On embracing suffering as gift

Hi, friends!

I have a few thoughts bumbling around in my head about suffering that I’ve been talking with friends around the table and over text with lately, and I wanted to open the conversation wider – to all of you. I invite discussion in the comments!

Many of us weren’t taught/raised with a robust theology of suffering. 

Western civilization as a whole does not know how to hold darkness. Rather than teach a path of descent, Christianity in the West preached a system of winners and losers, a “prosperity Gospel.” … We are hardwired to avoid the human mystery—that we are all a mixture of darkness and light—instead of learning how to carry it patiently through to resurrection. – Daily Meditations

We see suffering, or most kinds of darkness within and without and impacting others as something to be avoided, or a sign that we or others are surely living wrongly, or worse yet, that the quality and strength of our/their faith is broken. We’re extolled we’re not praying hard enough, or trusting in or claiming God’s healing enough, or picking ourselves up by our bootstraps enough, or thinking positively enough (or any number of things you’ve told yourself or thought about yourself or someone else – and oh those cultural messages…!).

In this extended season of health challenges, I’ve learned a lot from sitting in my suffering and with others who are walking in their own long or short season of suffering. And it’s not a passive act. Rather:

I’ve learned to bravely embrace my suffering and the people in my life’s suffering for what it can teach me – for what God wants to teach me. And it’s a lot. In fact, I think it’s the depth and breadth of the gospel.

Darkness is a good and necessary teacher. It is not to be avoided, denied, run from, or explained away. First, like Ezekiel the prophet, we must eat the scroll that is “lamentation, wailing, and moaning” in our belly, and only eventually becomes sweet as honey (see Ezekiel 2:9-10; 3:1-3).

Darkness is sacred ground. The God who calls us into darkness will also sustain us and lead us through it. “God . . . brings the dead to life and calls into being what does not yet exist” (Romans 4:17). Resurrection is the one and only pattern.

Daily Meditations

“Resurrection is the one and only pattern.”; I could park myself with that thought for a good long while and learn and learn and learn and not learn it all still. And I appreciate most the focus on God – HE who calls us into darkness will sustain us through it. It’s about the work that God’s doing, not what I’m doing or not doing or she or he is doing or not doing; Suffering is about the work the Holy Spirit can only do in me through suffering or walking in suffering with someone else. I need to be a participating actor, but God is bearing good-hard fruit through the very suffering culture challenges me to pick myself up from in my own strength or to sweep under the rug.

The way through is always much more difficult than the way around. Cheap religion gives us the way around, avoiding darkness. True religion gives us the way through, stepping right into the mystery.

Darkness is sacred ground. The God who calls us into darkness will also sustain us and lead us through it. “God . . . brings the dead to life and calls into being what does not yet exist” (Romans 4:17). Resurrection is the one and only pattern. – Daily Meditations

I have definitely felt a “calling into being” of what has not yet existed in me/my faith and life through sitting in and with my own and others’ suffering. These are precious somethings that didn’t grow in me when I was “highly successful” and independent/self-dependent, and can’t grow in us if we have “been able to avoid all suffering”, “move from success to success”, or “have never lived in solidarity with the suffering of others” (source).

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s not about the suffering itself, but keeping my eyes on God in the suffering that is the key to making it through suffering and soaking in all God wants to teach me through it, and then living changed in the midst of it and after differently than my life was without the suffering. I have felt stuck in my suffering, sat with others stuck in theirs, and see a system I’m complicit in that helps and elevates some and keeps others in suffering. And for me, lament & praise is what keeps me learning and connected to God through the suffering (I’ve written about that here and here), going through and not around, walking with instead of around, moving through instead of getting stuck and buried. And it ultimately leads me to a participatory faith-work with the Holy Spirit that builds Christ-following muscle and calls me into a different way of living, being and seeing. It helps me to live more fully and comfortably inside of God’s deep love, which is there for me and others no matter our suffering – other or self-imposed, or fact of life suffering from living in a broken world where free will is allowed to take its course.

I’ll never forget these words from The Road to Assisi and a prayer I read shortly thereafter:

“Joy had returned to Francis. During a night of sleeplessness he heard a voice saying to him, ‘If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you would say to this mountain, Be removed from here, and it would move away.’ Was not the mountain his sufferings, the temptation to murmur and despair? “Be it, Lord, according to your word’ Francis replied with all his heart, and immediately he felt that he was delivered.

Francis might have perceived that the mountain had not greatly changed its place, but for several days he turned his eyes away from it and had been able to forget its existence.”

“But for several days (Mel/you/we) turned (our/her) eyes away from (her/our suffering) and had been able to forget its existence” and be able to let the Holy Spirit work in her/us instead. For God to be bigger to her/me; the biggest; the only thing she/I need(s).

From Common Prayer:

Lord, you are a God who heals and calls forth life. Keep us from the pitfalls of self-pity and despair, lest we ridicule your grace and power, and forsake our own healing. Amen.

Suffering has been my greatest invitation to be still and know that He is God and that I am not. To watch for what He is doing and will do through my suffering. To know my suffering is not in vain. And maybe even, that our suffering is something so much more. And I believe it:

Our suffering, my suffering, is important and necessary. 

It seems all God wants are useable instruments who will carry the mystery, the weight of glory and the burden of sin simultaneously, who can bear the darkness and the light, who can hold the paradox of incarnation – flesh and Spirit, human and divine, joy and suffering – at the same time, just as Jesus did.” – Father Richard Rohr

I am not a useable instrument if all I want is to live and move and breath and work in the weight of glory, the light, Spirit, the divine and joy without the rest of it.

Further:

James Finley, one of CAC’s core faculty members, describes God as “the infinity of the unforeseeable; so we know that [the unforeseeable] is trustworthy, because in everything, God is trying to move us into Christ consciousness. If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.” Perhaps this explains the mysterious coexistence of deep suffering and intense joy in mystics. (source)

I just texted two of my friends, saying the above “gives words to what I was trying to say at the table about surrendering (to our suffering) and questioning our definition of what God’s love and working in our suffering looks like. ‘If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains all things, then we can face all things…” That’s what I’ve experienced. My circumstances don’t change; (despite my efforts) my suffering exists. Yet God sustains me and that’s the only promise I have. He alone can make heavy yokes easy feel easy and burdens light (versus promising to take the yokes and burdens away.)” Even now, from cane and shower chair, to walker, to sometimes wheelchair, to more diagnosis, to no clear end in sight He is present and good; I am learning deeper each day to live abundantly and love God with wide open arms and embrace His love with wide open arms right where I’m at and even if nothing changes.

Feeling the same? Wanting to move in this direction of admitting your suffering and walking through it with your eyes on God, seeing his full and unchanged love for you and others? Then pray these prayers with me:

From the Common Prayer:

Broken, we kneel; humbled, we cry: help, – Jesus! Raise us gently on high.”

And from The Divine Hours, the Greeting (based on Psalm 71:14):

“I shall always wait in patience, and shall praise your more and more.”

I’m here, clinging to God and finding joy and meaning and growth and greater solidarity with those who suffer as I sit and look to God in my and their and our suffering. When I least feel like it, you will find me sometimes throwing a tantrum or at my best praising God more and more. Because you truly need Him when you’re suffering and/or walking alongside the suffering!! Oh Jesus, how sweet it is to be loved by you! How sweet it is to know that you use suffering to teach us resurrection truth and to see ourselves in kinship with all who suffer.

Feeling different or the same or have more insights to share for the benefit of us all? Please engage in the comments! May this be a safe place to wrestle together in our diverse sufferings. And bear with me for any typos and oh the run on sentences, my new fave (as a good friend says, I’m loquacious – ha!). My particular suffering comes with extreme exhaustion and brain fog. And if I wait until I’m sure I can make complete sense, I’ll be sitting on my words all day. So here they are, imperfectly imperfect and out there, just like me.

Peace to you, friends! ~ Mel

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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!