Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Narrow Way of Suffering

The past couple weeks, it seems like I'm seeing tragedy every way I turn - unexpected illness and death, natural disasters, economic/financial hardship, loss, abuse...  The list goes on and on, and the weight of sorrow in this world seems unbearable.  I feel blessed that our family has been spared, and yet at the same time I feel helpless - what can I do?  Did God spare and bless me so I can help others?  How??  I don't know the answer to that question, but at the heart of my deep desire to DO SOMETHING lies an even greater question: Why did God allow this and why doesn't HE do something???

Last year I did a Bible study called "Do You Think I'm Beautiful?" by Angela Thomas, which really changed my perspective on suffering.  I have always known and believed the truth in Scripture that God can and will bring good out of any circumstance for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  And yet when tragedy strikes me personally, I wonder why.  Did I do something to deserve it?  Am I being punished?  Did I fail in some way or neglect something I should've done?  Or did God bring this as a test?  Is this designed to refine some flaw out of me?  Am I supposed to be learning something here?  Questions swirl, and sometimes an answer just can't be found.  Sometimes an answer comes many years down the road, but I believe we won't know fully until we see God face to face.

So what do we do with the WHY?  What Thomas suggests in the study is just that we are fallen people who live in a fallen world, and hard things just happen.  That's the way of the world we live in.  Sometimes bad things are punishments.  Sometimes they are tests.  And sometimes they just happen.  And God is present in each one, bringing good of them all.  When my life is hard, I don't have to feel ashamed or outraged.  This is just what it means to be human.  People get hurt.  People die.  Circumstances change in the blink of an eye.  All of life is just a vapor that passes and is gone (James 4:14).  Rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45).  I don't know why God designed it that way, but that is just how it is and He can be trusted with that.

So when hardships come, I'm learning that "Why?" isn't really an important question to ask, and I think it often distracts us from being able to see (or even WANT to see) God's loving grace at work in every circumstance.  The truth is that He is there, working for our good and His glory, even in that tragedy that we can hardly bear.  He knows what the end will be, even though we don't, and He is working so that the outcome will be better than any other road we would've chosen.

Something that really jumped out at me today, though (as I'm reading Ann Voskamp's book One Thousand Gifts), is that very many of the people who have deeply impacted my faith recently and helped me down the road in my own journey to the heart of God have been very deeply scarred by tragedy, and most of them very early in life. 
Their childhoods are filled with loss, abuse, abandonment, horrors that many of us cannot even imagine.  And yet look at the faith they've been given, the intimate connection with the heart of God, the powerful ministries that draw so many more to Him!

And then it hit me like a lightning strike.  Perhaps their deep, deep suffering is WHY they have such a connection with the heart of God.  Perhaps their battle-scarred hearts are held in a unique way by the One with the nail-scarred hands, in a way that those of us whose lives have been less tragic can't really understand.

I can clearly see that in my own life, my childhood was full of love and joy - certainly not perfect by any means, but in no way traumatic.  The past ten years that I've been an independent adult, though, I've started to experience real suffering (still no tragedy, but hard things like broken relationships, failures, devastating disappointments, and crippling depression), and this is when my own understanding of God has truly been formed.  It's not until the past year or two, when I have literally walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23:4), that I have truly learned what it means that God is with me even there.  He used that suffering to reveal Himself to me in a beautiful and intimate way that I am convinced could not have happened if I had never gone through the valley.

And so I'm coming to wonder if maybe suffering is the path through which God draws us to Himself - and it just can't happen any other way.  So it's not that people who suffer tragedy are somehow loved less and that being spared from tragedy shows a greater love and blessing... because what greater love and blessing is there than an intimate love relationship with Christ??  God uniquely chooses His beloved children to walk closer with Him by sharing in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24).  Maybe true intimacy with God and the deepest knowledge of His ways and most sincere love for Him is only for the few who walk the narrow road of truly carrying their bloody, death-bringing cross and following Jesus (Matt. 16:24).

So when tragedy strikes, I don't want to just DO SOMETHING to try to figure out how to stop the pain.  The goal of the Christian life isn't just to avoid all pain, but to know and love God more and more.  So in the middle of suffering, I need to embrace God's divine sovereignty and look for Him there in it.  He is there, working, refining, weeping with us, holding us tenderly in His arms of compassion, and blessing us with the ability to know Him with a greater depth than we ever imagined before.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Joni, I've been thinking about this, too. The best we can do is trust now and be ready to trust when the time comes. Thanks for sharing. :)