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Through His Grace

Published on February 28, 2023

Sarah Freymuth

A multiple-sport athlete, Emma Kilian excelled on the soccer pitch, basketball and volleyball courts.

Her junior year at Heritage Christian Academy in Kalamazoo, Mich., Kilian had closed out a successful volleyball season, ending the fall with hopes of shattering school records the next year.

But during the middle of a basketball game later that winter, she dove for a loose ball and tumbled to the ground, opponent falling on top of her. Kilian’s head crashed onto the hardwood multiple times.

Diagnosed with a concussion, she spent the next week in a darkened room and in bed, recovering. After a few weeks, however, she still wasn’t feeling well. The way she’d react to her family was off and emotions were strewn all over the place. Kilian knew something wasn’t right. A few weeks later, she began brain therapy and worked out her mental capacity for three months.

Unable to participate in her spring soccer season, Kilian watched fromEmma her dad and sister the sidelines, confused and crushed. For her, soccer is a family sport: her dad is the head coach and her younger sister, Maddie, also plays on the team. Although completely supported, Kilian felt alone, that is until she found company with a couple other injured teammates.

“We all struggled with the mental part of feeling left out and facing questions of ‘Why right now?’” said Kilian. “With COVID the year before, we couldn’t even play our season, so we felt cheated out of two years.”

But as she listened to the other girls wrestle with their setbacks, Kilian began to see a wider purpose for her pain. She began driving some of them to physical therapy and spending time commiserating together and joking around.

“Another girl got a concussion and struggled,” she said. “While I was struggling too, I got to be with other girls who needed me.”

Kilian’s perspective also started to shift about her role as captain.

“I thought [this season] I was to be a leader on the field, but it was to be a leader to the girls sitting out,” she realized.

She did get to play the last two soccer games of the season, and then she spent her summer catching up on classes and nannying. But the headaches and low energy continued, and the lack of routine and activity got to her mentally. Bloodwork and CT scans continued, and a nutritionist appointment was added in August as Kilian struggled with her stomach.

During the summer as the struggles kept coming, Kilian deepened her faith and made it personal. At the encouragement of Maddie, Kilian started talking more to God and diving into devotionals. In the middle of all the uncertainty and suffering, Kilian found a safe place in the Lord. She and Maddie decided to get baptized together over Memorial Day weekend.

“I know this battle’s not done, but I know the Lord is going to keep working through this,” she shared during her testimony at church.

The next fall, at the start of her senior year as school and volleyball began, Kilian was still struggling with headaches, fatigue and stomach issues. Depleted of energy, she would sneak away to her mom’s kindergarten classroom for a nap before practice, then stumble her way through the drills.

Doctors couldn’t determine the source of her sickness, but her parents continued to schedule appointments as the pain persisted and Kilian continued to decline.


EmmaMike McGeath, FCA Southwest Michigan Area Director and head volleyball coach at Heritage Christian, was nearing retirement, but he wanted to finish his career with Kilian’s class. He had watched her as a middle school athlete when she popped up on his radar.

“I couldn’t wait until she got to high school,” he said. “She had talent, but I could tell she was also a hard worker and coachable.”

Kilian had fulfilled McGeath’s hopes all throughout her high school career. Once she became an upperclassman, she was named captain and poised for another promising season. But the athlete who crushed the kill record her junior year was noticeably different coming into the volleyball season her senior year.

“She kept getting discouraged,” McGeath said. “I was discouraged and concerned for her. She wanted to give it everything she had and kept plugging away.”

She’d play the front row positions and then be subbed out; Kilian just couldn’t keep up at all six positions.

In September, Kilian went in for a colonoscopy. Unable to be with her family due to COVID restrictions, her friends and family sent her Bible verses to get her through it and the Lord brought peace and clarity about what was going on. She was diagnosed with Ulcer Colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that has no cure, though treatments can help.

She began seeing a specialist and receiving infusions to reduce inflammation. While sitting at the hospital for long stretches of time, Kilian took the opportunity to write notes of encouragement to her teammates and process through the suffering with God.

“None of us realized how seriously ill she was,” said McGeath. “Physically she went through the ringer; mentally, she struggled.”


Shocked by the diagnosis and subsequent treatment, Kilian wrestled with the “why” while walking through the healing process and digging in closer to God. She also wrestled with her once-healthy body that was now unable to properly operate.

But Kilian did see bright spots within the dark clouds.

“I’ve learned that there are times you have that ‘lose everything’ moment and cry it out,” she admitted. “I’m not good at asking for help, but I’ve learned to be vulnerable and ask for prayer. The amount of people praying for me is incredible.”
Her strength eventually began coming back, enabling Kilian to fully play the entire last two games in the district tournament. Being on the court with her teammates invigorated her physically, mentally and emotionally.

“It was a real emotional season—she fought to be there for her team,” McGeath said.

But looking back, Kilian says her true strength came in learning about the Lord in dark and painful seasons.

“I took my senior pictures back in August and looking back, I was not healthy at all,” she realized. "I am keeping that perspective—God didn’t make us to feel bad about ourselves and look a certain way, but our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and we need to treat our bodies well. I realize how quickly things can be taken away and how He can restore what was gone.”

Through such a challenging experience, Kilian discovered not only her strength, but also a ministry opportunity.

“I can have those ‘Oh my goodness what am I going through?’ breakdown moments, but God is faithful,” she said. “I want to teach other people it’s OK to not be OK. It’s not easy, but God is there.”

Coach McGeath also saw the ministry opportunities God has been opening up for her in light of her health challenges, confident she will impact many people.

“God takes you through things you don’t understand, but you can be sure that it’s for good and to become like Christ, but He also does it to help someone else,” McGeath said.

He encouraged her to share her journey through words, which she captured in a devotion for FCA's Daily Impact Play email, Through His Grace, about her struggles and finding God’s presence even when full healing hasn’t yet come. In the devotion, she wrote:

Through this journey, I have felt like I have learned the importance of making my faith my own and digging deeper into God’s Word, she wrote. I was baptized this past September so I can publicly pronounce the faithfulness of God and His love and mercy towards me. While my health journey isn’t over, this challenge helped me to see who I am outside of being an athlete. It’s made me see that I’m more than an athlete or a student. I am God’s child and He has made me with special spiritual gifts and abilities. I am empowered to use them to impact others despite my situation.


Currently, Kilian’s down to a medical infusion every eight weeks and things seem to be more under control, much to her delight. She is recovering and focusing on her next steps.

While she could be on medication for the rest of her life, that’s not stopping her. She chose not to play basketball during her senior year in order to fully recover and prepare herself for college next fall, and became the team manager and her teammates’ biggest supporter.

And after two years, Kilian was able to get on the soccer pitch in spring to join her team for her senior season.
Team photo
“I loved every second and absolutely loved getting to finally play with my sister again,” she said. “I was constantly reminded after playing games of how the Lord has worked in my life throughout the past year.”

Killian added that as energizing as being on the pitch felt, she also began to realize her role was more than simply being in the action.

McGeath affirmed this for his captain. “She’s a tremendous leader—a servant,” he said. “As a senior, you earn the responsibility to serve your teammates—she leads by serving.”

This serving responsibility isn’t something Kilian takes lightly. She considers it a high honor and plans to carry it with her as a freshman at Cedarville University in Ohio this fall. “I’m excited to see how God will use this as I go to college and share His faithfulness with a group I haven’t met yet.”

God doesn’t waste a moment, especially the suffering. Through pain, He graciously grafted a wider purpose for Kilian that indeed is only through His grace.

Read Emma Kilian’s Daily Impact Play Through His Grace HERE.

Photos courtesy of Emma Kilian