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From Physical Pain to Spiritual Healing: Finding a new purpose after a tragic accident

By John Van der Werff, DDS

Spiritual HealingI have always believed God smiled on my life, and He has led me in some incredible ways. Dentistry has been my passion since 8th grade. I began my career as a dentist in 1982. At the same time, I married a Christian woman, and God later blessed us with two sons. Even when we struggled financially, by trusting and believing Him, God provided for our needs. I was living a life that did not have an exciting story, but in an instant, my story changed in a profound way, and it involved trusting God in a way I could never have dreamed.

“‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name’” (Psalm 91:14, NIV 2011).

There are some days in our lives which, when they have come to an end, will have changed us forever. This was one of those days. As I skied down that Northern California slope on that clear, cold morning, I caught an edge with my ski and found myself sliding backward down the mountainside. I tried to stop by kicking my boots into the snow. Nothing happened. Finally, after what seemed like minutes of sliding out of control, I stopped. But I was unable to move.

A ski patrolman came up to me and asked if I was alright. I told him I felt fine, but I could not move. In my mind, I assumed I would be taken to the ski lodge and simply drive home after a brief rest. But I assumed wrong.

I was soon on my way to a hospital by ambulance, then airlifted to a hospital in Redding, California. After x-rays and an MRI, it was determined I had damaged my spinal cord. A halo was placed to stabilize my neck and surgery was planned to permanently stabilize the area. The next day, vertebrae C4-C6 were surgically fused together and a metal splint was placed to further support the fracture.

I had become…a quadriplegic.

“He will call on me, and I will answer him…
(Psalm 91:15a, NIV 2011).

As I lay in the hospital, I realized I had lost my physical abilities. How could God allow such a tragedy to happen to me? He promised to take care of me. I asked God why He was not healing me. God’s only response was an unmistakable silence. I wondered, deep in my heart, if God was even there. I no longer felt His presence, and I no longer even sensed there was a God who cared. From  time to time, I would have my pity parties, leading to a season of deep depression. In the midst of my dark night, God said nothing at all.

It reminded me of Job. God blessed him, then took away his wealth, his family and his health for no apparent reason. God did not talk to Job while he was suffering.

Job would ask God “Why?” and there was silence. God has His reasons for doing things that we may not be able to understand.

I met with a psychologist, asking him what I could do to deal with the depression, while avoiding taking medication. He told me, “Instead of asking ‘Why,’ perhaps you should consider asking ‘What can I do now?’ Consider what you have and take things one day at a time,” said the kind psychologist.

So I started taking it one day at a time. And in the midst of what I considered to be His silence, God seamlessly took care of things at home. Friends brought dinner every night for my family. My wife was offered a full-
time position so we would have health insurance and income. Friends built a wheelchair ramp to our house without charging us. It was apparent we were surrounded by the support of so many in our Christian community. Even in the midst of going through the “valley of death,” God provided.

“I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him” (Psalm 91:15b, NIV 2011).

So what next? How does one move on, when a lifelong dream and plan to practice dentistry was now impossible? I was too young to retire, and I certainly did not want to sit around feeling sorry for myself. Deep inside, I felt I still had much to live for. If this was God’s purpose, what doors would He open?

As I talked to friends and considered my experience, I determined to help people with jaw pain and temporomandibular disorders. The California Department of Rehabilitation agreed to pay for part of my re-edu-
cation, and I was on my way. In January 2004, I started a new practice limited to orofacial pain.

I still struggled to forgive God for what had happened on that distant ski slope. One day, I watched a video on the internet of Nick Vujicic. He was born without any arms or legs. I listened as he shared his personal story, telling others what God was doing in his life. I began to see more clearly how God could use my story as a way of encouraging others. There is more to my suffering than me…God had more in mind. Through tears, I was able to forgive God and thank Him for what He had allowed to happen. God was patient through my period of doubting, and He wept with me as I worked through my suffering.

When you go through the “valley of death” in your own personal life, God will be patient with you. And He will weep with you as you work through your own suffering. The lies we tell ourselves need to be substituted with His truth. God is present, loves us, takes care of us and has a purpose for what is happening—in every circumstance, in every trial, in every tribulation. As we forgive, we begin to heal and even start to see what God has done for His purpose and glory.

And the silence of God? If you have experienced that silence, perhaps you have also come to a new appreciation for the silence Jesus felt when He was on the cross, asking why God had forsaken Him.

“With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” (Psalm 91:16, NIV 2011).

I have come to embrace the truth that God may not completely heal me physically, but He has provided emotional and spiritual healing. If we allow Him, He does that for all of us, no matter what we have been through. Romans 8:18 reminds us that our current suffering represents a temporary circumstance when seen in the light of eternity. I find my greatest  source of happiness in knowing where I am going and understanding God’s purpose for my life. As Paul reminds us in
2 Corinthians 12, God is all we need.

God prepares all of us for our journeys through life. And we all have tests and challenges in our lives. Even in the midst of His apparent quietness, God loves and takes care of us. Asking “why” questions and thinking about what you have lost will lead to despair. God can help us trade despair for peace. Although it is not always easy, focusing on today and the future, looking for a purpose, looking for God’s lessons, being thankful and anticipating His coming can help restore and maintain that sense of peace.

As happened to me on that day in 2003, circumstances can happen that can change our lives in a dramatic way. Choosing to respond by trusting God allows Him to use us for His purpose and His glory. As Psalm 91 promises, God takes care of those He loves.

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been excerpted from the spring 2014 edition of Today’s Christian Doctor, a publication of Christian Medical & Dental Associations. To read the article in its entirety, visit www.cmda.org/tcd.