Spirituality in Adversity

In November of 2018, Jonathan, our youngest son, was diagnosed with a brain tumour, that was later found to be a glioblastoma. It was an awful day, but weirdly, it felt like that through my whole life God had been preparing me for this moment. Let me explain.

While I did not grow up in a house where any kind of faith was practiced, I did grow up in one that was loving, and had a realistic view of the world. I was a late arrival for my parents, being born when my father was 41. He had fought in the Korean War, and had lived through grinding poverty in his earlier years during the depression; my mother had had a miserable childhood, and strived to be a fair and supportive parent. All this meant that the hard things in life were not hidden from us, nor cloaked behind some pastel veil of false positivity. I was taught that adversity was not exceptional, but ordinary, and that I needed to learn to meet it. So I tried to develop resilience, and while I trained in martial arts, and did many other things, I still feared death, and did not see any kind of broader purpose to life that would give my existence meaning. However, by some means of unsearchable mercy, at a low point in life I became a Christian the year I turned 18 — recognising that I needed forgiveness for my sins, and peace with God in order to deal with the unwavering reality of death. A risen Saviour sure helps when confronting the grave! However, my life up to that point had convinced me that life in this world was hard and unpredictable, something which squared with my emerging Christian worldview.

Subsequently, while I was at university, it felt to me as if the Holy Spirit drove me to examine the issue of suffering from a Christian perspective. While most of my peers probably thought I was weird for doing this (and they’d be right), I had learned in my life up to that point to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. So examine it I did. My learning came to a head as I read Romans 5:1-11, which helped consolidate my understanding of a Christian approach to adversity. Learning that suffering produced perseverance, and perseverance produced character, and character produced hope, actually brought me great joy. I learned that I could have confidence that God was at work in adversity, doing good for His children. I knew, as Augustine said, that “God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering,” but it was such a comfort to know that He would use suffering to bring growth to my soul. During that time I also spent time thinking about the eternal destiny of Christians. Throughout the New Testament we are exhorted to take courage from the fact that God is going to make all things new, and that our suffering here in this lie is not worth comparing to the blessings of the life to come. We have much bigger fish to fry than the things that preoccupy the minds of people who have no such hope.

Many things came along in the years that followed; marriage, six children, and the military being only a few of them. When I joined the Army, little did I realise what cost would come in being faithful to an oath. The one which I swore was as follows: “I, Roger Marsh, swear that I will well and truly serve Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law, as a member of the Australian Army, … and that I will resist her enemies, and faithfully discharge my duty according to law, so help me God.”

I can honestly say that serving Her late Majesty required help from God. I went from understanding God’s purpose in adversity, to living it in my day to day life; not just in basic training, but everywhere, from Australia to Afghanistan. I gained many things through military training: the mental health benefits of exercise, and the ability to let go of control of the future and just focus on the next thing being just two of them. Nevertheless, I found that resisting the Queen’s enemies and discharging my duty faithfully were very demanding tasks. My military career spanned the worst of the so-called War on Terror. I did not do anything out of the ordinary during that time, however God certainly did. He took the things I had learned about suffering and adversity and drive them deeply into my soul’s DNA. Deep spirituality develops when we are forced to apply our faith in the midst of awful reality. Admittedly, my service came at a cost, but even though I had scars that would need a working through of their own, the fruits of those years would become a real blessing in Jonathan’s illness and subsequent death.

We had first noticed there was something wrong with him in October of 2018, a couple of months before his twelfth birthday. He started to get headaches and nausea, along with a lingering fatigue and lethargy; all of which was very uncharacteristic for child who was a very gifted athlete. An initial visit to the doctor revealed nothing, however when he went to the optometrist to get his eyes checked, they found pressure being exerted on his optic nerve. A few days of waiting and frustration occurred until an MRI revealed the worst of all possible news — that he had a brain tumour. We were living in the town of Wagga Wagga at the time, and I was based at Kapooka, where the Australian Army trains recruits. While my wife and Jonathan prepared to fly to Sydney on an Air Ambulance, I went home to deliver the awful news to my children, and set about looking after them until Jonathan had had the operations that would de-bulk the tumour. I remember standing outside my oldest son’s room, praying with the other boys. The first thing we considered was if the worst should happen, Jonathan was certainly in a right relationship with God. He had a lively, articulate and rather cheeky faith, and from this early stage of the illness and onwards he did not show any sign of wavering. The worst case scenario was therefore taken care of, so we set about preparing for the days to come.

What followed was an 18 month roller-coaster ride, full of love, light and laughter, hugs and tears, sorrow and struggle, before he finally died on the 23rd of March in 2020. I cannot claim that I never struggled through that dark vale, but like a beacon beyond every bit of heartache was the knowledge that God was working good, and that there would come a day when such suffering would be no more. Further, throughout it all we were amazed by the grace of our Lord at work in Jonathan’s life, and his clear testimony to the good news of Jesus Christ. One army friend who came to help us out for a few days, and who was not a Christian, asked Jonny if he was afraid, and he replied, “No, I know where I’m going when I die.” She then asked him if he was going to heaven because he was a good boy, at which suggestion he became a little hot under the collar; “No, it is my Saviour who is good, not me,” and he proceeded to give her a brief but sound explanation of the Christian faith. Another instance occurred with one of the nurses who tended him in his final days. She had been talking with him, and later remarked that “I’m going back to church because of this young man, because I’ve never seen faith like this in the face of death.” A further time his faith had a big impact on me was when, with about two weeks left to live, he stated simply, “Why should I get depressed about all this when God is going to make everything new?” That time and many others, Jonathan’s walk with God humbled me deeply.

After it was clear that his condition was terminal, and there was no earthly hope for a cure, I asked him how he was doing. He looked at me sleepily and said, “Dad, I knew whenever you put on a particular uniform that somebody had died. All my childhood has been around death, and I knew that I needed to be ready for it too. You’ve always said that.” That is not an easy thing for a father to hear, that a war that had been so much a part of my life, and had taken the lives of people I knew, had such an impact on my son. For some strange reason, I even felt bad that my words as a parent had needed to be heeded. I wept for its impact on my whole family, I wept for the fact that Jonathan had to apply his faith in such circumstances, but my sorrow was also shot through with gladness because God in His providential goodness had used it in building in my son the spiritual resilience needed to face death in the way he did.

Our faith is like a compass that gives us true North as we navigate the mountains, valleys, jungles, deserts and swamps of a fallen world, not giving us an exemption from trials, but pointing us to the new creation, and the sure knowledge of God working for good. The greatest struggle we have is to trust in His goodness in a world where bad things happen. A number of people have wondered that my wife and I never had trouble believing in God after seeing our son suffer through the things he did. However, it never occurred to us to question our faith, because ultimately we saw meaning and purpose in everything that happened, and did not see in our faith a place where God would give us an escape from the storms of life, but where He built us a place that no storm could destroy.

Ultimately, I think my journey through all of this stuff can be summed up by these words of Anselm of Canterbury: “For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand. For I believe this: unless I believe, I will not understand.” God used my searching and struggles to lead me to belief, but it was belief that enabled me to understand; not everything exhaustively, but sufficient for the moment in which I was living. Without that belief, I would never have been able to see beyond the painful fog of my circumstances.

Photo taken at the beginning of 2010
Taking Jonathan for a run in his wheelchair, at the beginning of 2020

About the Author, Roger Marsh

Author, Poet, Thinker, Storyteller.

My love of books and learning has never been more important to me than when I have walked in the valley of shadows; because it has given me a perspective beyond the immediate moment, pointing me to what is true and beautiful when everything is clouded and sad. And it produced in me a love of writing, that eventually resulted in my first novel, Echoes In The Wind