Stepping Heavenward: In Which God Dispenses Chronic Pain

Stepping Heavenward: In Which God Dispenses Chronic Pain December 13, 2019

Stepping Heavenward, Chapter XII, part 2

As you will remember, Katy’s brother James has moved in to study medicine under Ernest, adding another person to a household that already consists of Katy and Ernest, Ernest’s sister Martha, and Ernest’s father.

DECEMBER 7.-James is my perpetual joy and pride. We read and sing together, just as we used to do in our old school days. Martha sits by, with her work, grimly approving; for is he not a man?

I am finding this portrayal of Martha as sexist—not the right word to use, to be sure as it is anachronistic—fascinating. In reading Stepping Heavenward, evangelical women can get a very low dose of what might be called feminism in higher concentrations, but cloaked in a solidly domestic cloth.

Katy and Ernest’s one year anniversary arrives, and Katy is disappointed to find that Ernest does not even mention it, much less give her a present. The day began with Ernest’s father shutting himself in his room again, convinced he is about to die, and Martha flying into a rage because she broke a dish, so Ernest’s failure to remember their anniversary caps a terrible day.

Ernest, who is not in the least sentimental, never said a word about our wedding-day, and. didn’t give me a thing! I have kept hoping all day that he would make me some little present, no matter how small, but now it is too late; he has gone out to be gone all night, probably, and thus ends the day, an utter failure.

I don’t like this. If having anniversaries remembered in a special way is important to you, you should tell your partner that this is important to you. Not everyone cares about anniversaries, and it’s not fair to get angry at someone for not remembering it. Would it have been that hard to mention it a week out, and suggest doing something special?

In an odd way, though, this paragraph reminds me of just how unchanging some things are, even as we’ve undergone major societal change in other areas.

Now, there are a lot of things in this book that have just sort of run along, as Katy moves to the city, marries, and so forth. So, now, Prentiss offers a moment to reflect on how Katy has changed—and not changed.

I have been reading over the early part of this journal, and when I came to the conversation I had with Mrs. Cabot, in which I made a list of my wants, I was astonished that I could ever have had such contemptible ones. Let me think what I really and truly most want now.

First of all, then, if God should speak to me at this moment and offer to give just one thing, and that alone, I should say without hesitation,

Love to Thee, O my Master!

What contemptible ones? Katy wanted to be liked and admired, the center of a group of lauding friends and acquaintances. There’s an element of this that sounds like Katy growing up—she’s 22 now, not 16 or 17 anymore.

But there’s one area where Katy isn’t ready to give—she is sick unto death of having Ernest’s sister and mother living in her household.

Next to that, if I could have one thing more, I would choose to be a thoroughly unselfish, devoted wife. Down in my secret heart I know there lurks another wish, which I am ashamed of. It is that in some way or other, some right way, I could be delivered from Martha and her father. I shall never be any better while they are here to tempt me!

Katy feels that her household cannot be the way she wants it—calm, peaceful, a perfect oasis from the cares of life—as long as Ernest’s father and sister are living with them. She feels they are tempting her into outbursts and discontent, and that she would be a better person if they did not live there.

Prentiss, as we are about to see, disagrees.

FEBRUARY 1.-Ernest spoke to-day of one of his patients, a Mrs. Campbell, who is a great sufferer, but whom he describes as the happiest, most cheerful person he ever met.

Ah. We are about to have an introduction to nineteenth century ideas about suffering. Mrs. Campbell, you see, is bedridden and in constant pain, but she is not upset about it. She believes that living with chronic pain has brought her close to Jesus, and in so doing has made her life better.

In case it’s not obvious what she’s going to teach Katy, well, it’s about to be.

Katy is amazed at Mrs. Campbell’s faith and happiness.

To look at life as she does, to feel as she does, to have such a personal love to Christ as she has, I would willingly go through every trial and sorrow. When I told her so, she smiled, a little sadly.

“Much as you envy me,” she said, “my faith is not yet so strong that I do not shudder at the thought of a young enthusiastic girl like you, going through all I have done in order to learn a few simple lessons which God was willing to teach me sooner and without the use of a rod, if I had been ready for them.”

“But you are so happy now,” I said.

“Yes, I am happy,” she replied, “and such happiness is worth all it costs. If my flesh shudders at the remembrance of what I have endured, my faith sustains God through the whole.

In other words, Mrs. Campbell believes God gave her chronic pain to teach her “a few simple lessons” she could have learned earlier if she had been “ready for them.” Um. Okay. Now that she has learned her lesson, is God going to take away the chronic pain he has apparently inflicted on her?

But no, and I’m sure she’ll find some reason why—God is using her pain to allow her to teach and influence others, perhaps—people like Katy.

But Katy is sure she knows of exceptions to this rule.

“You know,” I began, “dear Mrs. Campbell, that there are some trials that cannot do us any good. They only call out all there is in us that is unlovely and severe.”

“I don’t know of any such trials,” she replied.

“Suppose you had to live with people who were perfectly uncongenial; who misunderstood you, and who were always getting into your way as stumbling-blocks?”

“If I were living with them and they made me unhappy, I would ask God to relieve me of this trial if He thought it best. If He did not think it best, I would then try to find out the reason. He might have two reasons. One would be the good they might do me. The other the good I might do them.”

Prentiss, of course, wants us to see this teaching as correct—Mrs. Campbell is teaching Katy an important lesson, a lesson Prentiss is using this exchange to teach her readers. But, I suspect that part of what made this book so popular when it was published is that Katy does not just swallow such lessons.

Katy pushes back.

“But in the case I was supposing, neither party can be of the least use to the other.”

“You forget perhaps the indirect good one may in by living with uncongenial, tempting persons. First such people do good by the very self-denial and self-control their mere presence demands. Then, their making one’s home less home-like and perfect than it would be in their absence, may help to render our real home in heaven more attractive.”

I. What.

By this measure, we should prefer living horrible, awful lives to living happy, equanimous lives. After all, if we live pleasant lives, we would never be required to practice self-denial or self-control, and we might not desire heaven so much.

I don’t like this logic. For one thing, it utterly obliterates any reason to strive for social justice. Why help the poor, if the trials of being poor are helpful to one’s spiritual state? Why remove an abusive person from the household, if being treated badly by those around you makes one better?

“But suppose one cannot exercise self-control, and is always flying out and flaring up ?” I objected.

“I should say that a Christian who was always doing that,” she replied, gravely, “was in pressing need of just the trial God sent when He shut him up to such a life of hourly temptation. We only know ourselves and what we really are, when the force of circumstances bring us out.”

Um. No.

Being a parent has disabused me of this notion. I’ve seen that my children can sometimes fly up and get angry in times when they are under great stress. The solution in most cases is to remove the stresses. 

If my younger child is nagging and worrying my older child and I can see that my older child is about to it, I tell my younger child to knock it off. I don’t tell my older child to see this trial as an important moment of learning.

And I certainly don’t decide that my older daughter losing it when her younger brother won’t leave her alone is her showing her true self. No. No, it’s not.

“It is very mortifying and painful to find how weak one is.”

“That is true. But our mortifications are some of God’s best physicians, and do much toward healing our pride and self-conceit.”

Growing up in an evangelical church, this logic is familiar to me. But I never fully liked it. I remember hearing at some point that if a family lost a child, God probably wanted to teach them something through that. And I remember objecting. I remember asking if God killed kids to teach their parents lessons.

I don’t remember what I was told, but I definitely remember that my biggest takeaway was not to ask questions like that. Gods, I haven’t thought about that exchange for ages. I couldn’t have been that old at the time.

Anyway, one last bit:

“Do you really think, then, that God deliberately appoints to some of His children a lot where their worst passions are excited, with a desire to bring good out of this seeming evil? Why I have always supposed the best thing that could happen to me, instance, would be to have a home exactly to my mind; a home where all were forbearing, loving and good-tempered, a sort of little heaven below.”

“If you have not such a home, my dear, are you sure it is not partly your own fault?”

Whaaaaat. DAYUM. That’s harsh!

Just, ouch.

I meditated long before I answered. Was God really asking me not merely to let Martha and her father live with me on sufferance, but to rejoice that He had seen fit to let them harass and embitter my domestic life?”

“I thank you for the suggestion,” I said, at last.

Mrs. Campbell adds that Katy should try to see the good in everyone—that everyone has their virtues—and sends her on her way.


Katy promptly gets in a big fight with Martha, who has purchased rancid butter but insists refuses to admit that the butter is rancid, instead insisting that Katy is just being particular. Katy isn’t having it, and tells her as much.

I find it hard to believe that it can do me good to have people live with me who like rancid butter, and who disagree with me in everything else.

But of course, it’s painful evident to the reader that we are to view Mrs. Campbell as wise, and that Katy will eventually see the truth in her advice—she’ll just take some time to get there. This, I suppose, makes Katy more relatable than she would be if she swooned at godly counsel and immediately accepted and implemented it with perfection.

Now, there’s an element of religion that has always been about giving people ways to deal with things in life they cannot change. Mrs. Campbell is likely happier believing that there is a purpose to her chronic pain than she would be if she thought it were just random. And Katy has been given new resolve for accepting something she cannot change—her in-laws presence in her household.

The trouble is that there are side effects to these teachings and ideas. Why find medical cures, if illness is God’s way of teaching people lessons? In offering people a way to find meaning in suffering, these ideas can end up glorifying suffering. Certainly, Katy should work on her temper. I learned long ago that blowing up when I’m mad is usually less effective than taking a deep breath and explaining earnestly what is bothering me. But Martha’s treatment of Katy is also not okay. Katy should not have to accept her abuse.

And maybe that’s the primarily issue here—that too much emphasis on finding meaning in suffering can lead to an acceptance of suffering, even when that suffering is neither necessary nor right. Katy can work to become a better person, but she cannot control Martha’s behavior, and as long as Martha treats her the way she has been, Katy’s life will always been full of her daily barbs.

As a reader asked last week, would it be that hard for Ernest to tell his sister that if she is going to live with them, she has to treat his wife with respect, and end this constant meanness and picking? This is going on in Katy’s own house, for god’s sake. Would it be that hard for Ernest to say something?

I have a Patreon! Please support my writing! 

"Nanook (1922) was arguably the first documentary, about the Inuit. I believe there was a ..."

Door in the Dragon’s Throat: Bill’s ..."
"Dr. Cooper would definitely be headless."

Door in the Dragon’s Throat: Bill’s ..."
"I understand that after the Soviet-Afghanistan wars, there was a lot of Afghanis with western ..."

Door in the Dragon’s Throat: Bill’s ..."
"Indeed! He seems to be the only sensible person there."

Door in the Dragon’s Throat: Bill’s ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment