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Walking by Faith

How author and speaker Jennifer Rothschild lost her sight—and gained a tenacious faith in God.

Jennifer Rothschild is sitting in a café booth sipping fruit tea and sharing about the "makeup incident"—as in the time she accidentally mixed up her eyeliner and lip liner. "Thankfully, my son, Clayton, said something to me before I greeted the world with red eyes and black lips," Jennifer explains with a laugh.

Jennifer, who's been blind since she was a teenager, admits she tells this story often, since one of the most frequent questions she fields from the women who hear her speak at retreats and conferences is who does her hair and makeup. They're duly impressed when she admits she does these things herself. But they don't know the half of it.

Besides being a hands-on mom to two sons, Clayton, 17, and Conner, 8, Jennifer also travels constantly to speak at women's conferences across the country, sustaining many bumps and bruises as she navigates countless new hotel rooms.

"I'm naturally more of an introvert, so I've had to learn to be brave," Jennifer explains. "Since I'm blind, it's easy for me to become fearful. But I'm unwilling to be governed by it. I've discovered courage is a choice."

Jennifer has been making that choice since she was 15, when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable degenerative disease that slowly destroys the retina. Over the following two decades, light gave way to shadows. Today, at 43, Jennifer can detect only very bright light.

In college, Jennifer met Philip Rothschild, the man who's now her manager, traveling companion, and husband of 20 years. "Even though I couldn't see Philip, I could tell from the sound of his voice that he had a great smile," Jennifer says of their dating relationship.

As Jennifer lost her sight and navigated the worlds of wife and motherhood, she learned to lean on God in ways most sighted people don't—lessons she chronicled in her 2002 book, Lessons I Learned in the Dark, and in her 2006 follow-up, Lessons I Learned in the Light (both Multnomah). The books launched Jennifer's speaking ministry, and she now travels the country encouraging weary and hurting women that "it can be well with your soul even when it isn't well with your circumstances." Jennifer and Phil also founded WomensMinistry.net, an online source of ideas and encouragement for women's ministry leaders.

TCW recently caught up with Jennifer, fresh off an 18-city tour with the Women of Faith conferences as well as an appearance on The Dr. Phil Show, for a candid talk about healing, contentment, and what she calls her "tenacious faith" in God.

What do you mean by "tenacious faith"?

It's when you're unwilling to quit. When you have an unshakable trust in God and a loyal love for him. A lot of us love God, but few of us loyally love God. There's a deep satisfaction in life when you have loyalty toward God.

Have you always had that kind of faith? Or has your blindness ever caused you to question "why"?

I've gone through seasons of asking "why?" though I've never asked "why me?" It's not that I'm some spiritual giant; it's because of God's grace. My attitude's been more of "why not me?" Suffering exists on earth, so I'm simply part of the scheme of things.

When I think about my life, I realize I love the good things blindness has worked in me more than I'd love the ability to see.

I do sometimes feel burdened by suffering in general. I receive a lot of e-mail from people who read my books or hear me speak. My computer reads them to me. About a month ago I received an e-mail from a man named Greg saying, "I have cancer, and I don't understand why." The very next message was from a woman whose baby was stillborn, and she, too, was wrestling with why. I began crying for Greg and this grieving mother, and probably also for my own questions.

As I began to process, Why, God? Why cancer? Why stillborn babies? Why blindness?, my very next questions were, Why grace? Why love? Why forgiveness? None of it really makes sense.

What helps you handle the question why?

On the very last page of Joni Eareckson Tada's memoir, The God I Love, she wrote that when it comes to suffering, "Sometimes God allows what he hates to accomplish what he loves." Through my blindness and through other people's sorrows and tragedies, I've seen that though God hates those things, he loves seeing us develop a more eternal perspective, a more loyal love toward him, a deeper character. When I think about my life, I realize I love those good things blindness has worked in me more than I'd love the ability to see.

Are you choosing to allow your blindness to be something positive?

Absolutely. I'm often asked what the hardest thing is about being blind. I know people expect me to mention how it's hard not being able to drive a car, or not being able to see where my children were when they were young.

Those things are hard. But to me the hardest thing about being blind is making that daily choice not to be bitter or angry—to choose to find a reason to be grateful and content.

How do you make that choice in the midst of difficult circumstances?

What helps me most is speaking truth to my soul. I've learned I'm either going to be governed by feelings or fact. So I choose to be governed by what God says about who I am. But that takes mental discipline. When I'm frustrated, I'm tempted to think, Forget it. It's not worth it, and then give in to bitterness or anger. But immediately I have to catch myself and speak truth to my soul: Who I am and what I struggle with are not the same thing. This situation may be frustrating, and yeah, the situation on the surface may not be worth it, but I'm worth it and my relationship with God is worth it. So I'm not going to quit. I'm going to persevere.

I've also learned that instead of allowing blindness to be my enemy, I need to make it my friend. When I do that, it becomes something God can use to teach me things I never would have learned otherwise. When you come to a place in your life where you make your difficult circumstances your friend instead of your enemy, you find the secret of how it can be well with your soul even when it's not well with your circumstances.

Some of our difficult circumstances might not ever change—and that's messy and hard. But when we hold onto bitterness, it's never going to be well with our soul. Hope comes from deliverance and healing. But hope also comes from the knowledge that even if we don't receive those things, God is still sufficient.

Do you pray for healing?

Over the years I've prayed less for healing and more for contentment. Because I didn't trust my own desires, I focused on Psalm 37:4, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." When I delight in him, I find myself focusing more on contentment than on healing. I've always believed that if I never learn contentment while I'm blind, then even if I'm healed, I'll still be grumpy about something. So for me, learning true contentment is a deeper gift.

My deepest hope is that God's glory will be revealed in my blindness. So if he chooses to heal me someday, then I hope he chooses to do it on a day when the most people will know about it. And if not, then I hope to live with blindness in such a way that my loyalty toward him shines through and his glory is revealed. To me, then I am healed.

I want to pass that perspective on to women who struggle. I think we focus on physical healing too much. It's the healing of the heart that occurs even when circumstances haven't changed that grants us freedom.

How do we deal honestly with suffering without falling into despair?

We're on a fallen planet, and as a result suffering is going to occur. But that doesn't mean hope can't occur simultaneously. That doesn't mean the glory of God can't be revealed if the blindness isn't removed. I think of the story in John 9 about the man who was born blind. When the disciples ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answers, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned … but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." That's how I choose to look at suffering—as a way for God's work and glory to be revealed. In that man's case, the glory of God was revealed in the fact he was healed of his blindness. But whether God heals or doesn't heal, his glory can be revealed. It's just up to us to recognize it.

What encouragement do you offer to women whose child or husband is the one suffering?

At conferences I talk about the difference between what I call "participant grace" and "spectator grace." Participant grace is for people like me who walk with something difficult. But spectator grace is for those who have to watch the ones they love walk with that difficulty—the moms and wives. The first thing I tell these women is that the burden they feel for their loved one is much deeper and heavier than the burden that person carries. As the spectator, it's so hard to helplessly watch. At least the one who walks with the difficulty is empowered to make choices to walk with it well. So don't assign your depth of despair to your loved one's situation, because it's different and God's grace is sufficient in that place.

I don't mean that as any sort of Pollyanna perspective on the situation. Because I know when your husband is diagnosed with cancer or your baby is born with a disability, that's an awful daily agony with which to live. But I also recognize that God is very purposeful in what he does. The fact he would grant you a special child or a special burden is in recognition that you're equipped to carry it, because he trusts you. I think there's a degree of value that comes to a woman when she recognizes God trusts her.

In what ways has your blindness impacted your marriage?

It's made Phil and me confront emotions other couples never have to encounter. That's invited frustrations like you wouldn't believe, but also an incredible intimacy and depth of relationship for which I'm so grateful.

For example, because Phil has to be my eyes in many ways, sometimes he's had to let me know when it's that time of the month. No woman would prefer for her husband to have to point that out. That's when I have to speak truth to my soul, or I could get real low real quick. I have to maintain my sense of self based on what God says in his Word, not on the situation.

How does Phil handle these challenges?

What's amazing is that he's never had any qualms about helping me with the most embarrassing things. That's how I know God called him to be my husband. Of course he still makes daily choices to sacrifice and to serve, but he never complains.

That said, he's a great guy, but he's not a perfect guy. He has his moments; he gets grumpy, he can be selfish. But he always steps up to the plate. And when he blows it, he admits it. When I blow it, I admit it. Some days, we've got a lot of admitting to do. My blindness has been challenging for our marriage. But those challenges bring good when we're willing to stick it out.

What do you hope your sons are learning through your blindness?

I hope they're learning tenacity in every area of life. From the time they were little, as a kind of good-bye I've always said, "I love you, 4:13." It's a reminder of Philippians 4:13, which tells us we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. And lately I've been referencing Hebrews 10:39, "We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved."

The only way I don't shrink back from life's challenges is through God's grace. I'm continually amazed at the fact that when we trust God enough to take a step toward him in hope, faith, or courage, he meets us right there—and then equips us to take the next step. I know that's what he's done for me.

For more information about Jennifer Rothschild, visit www.jenniferrothschild.com. Also, look for Jennifer's new book, Self Talk, Soul Talk: What to Say When You Talk to Yourself (Harvest), due out in September.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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