your Top Priority: The Lord is passionate about the health of your marriage, as you should be.  God’s design is to strengthen your marriage through your medical challenges.  So, make decisions each day that build your marriage.  Love your spouse.  Spend as much time as possible with him or her.  Love as Christ has loved the church.  For me, as Margaret’s husband and primary caregiver, a vital marriage-strengthening practice is giving her the priority of my time.  I usually come home immediately after work, to help her and spend time with her.  Let’s face it–nothing says “I love you” more strongly than wanting to be in the company of the one you love!  Being with her helps our communication, it builds the depth of our relationship, and it provides the context to strengthen and protect all we have together.
  • Join a Church that Inspires You to Persevere:  For some of you, I realize the thought of connecting with a local church in your community may be the last thing you want to do.  Let’s face it—often people, even professing Christians, just don’t understand what the chronically ill and their families are going through.  And, sadly in our culture today, some churches have embraced an erroneous theological position that God wants all his people healthy and prosperous—not exactly a welcoming context for those of us dealing with health issues.  The good news, however, is that Jesus is the Head of the church, his body, and his desire is that “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  So, we can pray and trust him to lead us to a Christ-centered church where biblical doctrine is proclaimed, and where we can be comforted and cared for. For Margaret and me, we would have never made it if it were not for the prayers, encouragement, and practical support we have received through our church family.  The Lord doesn’t want you to face your troubles alone.  He wants you to be strengthened through other people, particularly those who love Christ and understand his heart of compassion for the sick.

May God strengthen you in the days ahead, and if you have any questions about this month’s blog post, feel free to contact us at mmrobble25@gmail.com.

Looking for additional encouragement?  I would highly recommend Michael and Christy Hardy’s blog, chronicencouragement.com.

Seeing Your Marriage Strengthened in Times of Sickness (Part One)

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Margaret and I were married on August 19th, 1989.  On our joyous wedding day, we never thought that chronic health problems would soon invade our relationship, transforming our honeymoon years into a season of medical tests and doctor’s visits.  Yet this is what happened. . .   and, to varying degrees, has continued to happen for the entirety of our lives together.

A few years ago one my children asked me this: “Dad, when Mom got sick, why didn’t you just leave?”  Great question. . . Let’s face it—in the marriage relationship, where the deepest levels of emotional and physical intimacy exist, illness can bring abrupt and unwelcome change.  The fusion of physical pain and medications can result in intense and disheartening transformations.  The person you love can be altered in both emotional and physical ways.  Anger may suddenly fly out at you, and you wonder where his or her calm and caring demeanor has gone.  As medications do their work, annoying side effects will likely enter the medical drama as well.  Moodiness, weight gain, drowsiness, and a bunch of other undesirables could appear.  The reality of new, crushing limitations could spur attitudes of ungratefulness, depression, or both.  Most transitions in our lives are hard.  Medical transitions are even harder, particularly in a marriage.  Everything from holding hands while conversing to romantic times together can be permanently altered.  Frankly the whole marriage dynamic may be forever different from what a couple once enjoyed.

I can honestly tell you that everything I’ve shared in the previous paragraph has occurred to us (and quite a bit more).  We have had to walk through some difficult seasons of change.  These times have not been fun.  The acceptance of medically-induced change is painful.  It is all too easy to long for the “good old days,” when things were more normal.  Yes, our relationship looks significantly different than it did twenty-six years ago.  But, through the power of Christ, we have had the help to make these adjustments.  We are still together, and share an intimate, committed relationship.  The depth of our love for each other has grown over the years.  With all the illness-related changes we have had to make, I can truthfully say to you that our relationship is better—different, but better.  Better because God has been with us.  Better because we have fought the medical battle as a team, and have experienced the comfort of the Lord as a team.  Better because our loving Savior is passionate about the health of our marriage.  Thank God for Jesus, and all he has done for us!

Here is my heart-felt plea: Please do everything you can to protect your marriage.  When physical or emotional changes occur in your spouse, seek the Lord.  Read and dwell on verses from the Bible.  Make God your refuge, the One you go to in prayer.  If the sexual aspect of your marriage is altered, be ready to resist temptation.  Attractive, healthy members of the opposite sex will cross your path.  Be on guard.  Ask the Lord to help your thought life.  Stay away from any relationship or situation that could undermine what God has given you with your spouse.  “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness” (2 Timothy 2:21a).   God’s desire is your marriage grows through times of adversity.  Your medical trial has not come into your life to destroy your marriage.  Remember God is in control, he loves you, and will use the chronic illness for your good, and the good of your marriage.

The key scripture that has inspired me often in my care for Margaret is found in Ephesians 5:25a: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church.”  As I have studied Christ’s love for me and his church, I have been motivated to lay down my personal, self-centered desires in lieu of Margaret’s needs.  Christ died on the cross so that I could live.  So too, on a daily basis (if not moment by moment) I should lovingly put aside what I want to do, and be ready to care for her.

Yes, a key foundation for every married couple, regardless of medical circumstances is this: Love as Christ loves you.  Pause and let this sink in.  How has Christ loved you? He paid the ultimate price for your sins on the cross of Calvary.  Despite the offense of your sins, he died so you might live.  Through the Savior’s atoning work, he has completely forgiven you.  He rose again for your salvation.  He is now seated in heaven, and “always lives to make intercession for [you}” (Hebrews 7:25).  How vital it is to care for your spouse with the gospel clear in your mind.  Prayerfully loving like Jesus will help your marriage relationship.  Even with the all the complications that come with a disabling illness, God will build your marriage through the power of Christ.

Hope for Families Living with a Chronic Illness

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My precious wife Margaret has been battling health issues for a long time. She started showing symptoms (chest pain, breathing issues, and chronic fatigue) just a few months before we were married. Now, twenty-seven years later, she is completely home-bound. Her autoimmune disease (sarcoidosis) has gradually and painfully continued a progressive onslaught in her body. Her illness has reached a point that now to safely navigate our home Margaret has to use a walker. And, due to the affects of her lung scarring, she is bound to an oxygen concentrator every hour of every day. This past year we found out she is in the very early stages of heart failure. How much time she has left is a mystery. What is no mystery is she is gradually losing her battle with this nasty inflammatory disease.

Someone recently asked me, “Mike, how do you get out of bed in the morning? How are you able to face each day, with all that continues to go on with your wife’s health?” This is a great question… and is the key theme of this month’s blog post: Where can hope be found when medically all is hopeless?

You see, to Margaret and me, the answer to this question all comes down to what, or who, we place our hope in. For we continue to learn that if you put your hope, your expectations, in the right thing, you can look to the future with a confident assurance (even as circumstances get more difficult). If you put your hope in the wrong thing, overwhelming discouragement, anger, bitterness, and hopelessness can soon follow. So, I’d like to share with you what continues to make all the difference in our medical journey. I pray it will be an encouragement to you.

Let’s begin by looking at what we have learned not to put our hope in… trust me, over the long journey of a chronic illness, these don’t work.

First of all, we have tried to hope in ourselves—that somehow Margaret or me could “dig deep” and find the stamina and determination to get through this, to figure out a way to persevere successfully. The reality is we simply don’t have enough strength in ourselves to endure years as a patient or caregiver. Second, we have at times put our hope in other people. We longed to find someone who would really understand what we are going through, and give us the encouragement we needed. Despite the heroic help we have received from others over the years, the reality is that virtually no one really “gets it.” Unless someone has been thrown into the prison of chronic disease like you have, they just can’t understand what your life of challenge is really like. Finally, we have put our hope in doctors and medical treatments—again, not a good idea. We are grateful for the caring physicians we have had over the years. They have done, and continue to do, all they can to help Margaret. But, for us, new medical treatments or doctors usually bring renewed hope for only a short period of time. Her prognosis typically snuffs out any flicker of new medical hope we may have.

So, where can we find hope? Despite all our ups and downs over the years, what Margaret and I have found, and continue to experience, is that truly God is the One where you can find lasting hope. Psalm 42:11 says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

I did a lot of soul-searching after it became clear Margaret’s illness was incurable, and was going to continue to slowly, gradually, and painfully progress. As a Christian I wondered how the Gospel message (who God is, and what He has done for us as revealed in Christ Jesus) applied to what we were facing. What I came to understand is that God deeply loves the chronically ill and their families, and He desires to give them a hope that is real and life-changing. Here are just a few examples of hope-giving truths:

  • God is the Great Comforter: 2 Corinthians 1:3-4a:”Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction.”
  • Jesus Completely Understands all you are Going Through: Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
  • Christ Wants to Help you in Your Medical Challenges: Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

After over two decades of medical challenges, here is what we have learned: Real Hope is Only Found in God! Let me say it again: Real Hope is Only Found in God! Without the Lord’s love in our lives, I honestly don’t believe Margaret and I could have endured all we have been through, nor would I be writing this blog today with gratefulness in my heart. If you would like to know more about the hope found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, please consider reading our book, Always Sick, Always Loved, and particularly chapter two, which is entitled “The Gospel and Chronic Disease.”

 

No Condemnation in Times of Chronic Illness

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If you are facing the challenges of a long-term health condition, most likely you have had struggles with condemnation. I know we have. What I mean by condemnation is self-imposed guilt. Even though you can’t pinpoint specifically what you have done wrong, you find a way to blame yourself for your affliction. You think the reason for your medical trial is you. You must be failing God somehow, for surely the cause of your pain is his judgment and punishment. If you are the parent of a disabled child, you may wonder what you did (or didn’t do) to keep your child from being healthy. If you are a sick mother, you may often wonder if God is nailing you for a lack of gratefulness, or some other yet-to-be-revealed sin. As a caregiver, you may be convinced that the Lord has mapped out your hard road to discipline you for your lack of faith or some sin of your youth.

In addition to self-imposed condemnation, sometimes critical and cutting words come from others. These words are hard to take, and are often dogmatic in nature. When Margaret first became ill, we heard everything from “It’s all in your head,” to “You need to have more faith,” to “Confess his promises and you will be healed.” Needless to say, these words didn’t bring us comfort. Rather, we felt the sting of judgment, and wondered if we were truly failing God.

Thank God, for the Christian, the good news, communicated in the Bible, is clear: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). When we are saved, through faith, by putting our total trust in what Jesus did on the cross, all our sins are forgiven. Psalm 103:12 tells us, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” The application of these truths for the chronically ill is simple, yet profound. Your illness or disability is not the result of the Lord’s judgment for some personal sin. No, Jesus took the penalty for your sins, and because of what he did you are completely forgiven.

Please prayerfully consider the words of Jesus, as recorded in John 9:1-3:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Did you catch that? The cause of the man’s blindness was not a specific sin. What freedom this brings from condemnation! Because of what Christ has done for you, the penalty for all your sins has been paid. He is not beating you up physically because of some unrevealed sin. You and are your family are not being judged because of your spiritual deficiencies. His mysterious plan for your life happens to include a chronic illness or disability. The goal is to display the works of God in your life. Like the blind man, he may bring healing. Or, according to his plan, he may show his works through years of faith-empowered perseverance. No matter what the medical outcome, you are free from condemnation because of Christ’s love for you.

Thank God, over the years Margaret and I have experienced (and continue to experience) the transforming power of the gospel to free us from condemnation. Yes, we are in the middle of some serious health challenges, but, because of Christ’s love for us, we don’t feel condemned. We are a grateful couple, knowing that because of what Jesus accomplished, “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”