How a passage in John’s gospel transformed my perspective on God and suffering. By Vaneetha Rendall Risner/Posted June 21, 2021
Growing up, I was angry at God. To me, he was either heartless or distant, if he even existed at all. In any event, I wanted nothing to do with him.
My story begins in India, where I contracted polio as an infant before receiving the vaccine. The doctors mistakenly gave me cortisone to lower my high fever, allowing the virus to spread throughout my body, which left me paralyzed within days. They encouraged my parents to leave India to seek better medical care, so we moved to England and then to Canada. My first surgery was at age two, and I endured 21 major operations throughout childhood. Only at age seven was I able to walk.
What was then the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Montreal functioned as a second home. I lived there for months at a time, once passing a nine-month stretch in a body cast. About a dozen other girls lived on the same ward. We could only see our families on weekends during the brief visiting hours.
Without parents around to guide us, we grew up on our own, making up our own rules and assumptions about life. We learned to do whatever the nurses asked, lest we get cold food, the last sponge bath, or the silent treatment. Since there was no one to hear our complaints, we all learned to stifle our feelings and do what we were told.
I vividly remember my friend Belva, one of the few mobile girls on the ward, who would play Barbies with me on my bed. She was sick for a few weeks and then suddenly disappeared. The next day, they took her things off her nightstand and remade her bed. When I asked where Belva was, I was sharply told to mind my own business. No one mentioned her again. I was perhaps too young to understand what had happened, but the loss hardened me.
Life between hospital visits was even more traumatic. Kids made fun of my pronounced limp, imitating the way I walked. Classmates bullied me frequently. One time, a group of boys threw stones at me as they knocked me down and called me a “cripple.” I became used to that word.
In fourth grade, I finally made a good friend. One afternoon, I accidentally overheard her talking to the teacher about me. “Do I have to stay with Vaneetha on the field trip?” she whispered. “I don’t want to push her in the wheelchair or walk slowly with her all day. Can’t someone else be her friend for once?”
After that, I kept to myself until I discovered A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and noticed how everyone loved Tiny Tim, the poor, “crippled” boy. When I was cheerful and uncomplaining, people praised me, just like Tiny Tim. Soon he became my new persona. People began seeing me as sweet and courageous, except for my sister, the one person I subjected to biting sarcasm and belittling comments. She alone bore the brunt of my bitterness and anger.
In high school, I started attending Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings because all the popular kids were there. A friend and I would sit in the back and talk about boys—neither of us cared much about God. But then one weekend she went away on a retreat; when she came back, she excitedly told me that God was real. Unimpressed, I asked her to stop talking about God.
But she wouldn’t. She kept telling me what she was learning about God and asking what I thought about the FCA meetings. I didn’t care about the messages—I barely listened to them—but I did care that she was becoming more popular than me. And I wondered why everyone was talking about God as if they knew him. So one night, as I was falling asleep, I simply said, “God, if you are real, please show me.”
The next morning, I woke up and decided to give this God a chance. Opening the Bible for the first time on my own, I started reading in Leviticus, wondering how this book was relevant to anyone.
Before I closed the Bible, I asked God a question: “Why? Why did this happen to me if you are real and you’re supposed to be good?” I randomly turned to John 9 and read, “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him’ ” (vv. 1–3).
I sat on my bed, shocked. The disciples were asking the same questions I was. But Jesus shifted the focus from whose fault it was to what purpose it served. Which meant the man’s blindness was a privilege, not a punishment. It seemed God was encouraging me to embrace my disability as an opportunity for him to display his works.
The Bible was finally making sense, so I kept reading, anxious to see if there was anything else relevant for me. The story of Lazarus intrigued me, and John 12:43 exposed me when Jesus said the Pharisees “loved human praise more than praise from God.” Jesus was talking about me—I thrived on the praise I won with my Tiny Tim act. Everyone thought I was kind and self-effacing.
But God saw beyond my angelic exterior. I felt known, understood, and unconditionally loved—a combination that simultaneously comforted and terrified me. Overcome with excitement and emotion, I knelt by the side of my bed and committed my life to Christ. I was 16 years old.
I didn’t tell my family about my conversion because I thought they wouldn’t understand. Although I had grown up in a churchgoing family, I had never discussed my doubts or my anger at God with anyone, so I assumed no one knew.
This made for a touching moment when, two years later, my mother asked me to give my testimony to the Sunday school class she was teaching. As I spoke, tears streamed down her face, and afterward she told me three things I will never forget. First, she and my sister both knew I had committed my life to Christ because I was markedly different. My sister noticed it first, seeing my cruel teasing replaced by genuine kindness.
Second, my mother said that when I contracted polio, she was devastated and blamed herself. Wondering what she had done wrong, she found great comfort in John’s account of the man born blind.
And last, she recalled—during a period of despair over my future—feeling a sense from God that I would be made whole at age 16. She had assumed this would involve a miraculous physical healing, but my testimony had reminded her how true healing comes through knowing Christ.
I didn’t fully understand all that God had shown me that morning when I first met him. But the conviction that God can use my suffering for his glory has sustained me ever since. As an adult, I’ve endured the loss of an infant son after a doctor took him off his lifesaving medicine. My health has continued to decline with post-polio syndrome, which could leave me a quadriplegic. I lost a 20-year marriage when my first husband left me for someone else.
Though I’ve pleaded with God to take away these trials, he has given me something immeasurably greater: the treasure of his presence. With every heartache, he draws closer, using my weakness to display his strength.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is a writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of Walking Through Fire: A Memoir of Loss and Redemption.