I know what you’re thinking: kind of a weird topic to write about the day before Thanksgiving. But I was reminded today about the Thanksgiving I had 4 years ago: me & my parents spent the entire day in the hospital. My mom was nearing the end of a long & tedious battle against a terminal illness. And I remember thinking: “I can’t muster up any gratitude today… this is just too painful.”
I didn’t think that I could actually choose gratitude & joy amidst the loss & turmoil we had been through that year. And I’m sure many others may feel that way today.
Let’s be real for a second: the last three weeks have been hard. Both personal and global strife has caused my heart to ache. I’ve felt emotionally & physically exhausted… and I’ve found myself continually asking God one question: “Why?”
Why, oh why, does He let his beloved children suffer? From the deadly attacks in Paris to the millions displaced in Syria to the individual loss that each person endures on the daily… I do not know where His sovereign hand is.
And when you look at the world, suffering happens every. single. day.
The last four years have been a roller-coaster ride and there’s much to say on this topic. For now, I’ll take a de-tour from the ‘personal’ and simply write about suffering as I believe it relates to each one of us. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about-
4 Lessons I’ve Learned:
- Our need for “quick fixes” & “how-to’s” makes it really hard for us to tolerate suffering.
I remember the first time I saw a therapist after my mom passed away. I distinctly remember asking her, “Could you give me a to-do list to complete so that I can grieve and just be done with the pain?” I’m pretty sure she laughed.
Suffering should never come as a surprise, yet it always seems to completely delineate & traumatize us. We want the path of least resistance. We want the easiest, most pain-free journey possible… and there’s only one problem with that: suffering is inevitable. And when it comes? We want it fixed and we want it fixed now. We are afraid of sitting in the pain… Yet that’s the only place where real transformation happens. That’s the only place where we can access our emotions and begin to heal… quick-fixes don’t work here.
- Seeking distractions & numbing the pain usually doesn’t promote healing.
Just to make a disclaimer: I don’t believe that it’s always wrong to numb pain by watching a show or doing something to stop thinking about it. A friend recently reminded me that it’s absolutely ok to give your mind a rest… distractions can be helpful.
But at some point, we need to confront what we feel. This may be the hardest part of suffering (or maybe that’s just me), but allowing my soul to be still & quiet is unnerving. I’m restless. And prone to numbing. I want to keep myself busy, preoccupied & constantly in the presence of others… there have been nights where I’ve needed the TV on to fall asleep.
In Brene Brown’s book, “The Gifts of Imperfection“, she talks about how you cannot selectively numb emotions. We cannot say, “I choose to not feel pain, but I will allow myself to feel the happy stuff.” That’s not how it works. If you numb the bad emotions, you numb the good ones right along with it. So consequently, allowing yourself to sit and work through the pain (without seeking distraction) builds your capacity for love and compassion. It’s amazing isn’t it?
- Suffering allows us to more fully experience joy & celebrate life’s treasures.
Let’s take Jesus for example: Could Jesus have resurrected without dying? In order to experience the glory of his resurrection, we had to endure the pain & brutality of His death. Enduring the hard times is what makes the good times so so good.
- Our character is built when we suffer.
We grow in humility. We grow in patience. We grow in gratitude. Our compassion for others becomes so much greater. We are filled kindness and grace.
Suffering is vital for our character growth. And God is way more concerned with our character than with our circumstances.
And now to address my final question:
How can I suffer well?
Suffering looks different for everyone (of course). But I’ve noticed Christians always talk about “suffering well”… Which I believe refers to our suffering being used for our betterment & not for our detriment. How can I suffer in a way that builds me up rather than tears me down?
In churches, we sometimes hear advice that sounds like this:
“Lean on God!”
“Trust the Lord!”
Huh?? What does any of that even mean??
I have 5 points that I think can indeed help people suffer well, but before I get to them, I want to mention something I learned from a book I’ve been reading.
I recently picked up “Joy in the Journey” by Steve & Sharol Hayner. This book is a collection of their journal entries during the 9 month period where Steve battled terminal pancreatic cancer. And I must say that I am floored. I am in awe. Up until reading this, I am not sure I truly believed that you can actually have joy & peace in the face of death. Not just plain old hardship… but death. I did not know that while sitting in intense pain, you could still experience supernatural rest in God’s presence. Yeah, okay, I know that in scripture Paul talks about God’s sustaining peace & joy while he’s being beaten & locked up in jail. And Jesus himself offers praise & adoration to God while being persecuted by everyone. But those are bible people… super heroes… or so I thought.
I now know that even amidst intense trial, joy & peace are absolutely possible with Jesus. There’s space to grieve & be sad, of course… but we must never underestimate God’s power as our ultimate hope and comforter. He truly is all we need.
Here are the things I’ve found that help me endure trials & draw near to Him (aka “suffer well”):
Which is, honestly, one of the toughest things for me to do. It’s so much easier to talk to visible people. People that will readily speak back and give me a real-life hug. But praying is vital. It is our life-line. It is our primary means of communicating with God and ultimately, allows us to better see & hear Him.
- Reading Scripture
My heart remedy. This one’s easy for me because I’m a reader. I love words & stories. What better words to imprint on your soul than ones from the Big Guy, himself? Jesus’ stories remind me to keep an eternal perspective… that I am not alone in my suffering and that it can indeed be purposeful.
- Seeking Community
Because this is where community really comes into practice: walking with one another in our pain & suffering. God guarantees an abundance of joy in this world, but it’s never distributed evenly; we are called to be vessels of joy & comfort for one another. Of all the times in my life where I’ve desperately needed to be picked up, I have had incredible friends & family, whose prayers, encouragement & wisdom have carried me through difficult times. I often wonder, “where would I be if I didn’t have people that sat with me, loved me & prayed for me during that time?” Money can’t hug us. Clothes can’t love us. And characters from TV shows we love (i.e. Jim & Pam!) won’t actually be there for us. We need to start putting time & energy into the stuff that matters: real-life community.
- Practicing Gratitude
Because we CAN choose gratitude, even in the worst of times.
“All life on planet earth is terminal, and while we can certainly contribute to our own well-being in amazing ways, none of us is ultimately in control. One day, my life will be swallowed up by Life. And for today, I am choosing truth, joy and love wherever and however I can. I am resolute in my desire to learn, to fulfill my calling and to engage each day with as much joy as I am graciously given.” -Steve Hayner
Today, I choose gratitude. I am grateful for this abundant, full life that I’ve been given. I am grateful for a God who offers me rest & freedom, even amidst circumstantial chaos. I am grateful for friends. for coffee. for Harry Potter. And for my little family ❤ There is much to be grateful for.