A Perfect Match
One year into my relationship with a strawberry-blond haired beauty, my fears were realized. A routine visit to my doctor showed my kidney levels were elevated. After more tests and an eventual kidney biopsy, doctors confirmed that lupus had come back to attack my transplanted kidney. I was devastated!
A Hope Against Odds
At age thirteen, I was diagnosed with systemic lupus. The disease began to attack my kidneys, and after two years of chemotherapy, my kidneys failed. I was on dialysis for a year and a half; then four days after graduating from high school, my mom gave me a kidney. Having battled the disease for five years during some of the most formative years of my life, my family and I were now simply hoping that the sickness, pills, and doctors’ visits would be a thing of the past.
In the Fall of 2008, I was going into my second year at Dallas Theological Seminary. That was when I met Caitlin, a gal from Boston who was new to the school, went to the same church, and with whom I quickly developed a friendship. Six months later, Caitlin and I began a dating relationship.
My health situation was something I felt nervous telling Caitlin about. The chances of lupus coming back to attack a transplanted kidney were rare at around two percent, but there was still a chance. There was also the chance that I could not have children due to years of chemotherapy—and my body was highly disposed to cancer, diabetes, and a few other debilitating diseases from the many medicines I was taking. Medically, I was quite the catch!
Our Ultimate Hope
The next two years began the process of walking through a time of suffering and hardship both in our lives and in our relationship. The first six months of dating included about five chemotherapy treatments, numerous hospital stays, including one stay for about 12 days, and then extended periods at the doctor’s office.
One of the hardest things was not putting our hopes in the doctor’s words and that 8 x 10 piece of paper that told how all of my blood levels were responding. It seemed that each appointment we were wrestling to cling to Psalm 146:3, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” We were encouraged by the fact that if God was sovereign over all things and All-Wise, then He saw this coming, and it was not an accident, but instead part of His design. Stories of men and women from the Bible, like Joseph who looked at his brothers and said, “You meant evil but God meant good,” and Ruth who followed God in the worst of situations, brought comfort to our hearts. We were reminded that no doctor, blood test, or mishap can hamper God’s sovereign plan in our lives for His glory and our good.
I remember one day after a doctor’s visit Caitlin and I felt like we had nowhere else to go. We just sat in the car and cried, and then we went back to my apartment and we prayed and cried some more. During this season, I had trouble sleeping. My legs were swollen and they would tingle at night and I was restless. I would sit awake for hours and struggle with doubts and discouragement.
Yet Cait and I felt so much comfort in the fact that Jesus had already walked the path we were on. Jesus wasn’t some guy telling us to joyfully endure suffering when He had no idea what suffering meant. He had already tread the path of most horrific suffering, dying on the cross in our place and for our sins to bring us to God the Father. When we cried because the pain and uncertainty were too much, we took comfort that Jesus knew what this was like. When we felt nervous and struggled with the reality of what we were walking into, we found hope in the fact that Jesus knew this too. The image of the bloodied, bruised, beautiful Son of God meeting the cross brought rest to our souls.
Hebrews 2:17 encouraged us with the idea that Jesus was both a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and one who made atonement for the sins of the people. Not only had Jesus walked the path but He had also died the death we couldn’t die, bringing us to God the Father, sending God the Spirit to empower us when we don’t have strength and power—and giving us ultimate hope that one day our suffering would be no more.
Holding on to Hope
During the summer of 2011 my kidneys were almost gone. Caitlin and I continued to pray and beg for healing, but it seemed the healing we would see would not include my diseased kidney being restored. We decided to meet with a doctor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss a possible kidney transplant. We were told that I had a 1% chance of matching anyone because of my previous transplant and a blood transfusion I had in high school. By 1% he did not mean 1 out of 100 but instead 1 out of millions or billions. He told us we could wait 10 to 15 years for a match. I felt like I had been punched in the soul.
However, while feeling devastation, we had a glimmer of hope (maybe partial denial) that this would not be. We kept ping-ponging back and forth between discouragement and hope, being downcast and being fully confident that God was still at work in our world and in our lives. Our prayers were simple and desperate, many times expressed by “Help, Lord!” or “We trust You Lord.”
We Got Married!
The idea of marriage was hard for both Caitlin and me. It was hard because we were scared of making a mistake, but also hard because of my health situation. I was nervous to invite Caitlin into marriage with the high possibility of not being able to have children due to years of chemotherapy. I was nervous about having little to give her and little ability to provide financially. Though Caitlin was excited about the possibility of marriage and being able to help care for me as my wife, at the same time, the “what if’s” and unknowns sometimes overwhelmed her. But for both of us, the constant ground we stood on was that the Lord was still lovingly in control. Psalm 27:13-14 was an anchor for Caitlin’s soul, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.”
Caitlin and I looked at marriage not just as “What do I get out of this deal?” but rather what could we give. Biblically, we knew that the sustained commitment of marriage, even in the hardest times—the “for better or for worse” times—put a big spotlight on the way Jesus Christ loved and gave His life for the church. Jesus came from the Father to serve, not to be served.
We were married on October 9, 2011! Though the doctors had told me four months earlier that I would be on dialysis, miraculously, my kidneys were still holding on. We were able to enjoy the wedding day and even go on a honeymoon! But when we got back, reality hit again with the ups and downs of my being severely sick. I was put on the kidney transplant list and we began the ominous wait that doctors had predicted to be 10-15 years.
“The Goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living”
In January of 2012, Caitlin and some of our very good friends, Erin Claxton, Richard Brindley, and Craig and Karissa Wright all tested to see if they were a match. I was filled with gratitude beyond words that Caitlin and these friends were willing to put their health on the line in order to give life and health to me. After a few days of waiting, the transplant coordinator called us. She told us the amazing news! No one was a match for me...except my wife Caitlin!
On June 19, 2012, one year after graduating from DTS and one month after graduation for me, Caitlin gave me one of her kidneys. Currently we are about 12 weeks out from the surgery and the kidney is working well. We feel like the greatness and goodness of God in our lives is simply too much. We marvel at the Lord’s providence in this situation, and how when the doctor at Emory looked at us and said 10-15 years for a match, my match was sitting right beside me!
A few weeks ago the doctors were concerned that I had developed a serious infection, and Caitlin and I were sitting in the Emergency Room. It was a reminder that even in the wake of the abundant goodness and unsearchable greatness of the Lord, we still wrestle and struggle on this side of heaven. Thankfully, the cross looms over all of our stories and has been the ultimate reminder for Cait and me that God is not finished yet. The cross looked like all was lost, but even there, God was working for our good and to make much of His name. Jesus was crucified so that all might not be lost. In great affection He took our place, giving to us a righteousness that we cannot attain on our own. The fact that there was a resurrection following Jesus’ crucifixion encourages Caitlin and me even in the worst of times. We anchor our hope not just on a kidney continuing to work—but on Jesus who is coming back one day to take away all sickness, to wipe away all tears, and to bring healing and restoration to all that has been broken and lost in this world. The verse we cling to now is Titus 2:13, “…we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
One of the things Caitlin and I love about the Lord is the fact that He is always working, even in the minutia and details of our lives, to bring about His grander purposes for His glory and our joy. The Bible says that the sparrow does not even fall to the ground without the Lord knowing, and even more, He, the Lord of the Universe, numbers the very hairs on our head. God is at work even in the darkest times of life. He is working during waiting times and weeping times. The Triune God is on the move even in the mess, dysfunction, and times of our lives when there seems to be no hope.
Jonathan and Caitlin Woodlief currently live in Dallas, Texas. They enjoy reading, hiking, sports (Caitlin is teaching Jonathan to snowboard), and watching movies. Their future hope is to move to New England or East Asia to be a part of a ministry of teaching, discipleship and mission-mobilization to the least and the last in our generation.