When she was twenty-six-years-old, Katherine Wolf led what seemed like the perfect life. She lived in a beach house in Malibu with her husband Jay, and their 6-month-old baby boy, while working as a model.
Then one day everything changed.
In April 2008, Katherine suffered an arteriovenous malformation which caused a brain stroke, leading to a loss of fine motor coordination, double vision, deafness, and facial paralysis.
Despite traumatic and devastating circumstances, Katherine and Jay did not lose their joy, and they credit that to their faith in God. In their second book, “Suffer Strong: How to Survive Anything by Redefining Everything,” the two take turns explaining how they overcame the toughest moment they’ve faced in their lives.
On redefining hope
In their first book, “Hope Heals,” the two talked about how over the years they redefined what hope means to them. In an interview with Faithwire, they explained how having hope is not just about wishing for a positive outcome, but instead yearning for a relationship with Jesus.
“Hope may be the most important word in the human language,” Wolf shared. “It’s the experience that keeps us persevering through an unsafe world to an unknown future. And yet we often hinge our whole life on a definition of hope that is more about what we really want to happen in our life, the positive outcomes we know are just out of our reach.”
“Then, if those don’t happen, we are undone, disenchanted, and in despair,” she added. “For us, realizing hope is not about a yearning for positive outcomes but about yearning for a relationship with the source of hope, Jesus, changes everything. The outcomes matter less than the process and that paradigm shift changes everything.”
On redefining hope
Not only have the Wolf’s taken a stand to redefine hope, but they have also worked to redefine beauty as well.
Katherine explained that when life takes unexpected turns, it is catalytic to redefining things.
“Either I’m going to crumble under my unmet expectations or I’m going to change how I view it all. If we know we can’t change the outcome, or even automatically wish or even pray away our circumstances, we can be encouraged knowing we can choose the story we tell ourselves,” she explained.
Katherine added that we get to decide how we react to adversity, and in turn, get to choose the lessons we take from each as well. She’s learned a lot about this, regarding beauty in particular, through her stroke, and the life-altering changes she went through.
“Like hope, longing for the beauty in life is a good longing, but it’s often made in our image, marred by our own issues,” she explained. “Beauty is so complex in our humanity, and particularly in our modern-day, digital culture. The messages of how we should look and who should be valued are all around us, permeating our subconscious.”
“First, we have to be aware, who is telling us the true story of our beauty? A company whose purpose is to sell us a ‘cure for our humanity?’ Harmful voices from the past that haunt us with insecurity and feelings of unworthiness. I’ve found that the truest and deepest beauty is found when we choose to walk away from shame and toward a love and a beauty that never fails.”
On redefining suffering
In their new book, “Suffer Strong,” Katherine and Jay talk about how they went from viewing suffering as punishment to a privilege.
“Suffering of some kind or another is an inevitability in human life,” she expressed. “And yet, when most of us go through pain, we often feel like our experience is the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone! We feel like the victim.”
“We feel broken and unable to embrace the life that is right in front of us because we are fixated on the life we don’t have. Yet so much of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus was about sorrow and suffering that it seems strange that people who claim to follow him will follow him anywhere but to their own crosses.”
She pointed out that following Jesus oftentimes looks like an “upside-down kingdom” where being brought low is ironically the way up.
“And the book of Job reveals this mysterious and overwhelming communion found with God when He allows us to experience hardship,” she pointed out. “And though we would never choose it, we get to choose to steward it well. And that act changes the story, not just for ourselves, but for anyone who witnesses what we do with our pain.”
On finding purpose in suffering
Not only are the Wolf’s redefining words like hope and beauty in their daily lives, but they are using their platforms to show that there can be purpose in suffering.
“Suffering is a universal experience,” Katherine pointed out. “It often leaves us as isolated as individuals because we feel no one would understand our specifics, but the irony is that we’re all struggling alone. Pain is pain. The more we can be vulnerable with our struggles, the more we can all begin to find health and healing together.”
She pointed out that the beginning of finding strength is simply by being honest and sharing your story.
“And then, in the right timing, we get to be the listening ear for others’ hard stories and get to help them find God in the midst. And this process takes time.”
“Grief takes time,” she added. “Mourning the loss of what you had or hoped for takes time. And the church should get more comfortable with sitting in the hurts alongside one other.”
She also pointed out that not all suffering passes, some suffering and sadness is lifelong, and that’s okay.
“One day it won’t be that way anymore. And we’ve found that healing can’t fully begin until we begin to look outside of our own wounds to the wounds of others. Serving and offering up our own experience and lives, ‘hoping it forward,’ lifts our gaze from our own navels to the world outside us and God above us and allows us to give away the hope and healing we’ve been given for the cause of others.”
On the relational impact of suffering
Despite the pain, suffering, and trials the couple has been through, Jay and Katherine have kept God at the center of their marriage, and their stronghold through it all.
“The stroke happened 3 ½ years after we married. We were 26 at the time,” Katherine shared. “We had no idea there were any medical problems or storms ahead. The stroke happened without symptom or warning and changed everything in our lives, marriage, and family forever.”
She pointed out that while every marriage pledges “in sickness or in health,” couples typically don’t know what they’re committing to until it hits, whether that be health, issues, pain, or worse.
“This can feel bleak until we realize this covenant of marriage isn’t a prison but a safe harbor,” she explained. “We can be vulnerable and messy and things can turn out so differently than we thought they would, but within the confines of the promise, we can both choose to rebuild something new, to dream new dreams together, and to learn to love a new person in the process.”
Adding that not only do couples commit to “painful unknowns” but also to potential.
“The good news is, we don’t have to be the ones to change them—that heavy lifting’s for God—but rather, we can cheer on and uplift who we see them becoming as they do the same for us,” she explained. “Marriage is no doubt one of the hardest and most unnatural things a human can do, and ours continues to be full of lots of challenges, and yet, it’s also given us a glimpse of God we never could have experienced otherwise, and it’s so, so good.”
Just like with individuals, suffering can either destroy a relationship or strengthen it. Jay and Katherine have experienced this first hand.
“Will it break us or make us into something new? Will our hearts be hardened in bitterness or softened in compassion?” she asked. “Couples have to find a way to process this together, knowing that each person’s process will be different, in timing and expression, yet knowing it’s worth the wait to seek healing together.”
“Telling and re-telling to each other the story of God in the midst of our pain, the true story of our hurts and the true story of our hope, invites us to remember it together as a couple,” she shared. “And then we need others to help us remember it too.”
Katherine pointed out how easy it is for suffering to isolate, and how may marriages crumble because of it. She shared how in her and Jay’s marriage, they learned how important it is to seek trusted advisors for help, even as a married couple.
“We’re big proponents of seeking outside wisdom and counsel, from a therapist to a pastor to a wise confidant. And certainly, the prayer on our lips often regarding our marriage is that God would give us a soft and compassionate heart toward each other, and He has.”
Katherine, whose stroke left her in a wheelchair, pointed out that while she is confined to a wheelchair, “we all have invisible wheelchairs inside us.”
“This message is universal, and since each chapter is a stand-alone topic and we each write separate chapters back and forth, it really does cover a pretty wide audience,” she explained, pointing out that the book is really for anyone.
“And I have to say too, it’s vulnerable and weighty but surprisingly funny too because life is (and because we don’t take ourselves too seriously either). Despite the provocative title, the book is less about how to suffer and more about what we get to do with what remains.”
“Those limitations and wounds can be the beginning of something new, and quite powerfully they can be the beginning of a flourishing we could have never experienced without them,” she shared.
“Life defines us. Suffering redefines us. And hope refines us.”
Suffer Strong: How to Survive Anything by Redefining Everything comes out on February 11, 2020. You can pre-order the book on Amazon.