Eric Gaudion’s story is an affront to the prosperity gospel. It contradicts the misguided belief that Christians don’t get sick. It challenges those who guarantee your healing – if only you pray harder, obey more or have more faith.
It was 1996 and Gaudion was senior pastor of Elim’s flagship church in Wales, City Temple, when he fell ill. Initially he ignored the symptoms, but when his abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea and weakness refused to dissipate, he sought help. Soon afterwards, he collapsed. A series of interventions were attempted, including the removal of his gallbladder, but nothing worked.
Gaudion was diagnosed with acute hemorrhaging pancreatitis. “It’s one of the most painful conditions known to humankind,” he says. “It requires intensive care and it’s often fatal…it really didn’t seem that I’d survive”.
As a Pentecostal minister with a healing ministry, Gaudion was eager to seek out prayer. His church prayed and fasted for him, but to no avail. As the years progressed, he would even travel around the world to be prayed for by well-known Christians with large healing ministries, but nothing seemed to work.
“I had so much oil poured on my head I wonder that my hair ever dried!” he remembers.
Despite his desire to persevere through the pain, it soon dawned on him that he wasn’t well enough to continue to lead the church, so he stepped down. “It broke my heart to do that,” he remembers. In obedience to medical advice to rest for the next six months, he moved back to Guernsey, where he grew up. It was thought a break from the considerable stresses of church leadership might help him recover. Unfortunately, the illness got worse. “It was on the island that I spent my first long stint in intensive care and very nearly died,” he says.
Speaking of the toll the illness took on his wife over a 22-year period, he says: “There was only one time in ICU when she couldn’t bring herself to come in – I had terrible mental problems and was screaming, shouting and yelling for three days and she couldn’t face it. Our teenage son, Matthew, suffered too, when the nurses predicted I wouldn’t survive.”
The psychological pain was often the most difficult aspect of the illness. Gaudion endured periods of paranoia, hallucinations and confusion, and even wrestled with suicidal thoughts, which he partly attributes to long periods on “very depressive” pain-relief drugs. “I just felt, you know, I’m going to heaven. Why wouldn’t I just get there more quickly? I look back on that now, and I’m not proud of it. I don’t find it easy to talk about. But I thank God he helped me to see the pain I would cause Diane, Matthew, the church and my testimony. ‘My times are in his hands’ [Psalm 31:15], and I have to be willing each day to say: ‘Lord, I leave that with you. When you take me, that will be my time.’”
The question of how God could allow this disease to even exist, let alone oppress someone for so long, still occupies Gaudion’s mind.
“I feel like it’s a problem we’re not going to fully solve this side of eternity. But it becomes particularly difficult when you have a Pentecostal or charismatic theology and you know that God intervenes in response to prayer and he does heal. Why would he allow this? I spent 20 years on opiates. I took 1,000 milligrams of morphine equivalent each day, and I was still in agony.”
The disease was so debilitating he didn’t always have the strength to comprehend such deep questions, but he found some solace in the book of Job: “We get an insight into an unseen spiritual world where God was doing stuff in and through Job’s life that he wasn’t aware of. I suppose I’m still unaware of all God has done in me and through me in this. But I know he is at work and he has purposes in all these situations.”
Gaudion says he’s “overwhelmed with gratitude” for the many who persistently prayed for him. Other encounters were less helpful. “Some of the things that well-meaning people say really piles on the pain,” he admits. Telling him to “pray about it”, asking “Where’s your faith?” or even suggesting he’d been cursed were all examples of how poor theology can magnify a person’s suffering. “The very worst was claiming I’d been demonised,” Gaudion says. “We’ve got to be so careful how we speak around and to people.”
After two decades of intense pain, he was offered a transplant operation that could potentially cure him, but the risks were significant. Only one other person in their 60s had undergone the procedure, and they had died as a result of a complication. The medics were upfront about the dangers, but Gaudion says he was desperate.
The operation would remove his pancreas and transplant the islets that produce insulin into the liver. Given the procedure was still at medical trial stage, there was media interest. A BBC camera crew filmed the 16-hour operation.
When I ask Gaudion what has been different since the operation in July 2017, he replies: “I’m completely free! I’m no longer on opiates. I have no pain. I thank God that my life has been transformed.”
His book Through the Storms: A manual for when life hurts (Instant Apostle) tells his story in full, and is dedicated to others who are isolated and battling chronic, long-term health problems. It’s written to give hope to those who are facing long-lasting struggles of all kinds, especially those that “seem resistant to prayer”, he says.
The release of a book grappling with a theology of suffering seems timely given the huge impact of coronavirus. Gaudion comments: “We’re facing a massive loss and grief and I feel God’s heart is with us in that grieving process; that he weeps over the losses and shares with us in the pain of all that’s happening. We also know our God is a redeeming God. And he longs to work even in crises like this, to redeem, to restore, to rebuild and, ultimately, to bring us through.”
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article and would like to talk to someone, please phone Premier Lifeline on 0300 111 0101
Listen to the full interview now on The Profile podcast