Letting go of my illusions about suffering and control

This is post 8 in the Suffering Well series. See all of the previous posts here.

Suffering means I’m doing something wrong, or I’m not faithful enough. Suffering comes at people’s own hands, because of the choices that they make. We can pray and work our suffering away. God rewards good with good and bad with bad. If we do things the right way, God will protect us from suffering and harm. We can protect ourselves from suffering through right choices, like a solid savings account, being friends with the right kind of people, living our lives the right kind of way, living safe. It is good to protect ourselves and our children from bad, hurt or suffering. Suffering isn’t something to talk about, but to keep quiet about, or to endure.

Do any of these cultural messages sound or feel familiar?

But what does the Bible have to say about suffering? Crazy countercultural things, like that we should rejoice in our sufferings, because it produces endurance that leads to character that leads to hope, a hope that is bigger than ourselves (Romans 5:3-5). That we should count trials as joy, AS JOY, because they produce a stronger, more steady faith (James 1:2-4). That we experience suffering for all kinds of reasons in all kinds of ways: at the hands of discipline (Hebrews 12:10-11) and trials that refine our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7), persecution for our faith/being the church (2 Timothy 3:12, John 16:33, 1 Peter 4: 12-13), that in this world there is the reality of death, pain, mourning, crying and that is why the promise of heaven is so dang good (Revelation 21:4). No one, not any of us, are immune from suffering. Even the righteous have many troubles (Psalm 34:19).

And then there are gems like this that make me want to literally fist pump in the air:

We now have this light shining in our hearts (the gospel – the good news of Christ), but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.

Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you…

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. 

(Paul speaking in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, 16-18)

That part – though our bodies our dying, our spirits are being renewed every day – I am learning that it is natural for me to focus on the physical, namely the dying, the wasting away, the troubles, the being knocked down. But then there’s the spiritual part that’s happening, that is not as in your face, that can be missed but is where the meat of life is at – I am not driven to despair, I am never abandoned, I am not ultimately destroyed, I AM RENEWED. I can see troubles easy breezy. But instead, I’m learning more and more how to see the spiritual, and I know no better way to do so than to just plain old ask God to help me to have eyes to see and to spend time in his presence, getting to know his ways and letting go of my ways, and even of culture’s ways. And when I have leaned heavy into God and made him bigger than my beliefs and my troubles, I have seen that one of God’s big lessons in all of this for me has been to let go of my big fat illusion that I can be in control. That I am in control. And to trade that in for trust, trust that isn’t just there in the good, but that buoys and anchors me in the deepest and darkest of valleys and the every day in-between. I am learning this through my suffering: This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.

Instead of hanging firm to my troubles, to what I can see, I am hanging firm to the word of God that says that nothing – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword – can separate me from Christ’s love. (Romans 8:35) I’ve only lost one thing – my health. With it has come a necessary loss of my understanding of self-dependence, of self-control. But if I lost everything? Paul says: I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8). As we sit in our suffering, may we see it for what it is, an opportunity for closeness with Christ. An opportunity for gain. An opportunity to really get, at the core of us and our lives that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. May we be able to peel our eyes/hearts/thoughts/minds away from the physical losses and think about the spiritual that God has for us to learn.

May we be able to join with the Psalmist, who says “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” (Psalm 119:50) And with Paul who says in Philippians 4:12-14 that in all circumstances – in need or plenty, well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want – that God is the source of his strength. Can I be okay, let alone delight, in my weakness, in insults, in hardships, persecutions and difficulties because they make me dependent on Christ’s strength in me and make Christ’s strength shine? (2 Corinthians 12:10).

I don’t know. But I know I’m certainly growing in spiritual maturity, and in large part through my season of suffering. In learning how to let go of my illusions about suffering and control, I’m learning how to hang on to the thing that matters most, Christ’s strength, goodness, love and power.

Before I end, I want to be sure to say that God asks us not just to learn from the sufferings that befall us, but to walk into suffering. I could write a million and a half things on this topic, and maybe one day I will. But here’s a good word from my sister in Christ, Lori, on how you will be burned when you live as Christ asks you to live, but “Do it anyway.” She’s real and honest, and I need her voice in my life. I’m also eating up Shannan Martin’s book Falling Free. Here’s a taste of her story:

The truth had descended on me like an early fog – it’s hard to pine for heaven when you already believe you’re there…For all our adult lives, our radar had been locked on one goal: to ensure our own safety and security…What we saw with fresh eyes was that God’s “more” often looks a whole lot like less…He reminded me who he is – a God who laughs in the face of logic and weighs things like safety and security on an eternal scale requiring all of my faith…Faith points us to a way that’s completely different. It requires us to abandon our lives into the hands of God and whatever he has planned… [For us] it meant trading more for less and leaping off the ladder of upward mobility…it meant discovering the golden thread that connects all of us, the glimmering kinship of being fully known in the eyes of another and believing we share a humanity that transcends race, DNA, habits, opportunities, failures, and socioeconomic strata.

There’s just a few more days to pre-order her book before it officially releases and grab yourself some free goodies in the process. You can pre-order and read more here.

To end, Lauren Diagle’s song First has been an anthem song of sorts as I’ve wrestled through this topic of letting go of my control and focusing instead on God, in all seasons, in all moments. I leave it here for you to enjoy. As I listen, here’s my prayer for you and for me: May my heart desire to seek God first! Before bringing my needs or cares, may I just desire to be with him, to seek him, to worship him. May I be able to learn more and more through my suffering how to look beyond myself and really lose myself in God. And may that in turn lead me deeper into a life of following him, which involves willingly stepping into suffering, into service, following in Christ’s earthly example.

Peace be with you today and everyday, friends!

Praise & Forget Not

This is post 7 in the Suffering Well series. See all of the previous posts here.

I’ve been absent from this space and this series for a bit. And it’s because I’ve been a plain old hot mess (with a capital H and M, if you’re wondering – just ask my people). The suffering I’m experiencing – poor health – is a nearly every day, all day reality in my current life. Not to say that all is bad or hard, because that’s not the case! Here’s my place for pretty life and garden pictures to prove it.

It’s more like I’m just currently walking through it all, and suffering isn’t easy or straightforward or without its share of messiness. Sometimes I feel ankle deep in it, and sometimes up to my neck (or eyes, or honestly, even over my head). My health effects nearly all aspects of my present life and days – how I feel, what I can do, my capacity for clear thinking, the energy I have to parent, be a wife, be a friend. I’m not writing this series in the past tense, and certainly not because I’ve got how to suffer well (or anything in life) fully figured out. I offer these writings up not with a neat bow tied on top, but from a place of vulnerability as I work it all out. Some level of suffering is my current reality, and that’s just the way it is.

So, no need to worry, but truth is it’s just been a harder twist in this journey. I’ve been in my health margin and unable to get out, and that generally results in stuckness in other areas of life, like my emotions and ability to see the forest through the trees. I’m starting to come out of this overall stuck place, for which I am most grateful. I thought I came out of it last week, but isn’t progress often more like a one step forward, two steps back kind of thing? And that’s okay, because I’m moving forward again!

One thing that’s helping me this week is Psalm 103’s reminder to praise & forget not. It starts:

Praise the Lord, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like eagle’s.

Nothing helps me in harder seasons more than stopping to praise, because praise helps me find and keep my bearings! Praise is my anchor, my lifeline, to the God who loves, the God who is present, the God who cares, the God who comforts me and you.

And this reminder to forget not – oh how I love it & need it. Every day! But especially when I’m stuck. God is all of those things – forgiver, healer, redeemer, lover and satisfier – when all is well, and when all feels not well. It helps me immensely to think on that & to run through a list of the ways that God has been there for me in the past, to specifically remember how he’s been present for me throughout this season of hardship, and to look for him, God with me, today. Because he doesn’t and hasn’t stopped being with me, even when I’m feeling stuck. Looking back and looking deeper helps me know it to be true.

Being stuck for me is more like a loss of perspective, a place of needing to find my footing again and to remember the solid ground on which I stand. A place of needing to think bigger than myself and the circumstances I find myself in. Praise and forget not, praise and remember – I’m going to be doing a lot more of both, and invite you to join me. Because it makes a difference, when all is good, all is hard, and all the in-between. It roots me, and I pray that it roots you just the same!

Richness from clinging

This is post 6 in the Suffering Well series. See all of the previous posts here.

My suffering experience has taught me (and still is) that there is great richness born from clinging to Christ for my very real, daily, even second-by-second needs.

The chorus in the Matt Maher song Lord I Need You captures this sentiment of clinging, of dependence, so simply and well. Here are it’s words:

Lord, I need You, oh, I need You
Every hour I need You
My one defense, my righteousness
Oh God, how I need You

In his song, he’s talking about needing Christ’s daily guidance against temptation and for righteous living, but I think this chorus captures something much more universal. Growing up, I used to think that dependence on anyone or anything was bunk; I was better off just trusting myself or making my own way. I’ve changed a lot since then. And mostly because of another sentiment captured well in Philippians 4:7. But I’ll include verses 6 and 7 here, because man is verse 6 instructive for how to approach God with our need. Here’s what it says:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

I bolded that last verse, because it captures so importantly one thing I’ve learned: God’s peace is better than any other kind of peace there is, any other kind of peace that I’ve ever experienced or known. It transcends circumstances and the reality of our grief. It can be found in the deepest, hardest, darkest places, and come at times when we think peace can’t be found, or can’t find us.

In John chapter 14, Christ is talking to his 12 disciples, preparing them for when he leaves. He talks to them about the Holy Spirit, who he will leave with them to be their Counselor. In verses 26-27 he says,

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Other translations use Comforter instead of Counselor.

This peace, the Holy Spirit’s peace, it is better than any kind of peace the world can give. Who better to give comfort than the Comforter, the Counselor, himself? What better place to find that peace that surpasses understanding, peace that overcomes very real fear? He alone offers peace that guards our hearts and our minds. And I don’t know about you, but when I need peace, it is because my heart and my mind are going craaaaazy. They feel untethered, and God’s peace, his person, has become my tethering place.

There have been times when I’ve been in my worse pain and can’t find comfort from any source. Maybe you’ve been there too, physically, or even emotionally. You’ve tried medication, meditation, distraction, etc. And I still have those things in my toolkit. But the only thing that has helped me in those moments is to literally picture myself wrapped in Christ’s embrace. I lay down on my pillow and picture it being his arms of peace, holding me as I sink into him. It feels silly to share out loud, but honestly, I cannot explain the deep and real comfort it has provided me.

I was reading Emily Freeman’s blog this morning, and this was said in a guest post:

It hurts to be sifted by sorrow, and I can glimpse no end to the hurt, and yet I find myself grateful. To be sifted by suffering is to find that all your usual worries have settled down into their proper places.

I have found this to be so true too. Having to be in a place of utter dependence on God, that place where you’re saying “Lord, I need You, oh, I need You, every hour I need You” (or minute, or second), it’s a good place in it’s own way. I’ve found a lot of meatiness here, things that have put more teeth to my faith. Because God does come through. More than in any other season or way, I’ve learned through my suffering that he is who he says he is and does what he says he’s going to do. He brings that peace, He is that Comforter. In this season I have learned that I need not fear the things I have let take root and grow like weeds in my life’s garden, those little and sometimes big-feeling worries of daily life. I do not need to try to be in control, because God is in control, and even in the most out of control place I’ve ever found myself in life, I’ve found this crazy, hard-to-put-into-words peace and comfort and rest. Those usual worries, they have found their proper place. And I have found my proper awe of God, my proper dependence on him, one that I hope I will take with me into my healthy and good days too. It’s okay to need and be needy, and I’ve found the one who can handle it all, the one who is dependable, the firmest of all foundations.

I know I’ve already referenced Psalm 46 once, but man if it isn’t ever relevant to this conversation too:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…The Lord Almighty is with us…The Lord Almighty is with us…

He is with us. In the worst, in the best, in the every day normal, and all in between. He is our ever-present help, and don’t we all need help? I have learned through my suffering, through needing him and his comfort in a way that I’ve never needed him before, that he is faithful. And because he’s faithful, I need not fear. And because I’ve tasted so much of his goodness, I find that I need him all the more, not just for such a time as this, but for all my time, all my days. I want to carry his goodness with me always. I’m seeing and feeling that a new kind of neediness has been birthed within me, and I’m becoming okay with being needy and dependent.

Friends, may he be your comfort in the midst of your days – your peace that is so deep and wide and strong – for whatever season you find yourself in right now, and for all seasons of your life. May you too find him to be unfailing, there, always present, with you in all your places of need. And may your need for him grow ever stronger as you drink of his goodness, goodness that can be found even when the mountains quake and the waters roar.