By Barry Rodriguez
My head was spinning as I walked out the door. I looked around at the overcast sky, the tall trees, and the muddy pathway in front of me and shook my head. It was like emerging from a dream.
For the last hour, I had been on the receiving end of a fire hose of scripture, prophecy, challenges, encouragement, and prayer from one of the most godly, Spirit-filled men of faith I’d ever met.
He spoke of his deep gratitude for God’s provision. He shared his hopes and dreams for both this life and the one to come. He shared passage after passage of scripture from memory. After hearing him share, my perspective on thankfulness was forever changed.
Who was this man? Some globe-trotting evangelist? A famous pastor? Perhaps a professor at a Bible college?
Nope. His name is Cesar. He’s poor, he’s paralyzed, and he lives in constant pain.
Yet despite the fact he has no idea how much longer he will live, despite the fact he can’t provide for his family, and despite the fact he’s confined to his bed, Cesar is a man of deep gratitude.
You read that correctly. Cesar, a paralyzed Guatemalan farmer, is thankful for the things God has done.
I first heard about Cesar during my initial visit to Saber y Gracia. His three children are in the school’s sponsorship program, and Lauren and Rudi told me he was someone I needed to meet. So one afternoon we piled into Rudi’s car and headed over to Cesar’s bright orange home on the edge of Santo Tomás.
We entered the house, greeted Cesar’s wife and three delightful children, and took a seat by the side of his bed. After exchanging a few introductions, he just launched right in, sharing his testimony with an urgency and passion I didn’t immediately understand.
Because Cesar can’t turn his head, and because I sat at the foot of his bed, he was looking my direction during most of our conversation. As he quoted scriptures, shared encouragements, and challenged us in our faith, I couldn’t help but feel like he was talking specifically to me.
At one point he looked me right in the eyes and quoted 1 Thessalonians 5:18. “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
After reciting the verse, he repeated passionately, “Be grateful in everything. Be grateful in everything.”
It was a moment I will never forget. All I could do was sit in stunned silence. Knowing what his life had been like up to that point, it simply didn’t make any sense.
What in the world does Cesar have to be grateful for?!?
Twelve years ago, Cesar was a healthy, hard-working farmer trying to make ends meet for his young family. One day, however, he noticed something was wrong. He began experiencing pains throughout his body as he worked.
Visits to multiple doctors revealed that Cesar had a rare and awful condition that caused his bones to slowly fuse together. Three years later, he could no longer work and was confined to his bed, paralyzed over much of his body and in great pain.
Making matters worse, Cesar’s condition was degenerative. As time passed, he lost more and more of his ability to operate his limbs. Today, Cesar can only move his eyes, his mouth, and his right hand. I can’t think of a more awful way to live. Not only is he in great pain, not only does he have an uncertain future, but he has absolutely no ability to care for himself and must face the daily indignities of helplessness and dependence.
And yet, as he spoke with us, it was clear he wasn’t just paying lip service to the concept of gratitude. His thankfulness seemed to permeate every fiber of his being.
He explained, for example, that he’s grateful God gave him such a wonderful wife who has stuck with him all these years. He’s grateful as well that God has provided an education for his children, despite the fact that he can’t work. He’s grateful that friends from the US donated and built a new house for his family.
But Cesar’s gratitude goes one step deeper than that. He isn’t just grateful for things that have come about in spite of his illness. He’s grateful for the illness itself.
What in the world? How could anyone be grateful for such a horrific condition?
My confusion continued until Cesar recited 2 Corinthians 12:8-10 from memory (the way he did with every Bible verse. The guy is a machine):
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
After reciting the verse, Cesar continued, “So that’s truth, that’s real. When I have pain in my body a lot of times at night or early morning, that’s when I can feel God’s power over me and he holds me in his arms. He says, ‘my son you are beloved, rest in my grace.’”
Wow. Cesar is grateful for his illness because it is through weakness that Christ is strong.
Cesar is grateful that his illness forces him to rely on God in ways he never had to before. He’s grateful that his illness has given him time to meditate on the truths of God’s Word. He’s grateful that his illness has brought him in contact with believers from all around the world.
And he’s grateful that he now he has a platform to share the gospel with his neighbors. He told us, “I used to have to pound down their doors to talk about Jesus. Now they come to visit me and I can talk about him all I want!”
Cesar understands something I never fully did before, and it’s this – his condition makes him weak in his own power, but strong in Christ’s.
As we came to the end of our time together, Cesar sang us one of his favorite hymns, then prayed over our group. I was stunned as I thought about what I was witnessing. In an impoverished community far from my home, at the bedside of a weak and helpless paralytic, I was in the presence of one of the most powerful people of faith I’ve ever met.
When I am weak, then I am strong.
Now that is something to be grateful for.
Click below to hear Cesar share some of his testimony. Lauren Pupchik, a full-time missionary working with Saber y Gracia, is translating.