Karen Ehman: My faith doesn’t always grow during the good times. It can when we’re reading God’s word and we’re memorizing scripture and we’re praying and we’re in fellowship with others, we can grow. But sometimes those bad times are there like miracle grow for our faith. It’s where we really run to God because we have to. And that’s when our intimacy with Him deepens and our faith becomes more real, during those difficulties of life.
Growing Our Faith Through Hard Times: Karen Ehman & Kristina Kotlus – Episode #241
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Think about the times you’ve felt strongest in your faith—was it when everything was going your way and you seemingly had no struggles? Or did you feel your faith expand and solidify after you’d experienced a difficult moment in your life, like an unexpected diagnosis, or a rocky period during your marriage? Our guests this week are familiar with a faith that grows through times of joy, and times of pain—and have learned to look to God in each season; author and speaker Karen Ehman and two-time cancer survivor Kristina Kotlus.
Karen Ehman is a Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker and New York Times bestselling author. Her passion lies in aiding women to love their lives as they serve God and others. After authoring and publishing more than fourteen books, Karen’s most recent title, Make Their Day, focuses on how to outshine the negativity of the world and reach out to others with love and compassion. Throughout her life, Karen has sought to live by Biblical principles, holding to that standard in her marriage and while raising her kids. She knows that no part of life will ever be perfect and simple, but she stands firm in her belief that God is guiding her and all those who seek Him to ultimately experience joy and contentment in their daily lives and with those they love.
Karen Ehman: I’m Karen Ehman with Proverbs 31 Ministries, I’m an author and a speaker, and I reside in Michigan, the middle of the mitten state up there in the north. And I’ve got three children. They’re all adults now.
Letting Go of Expectations in Marriage
Todd and I have been married thirty-two years. Sometimes when you get further into your relationship, especially when you get married, those strengths can sometimes morph into weaknesses because they get carried to an extreme, and now those are the things that drive you the most crazy about your spouse. For example, my husband, I loved that he was a laid back, agreeable sort. In college we would talk about, “Hey, where do you want to go out to eat and what movie should we see?” He always said, “I have no opinion. You choose.” And I loved that setup. I just loved it. That laid back, go with the flow personality.
Once we became married, I interpreted and misinterpreted sometimes as passivity because he would just not do anything. You know, when I’d say, “Hey, we need to get this done,” he’d go, “Oh, well, who do I call?” Or, “I’ll get around to it.” And I just interpreted that kind of laid back, never in a hurry personality as being passive because, I’m a pretty much get things done and let’s get it done now. In fact, I would have done it yesterday had I known it needed to be done today. And he looks at me with—what first attracted him to me was the way I could just talk to anyone. And he loved that about me because he’s a little more reserved and quiet. But he said about three days into our honeymoon, he wondered, Is she ever going to stop talking, because that strength of being good at conversation and communication can morph into a weakness of monopolizing the conversations. So I feel like those strengths get carried to the extreme. Now they’re a weakness and now we feel like we’re incompatible. But we need to just really learn to kind of dig under that surface and read between the lines to see that sometimes the things that drive us crazy, really there’s something good in there.
I think we just need to let go of the expectations of what we thought marriage was going to be like or what we hoped it would be like or trying to mimic another person’s marriage, that is not what it’s all about. And that will just leave you discouraged because you’re not going to be able to do it. It’s so much more exciting and fulfilling when we look for God in the little things in our marriage, in forming a team together within our four walls and then finding ministry outside of our four walls together to just let it be a blank slate and watch for God working in your own marriage. It brings this little level of excitement when you watch God work while you two are forming a team and working together.
“It brings this little level of excitement when you watch God work while you two are forming a team and working together.” – Karen Ehman
Practical Ways to Keep Showing Up in Marriage
One thing I’d love to encourage people to do is to get to know your spouse all over again. And by that I mean sometimes when life gets rolling down through the years and life’s happening, you’re maybe buying a house or you’re going forward in your careers or maybe kids are part of it, it’s so easy to just forget that your spouse is an individual. And you just kind of fall into this rut, in this routine, but I like to just try to sometimes bring up conversations that will ask him something that I might not know.
Another thing I love to do is to just encourage women and men to cheer on their spouse in the way that their spouse will hear, because so often the way that we show love is not the way our spouse receives love. However your spouse feels love, learn to to cheer them on in life, in their career, in their parenting, and their friendships. Just when you notice things about them that are admirable, point them out, whether that means you write them a little note to say it or you lighten the load and do one of their chores around the house. Just do something that really speaks to them and cheers them on in a way that they will hear.
“So often the way that we show love is not the way our spouse receives love.” – Karen Ehman
Then I would say the third thing for a practical way we can keep showing up is when you are speaking about your spouse to other people, especially to some of your girlfriends, do not speak about them in a way that’s dishonoring. You know, so often we run to our friends to complain about our spouses or we run to our spouse and complain about them instead. Talk about them still, but talk to God, make prayer a priority. I think that’s just a real crucial way that we can keep showing up is to use our words to speak to God about our marriages and to speak to God about our own behavior. I don’t need to talk to everybody that I have in my contacts list on my phone about something that’s happening with my husband. I don’t even need to always go to him about something. Sometimes I know there are things that I really feel I need to confront my husband about and tell him how he hurt my feelings or how he didn’t do the right thing. And I’ll just feel the Lord just kind of tapping on my heart, saying, “Come talk to me about it a little while.” So keep showing up in prayer.
“I think that’s just a real crucial way that we can keep showing up is to use our words to speak to God about our marriages and to speak to God about our own behavior.” – Karen Ehman
Facing “Not So Happily Ever After” Times in Marriage
I know that I look at the times in my own marriage where maybe we hit a little bit of a lull or I was a little discouraged feeling, like I don’t know, things weren’t so happily ever after after all. So often I think we want to run away from them because who likes pain, who likes difficulties, who likes problems? But really, I can look back in my life and look back and see those exact difficulties, those problems, those pains, they were kind of the fertilizer for my faith. They’re when my faith grew the most. And take those things we’re worried about and turn them into our prayer list about chasing contentment and about really what matters most.
“I can look back in my life and see those exact difficulties, those problems, those pains, they were kind of the fertilizer for my faith. They’re when my faith grew the most.” – Karen Ehman
When I first started seeing different people years ago posting these little inspirational paragraphs that were so wonderful, whenever I would get to the bottom of the paragraph, it would say from Jesus Calling. And I’m like, what is this Jesus Calling? And so I actually got my hands on a copy of it and didn’t keep it long, because I have a young woman that I’m mentoring that she was over and she saw it, and she said, “What is that book?” And she was just starting to learn how to read her Bible each day and just had time set aside to focus on prayer and stuff. And I thought, Oh, I should give her this book. So I gave it to her. I actually need to get another copy. But I have just been very just amazed at how many people have been impacted by the thoughts that are in that book that tether back to scripture, that put in a fresh way God’s thoughts toward us that are right there in the Bible, but that helps us to kind of think about them in a new way, to be reassured of His promises toward us, and His love of us and His care for us.
This is the Jesus Calling entry for May 10th. It says this:
Do not resist or run from the difficulties in your life. These problems are not random mistakes; they are hand-tailored blessings designed for your benefit and growth. Embrace all the circumstances that I allow in your life, trusting Me to bring good out of them. View problems as opportunities to rely more fully on Me.
When you start to feel stressed, let those feelings alert you to your need for Me. Thus, your needs become doorways to deep dependence on Me and increasing intimacy between us. Although self-sufficiency is acclaimed in the world, reliance on Me produces abundant living in My kingdom. Thank Me for the difficulties in your life since they provide protection from the idolatry of self-reliance.
I just love the encouragement to not try to run away from the difficulties and run away from the problems, but to embrace those rough patches in life.
Narrator: To learn more about Karen and her work, visit https://www.karenehman.com.
Stay tuned to Kristina Kotlus’ story after a brief message.
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Narrator: Our next guest is brain and spine cancer survivor Kristina Kotlus, who writes about her moving story in her book I Quit: Facing Cancer with Faith, Family, & Friends. Kristina strived to live a healthy lifestyle, running and watching what she ate. When she began to develop painful headaches, she was prescribed medication for migraines—and tried to push through the pain the debilitating migraines would bring. It wasn’t until she fainted in the hallway of her own home one morning that a new reality would be revealed from an MRI—a diagnosis of brain cancer. Kristina shares about surgery and treatments to beat back the cancer—only to have another diagnosis later down the line—this time the cancer would show up in her spine. Kristina recounts the moments of fear and disappointment as daily tasks of living life became more difficult, how friends and family rallied around her, and ultimately, how she’s been able to draw closer to God because of the blessings she’s seen happen during the time of her illness.
Kristina: So a little bit about myself, I live in Virginia with my husband and our three children and we homeschool, and that takes up most of my time. They are eleven, thirteen, and fifteen. And when I’m not driving them all over the place to various activities, I host a website for local families to help them feel more connected to their area that we live in. And I enjoy volunteering with my church and community.
I grew up in Northern Virginia. I had the four-person mom and dad family with two kids and a dog. My brother Kevin and I were just really blessed to grow up in a very loving home, a very supportive home. I worked very hard in school. I was always tying a lot of my identity into my ability to get good grades and to win awards. And then when I was in high school—I went to Hilton High School in Woodbridge, Virginia—I really turned my attention to debate and politics. And I was hoping to work in international relations.
I left home to go to the College of the Holy Cross, which is in Worcester, Massachusetts. And that was really my first experience being away from home. And I decided to major in religious studies and either Russian or French linguistics. And then just really found a love for religion and philosophy and really enjoyed studying that.
I got married at nineteen and had my first son just before I turned twenty and we transferred back down to Virginia, where I finished my studies at George Mason with a degree in comparative religious studies. And I ended up having another child just before I graduated from college and then another one-to-two years after that.
I was always raised in the church. And I was blessed to have that knowledge that He was with me. It really wasn’t until I was diagnosed that I really understood an actual really scary thing, and I actually saw God’s ability to step into that huge void where I couldn’t carry the load and I couldn’t change my circumstances, but He could. I really understood that He had the power to change my life and to change my circumstances and to step into my life, and take something that was intended for evil and use it for good.
“It really wasn’t until I was diagnosed that I really understood an actual really scary thing, and I actually saw God’s ability to step into that huge void where I couldn’t carry the load and I couldn’t change my circumstances, but He could.” – Kristina Kotlus, on her cancer diagnosis
An Unexpected Diagnosis
So I had been having symptoms for several months. I had been running more and more, which was impressive for me and I was very proud of myself for finishing a ten mile run. But after I finished the run, I started having really debilitating headaches that I couldn’t control with medication. And I got to the point where I would just be crying on the floor because the pain was so terrible.
And this is really uncharacteristic for me because I was the type of person that didn’t believe in pain. Like, I had all three of my children with no drugs. I really was able to overcome pain most of the time, but I was not able to overcome this. And that was in April. When we went on vacation over the summer, I had this strange symptom where I usually lie on my stomach to read books and I couldn’t do that anymore because my eyes would just go black. And by August we had reached the point where I was just weeping one night on our floor in our bedroom. And my husband is like, “You really have to make a decision that you’re going to get some help.”
I ended up going to the emergency room and having a doctor tell me I was having migraines. And so I pushed through a couple more months. And in December, I got up one day to help my son—my little son plays ice hockey. And when I stood up to help him, I passed out in our hallway. And that was really the point at which we knew something was terribly wrong, more so than migraines, and we found a new doctor that was able to get me in for an MRI and to actually diagnose the problem.
Facing the Reality of a Life with Cancer
And so once I was diagnosed and was told what the issue was, we found a neurosurgeon who was able to do a surgery for me, and it took sixteen hours and we were so fortunate in that experience because we had people covering us in prayer the entire day. We actually had what my friends called a prayer party online that people could sign up for. They were able to go on and sign up for fifteen minute spots, starting with when we left for the hospital in the morning. So we got up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready to get to the hospital, and people got up at 4:00 a.m. and started praying for us.
We were initially told that the surgery would take four to six hours. And I wrote my husband notes one note for every hour of surgery, little jokes or little stories or just things to make him smile so I could be supporting him even though I couldn’t be there. And I wrote him thirteen notes just in case and a fourteenth note to read in case things did not go our way and he needed to be able to handle funeral arrangements or something like that, because that was a very real possibility. The only note that he had for the last three hours of my surgery was the “open in case it goes wrong.”
After twelve hours, you’re supposed to have major neurological and physical deficits. I was really blessed to come out of it and be okay. My family tells me that when they came to the ICU because recovery had already closed at that point. They came in and I heard them talking and saying something about sixteen hours. And my first words were, “What took you so long?” And they knew that I was going to be okay.
Surviving Brain Cancer and a Second Diagnosis
I did six weeks of radiation to the brain. Brain radiation causes exhaustion like you’ve never felt before. [It was] definitely hard to not be able to function as a mother the way that I wanted to because of the location of the tumors on my spine—my cancer came back not in my brain, but in my spine.
And with my second diagnosis, I had a lot of depression and a lot of fear and a lot of anger, especially because it wasn’t seven to ten years. It was not as long as it was supposed to be. And I was very frustrated by that. They weren’t going to be able to do the surgery to completely remove it without paralyzing me or causing other serious deficits. And then we did another six weeks of spinal cord radiation and I was also able to do a year of daily oral chemotherapy.
And so one of the things that I did was I let myself have the emotions I was going to have, but I put a time limit on it. So I would literally set an egg timer or a timer on my cell phone and give myself fifteen minutes. And I would have all of the negative thoughts. I would have all of the fears. I would just have them all and cry it out. And when my timer went off, I would literally out loud say, “Okay, you have been heard.”
“I let myself have the emotions I was going to have, but I put a time limit on it. So I would literally set an egg timer or a timer on my cell phone and give myself fifteen minutes. And I would have all of the negative thoughts. I would have all of the fears. I would just have them all and cry it out. And when my timer went off, I would literally out loud say, ‘Okay, you have been heard.’” – Kristina Kotlus
It’s actually a really interesting story about how Jesus Calling ties into my story, because my first diagnosis, I went really quickly to this place of faith and trust in God because I felt like everything that was happening was an answer to this prayer that I had prayed to see that story. And I was utterly calm. I had that peace that surpassed understanding. I went into brain surgery with a smile on my face. I was excited to see what was going to happen.
And during that time period, someone gave me a copy of Jesus Calling, and I kind of set it to the side. I was okay. And after my brain surgery, which happened within a week, it was very quick once we met the neurosurgeon. After the surgery was very hard for me, focusing my eyes that much was painful. And so the book kind of got set to the side. And with my second diagnosis, I had gone into my small group, one of the women that was in my class told me that when her husband had cancer, she read Jesus Calling to him every day.
And so I came home from church and dug through the box of cards and encouragement that I kept from the first diagnosis and found the copy. And I opened it to the day, which was February 15th. And that became almost a mantra for me. February 15th became the reason that I knew that joy was a spiritual discipline, became the reason that I looked for God to be doing good things. And so now I read February 15th of Jesus Calling every day, and then I read whatever the day is. But February 15th is particularly special to me, and it really is special for my family as well as it transforms the way that we looked for joy in our daily lives because of that passage. And so, again, I see God setting me up for success in this process because while I couldn’t read the first diagnosis, it was there for me the minute I needed it the second time.
Looking Toward the Future, Grateful for the Past
So right now, my spine scans have all been stable. We don’t see any growth in my brain. And so that’s all very exciting. I am available for that blessing, but I am also available to be here and to keep going and to show people what it looks like to live with joy, in spite of the fact that I have to keep dealing with this.
I don’t think that God gave me cancer, I don’t think that He shot down a lightning bolt from heaven and put the tumor inside of my head, but I do think that He used that experience as an answer to that prayer for me to see Him.
“I don’t think that God gave me cancer, I don’t think that He shot down a lightning bolt from heaven and put the tumor inside of my head, but I do think that He used that experience as an answer to that prayer for me to see Him.” – Kristina Kotlus
Philippians 4:7 was a verse that really made a lot of difference in my life. We talk about that all the time, the peace that surpasses understanding. But I don’t think I really understood what it meant until the night that I learned I had a brain tumor and was able to feel that peace that made no sense, that was illogical. And so it was so important to me to be able to look back at this experience, even in that moment when I was diagnosed, and to know that this was an answer. I had asked to see God’s glory and He was going to take this opportunity to do it.
In terms of looking back at my cancer diagnosis and what I’ve been through and what my family’s been through and being able to see what God was able to do with that, there’s just so much that when I look back in retrospect, I see God’s blueprint over my entire life.
But God was like, “No, even more than that, I have more blessings for you.” And so I’m still seeing the effects, the ripples from me being willing to be public with this experience and what God was doing and people being able to see God. And so really backing up and saying, “I’m going to trust you with this experience, I’m going to trust you to show up and show off.” And not knowing necessarily that that meant I was going to get better, but knowing that God had a plan for how He was going to use this, I’ve been able to see Him do things that I never would have thought possible, that I never would have even thought to ask for, because His glory is so much bigger and greater than anything that we could just perceive or imagine. And so it’s been an amazing experience.
I know all the potential bad outcomes and I am choosing now to move on. And I am choosing joy and I am deciding that I am going to go forward with confidence because I know my God has this.
“I am choosing joy and I am deciding that I am going to go forward with confidence because I know my God has this.” – Kristina Kotlus
Narrator: You can read more about Kristina’s story at kristinakotlus.com, or in her book, I Quit: Facing Cancer with Faith, Family, & Friends, available at your favorite book retailer.
If you’d like to hear more stories about faith to get through difficult times, check out our interview with Dawn Barton.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we hear from pastor and life coach Tim Storey, who is an internationally known motivational speaker and author. Tim shares how he’s proclaiming the good news of Jesus in all that he does, and how he believes, and has seen firsthand that God is a God of miracles.
Tim Storey: I believe that, number one, God is a miracle working God, that’s part of what He does. And so, you know, God is many things. He’s a forgiver. He is a healer. He’s a mender. He is one who brings peace, but He’s also one who brings forth miracles. And so out of His nature, He does what He does. So what I have found is that miracles are either coming or going at all times.