I remember one sentence of a conversation from my young adult years vividly, like I knew in that moment it was a piece of sustenance meant to be chewed on and tucked away for later. It came from the heart of an honest and wise man I deeply admire and respect, who spoke into my life and was a mentor for several years. He has an adult daughter who is severely disabled. In all the time I knew him, he clearly loved her deeply, always speaking of her fondly, sometimes with joyful tears in his eyes. I don’t remember what preceded what he said, or his exact words, but he shared vulnerably of his grief. Of how he sometimes still experienced times of loss thinking about what his life could have been had he not needed to devote so much time and effort to the rigorous care and raising of his beloved daughter. I found it to be striking in its honesty. I had seen a lot of life by those years, and knew that roses came with thorns, that love and loss, to some degree, almost always go together, but I wasn’t always sure what to do with that. I found what he said to be beautiful; he acknowledged both his great love and his great loss, without diminishing either and without shame or guilt or malice. He was an example to me many years ago about how to grieve well.
The holding of good and hard together is something that I’ve found in Scripture too. One person in particular has taught me that you can have both strong, messy feelings and strong faith together. No matter what I’m reading in the Bible, I always read one or two Psalms a day with it. They are like my daily bread, rich food for my soul. I just love King David! When you read the words attributed him, you truly get the full range of human emotion; he doesn’t hold back. Bits of his prayers have become my own. I mean, I think this is an anthem prayer for chronic pain sufferers if I ever heard one!:
“O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:2-3)
My Bible has a big old “Yes!” written in next to that! And says that I prayed that prayer a lot in 2015.
The last two times I’ve been reading through the Psalms, I’ve been particularly struck by the ones with a whole host of crying-out, grieving kinds of words, because they meet me where I’m at in life. But surprisingly and commonly, they end with, “But ___” in an even so/and yet kind of way. David follows his crying out by what he knows to be true about God’s goodness and faithfulness. It’s like he puts a book end on his grief; he gives voice to his feelings, then puts them in perspective, namely in the context of a God who sees him and a God who cares. I believe it’s intentional and oh how it’s helped me both give voice to but not to get stuck in my grief when I’ve put it into practice! Psalm 13 is a short and a powerful example, and in Psalm 22 David repeats the pattern of giving voice to his feelings, then going back to a “But ___” throughout. Psalm 55 is another example too, this time of David expressing that he’s troubled and distraught over the actions of a close friend. He’s quite angry! Maybe your suffering is betrayal, and you can relate. And yet, there’s still that, “But ___”. In David, I see at times a grieving a man, at times a joyful or angry man, but overall a man who gave full voice to his thoughts and feelings, knowing God could handle it, and then reminding himself of the truth, grounding truth that is constant and firm about the character and nature of God no matter how he feels on any given day or season in his life, no matter his present circumstances. David knew real suffering. He had privilege – he was a King! – but he also had real suffering, like you and like me. I trust his voice and it strikes me of the stuff of grieving real and grieving well. Psalm 66:17 sums up his approach to life to me: “I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue.” Cry out, then praise. Cry out, then remember. Cry out, but don’t let the crying out be the last word. Cry out, then remind yourself of your grounding truths.
Ann Voskamp has a saying that you’ve probably heard if you’ve read her writing: “God is always good, and you are always loved.” At times on my suffering journey, that’s been my “But ___”. A former student even made it into a poster for me as part of an art assignment where I was her client. I posted it on the wall above my desk in my last year of struggling through work, where it served as a ready and constant reminder. I’ve realized that having a “But ___” is so important. For one, sometimes we need something to cue us to remember and never lose sight of what we know to be true for all seasons of our life. In this way, your “But ___” is your rope out of the pit of your grief. I’ve felt in a pit, and if I were in a physical pit and there was a rope, I sure would not let that thing go for the life of me, even if I wasn’t at a place to climb out yet. But when I was ready to climb, because of that rope, I would know the direction to go; I would have my way out. Second, our “But ___” helps us, even in our grief, to honor God. I feel and see that honor so strongly when I read David’s words of grief. He cried out, he told God he felt forsaken, unheard. And then he yet praised him with that “But ___”, because it wasn’t just a lifeline, it was a recognition about God’s character no matter David’s feelings or circumstances. Just like our messy and hard feelings don’t negate our joys, they also don’t define alone our faithfulness or challenge the character of God.
I’ll have a related thought next post. But for now, this feels like enough to digest!
If you try out using a “But ___”, I’d love to hear if it helps you. And if you feel comfortable sharing, it would be cool to hear what you use or plan to use for your “But ___”. Maybe it’s one that would help me or another person reading along!
If you feel without a rope and stuck in a pit today, I pray that you find a glimmer of a lifeline start to appear for you, and that it grows day by day.