One of my best friends in the whole wide world read my last blog post. When I saw her she said something like this . . .
Your words were lovely. You were really vulnerable in that piece.
That’s what I remember her saying.
And then I started getting anxious, again. I get anxious because I want, more than anything, to glorify God—to be biblically sound when I write yet I find myself, more often than not, bleeding out on the “page” of my laptop like David did with his voice raised to God, ending up written in Psalms—often, psalms of lament. I would like to be known, like David, as a woman after God’s own heart. And so, I try to be as real with God as I can be and as real on paper as I feel called to be. I know this disturbs some. I know it causes some to want to look the other way and not respond. I know it causes some to judge me—to judge Jesus—to judge Christianity. After all, if you REALLY believe in God and you REALLY follow Jesus, shouldn’t you be in some sort of blissful state of mind and emotion mostly? If God is so GOOD, won’t we have a GOOD life if we follow Jesus?
Yes. And no.
I’m studying Job in Community Bible Study this year. Apropos for me, as I have been studying Job on my own—pitching my tent with him, so to speak—for a few years now, trying to learn a holy lesson and apply it to my life. Job has become my second favorite book of the Bible (followed by Psalms), though I know many say, “Job? Why Job?”
If you only knew. And those who think they do only know the half of it.
One of, if not the greatest thing I’ve learned is this . . .
Don’t judge another’s walk with the Lord—or even your own—because NO ONE has walked the EXACT SAME WALK as you. No one has struggled through the exact same struggle. Because not one person is exactly like you, or me. We are all uniquely made by God. And everyone’s experience of even the same struggle is STILL not identical.
So don’t judge people’s sufferings. Don’t presume.
I—and you—can’t possibly know all that’s going on in the heavenlies—just like Job and his “friends” didn’t. So don’t be like Job’s “friends”, always looking for some reason to criticize, to find fault, to try and explain away any individual’s experience of suffering in some trite, even spiritual, way. Because too often, we’re wrong. And when we’re wrong, we inflict even more pain and suffering on the sufferer. The visual of kicking a horse when she’s down makes me shudder. God forbid!
I’m rereading Tim Keller’s (my favorite, modern, non-fiction author) Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, THE best book I’ve ever read on the subject. (Yes, my PASSIONATE personality loves to use CAPS) Keller gets right to the point in his introduction:
Suffering is everywhere, unavoidable, and its scope often overwhelms.
He gives shocking statistics that could make one curl up in a ball and plug their ears, trying not to become infected with the pain.
Then he quotes Shakespeare’s MacBeth:
Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry,
New sorrows strike heaven on the face.
Keller continues in his introduction, making what I believe are essential points:
Human life is fatally fragile and subject to forces beyond our power to manage.
Life is tragic . . . We all need support if we are not to succumb to despair.
When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives but that we never were.
Many people find God through affliction and suffering. They find that adversity moves them toward God rather than away.
Believers understand many doctrinal truths in the mind, but those truths seldom make the journey down into the heart except through disappointment, failure, and loss.
You don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.
The reality of suffering [is] one of [the Bible’s] main themes.
God brings fullness of joy not just despite but through suffering, just as Jesus saved us not in spite of but because of what he endured on the cross. And so there is a peculiar, rich, and poignant joy that seems to come to us only through and in suffering.
Keller goes on, reminding us that the biblical metaphor of suffering as a fiery furnace is appropriate because “suffering . . . can use evil against itself. It can thwart the destructive purposes of evil and bring light and life out of darkness and death.”
As most Biblically literate people know, and as Keller reminds us, “The Bible calls us to walk steadily through afflictions, and to do so requires that we understand its wonderfully balanced and comprehensive teaching on the subject—both profoundly realistic and yet astonishingly hopeful. This keeps us from thinking we can run from the furnace (avoid it) or quickly run through it (deny it) or just lie down hopelessly (despair in it).”
The purpose of suffering then, observes Keller is this: “Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us because God himself walks with us in the fire.”
God himself tells us this in many places but one of my favorites is in Isaiah 43:1-3 & 5, which I cling to as my mantra in times of suffering:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior . . . Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
Keller concludes his introduction by writing solid truth:
“The Bible does not promise that suffering will issue in full resolution or a ‘happy ending’ in this life. But these stories show how people of faith have dealt with the varieties of suffering and walked through the furnace with God’s help. These stories are a reminder to recognize God’s presence even in the worst of times. Especially in the worst of times . . . In Jesus Christ we see that God actually experiences the pain of the fire as we do. He truly is God with us, in love and understanding, in our anguish. He plunged himself into our furnace so that, when we find ourselves in the fire, we can turn to him and know we will not be consumed but will be made into people great and beautiful.”
So why do I write so much about suffering and pain? Because there’s so much of it in the world and I feel others and my own intensely—a gift or a curse, depending on what I do with the pain—where I go with the pain—who I go to in the suffering.
Here’s what I mean to emphasize in my writing . . .
Pain avoided by any means ultimately causes more pain. Suffering dealt with according to God’s plan, with God by our side, draws us into the most intimate relationship possible with Him who loves us unfathomably, desires only our ultimate good, and promises to use every evil for good.
Suffering well, then, is key.
Dare to wrestle with God and be real. He invites and wants nothing less than our all.
I went for a hike with my husband over the weekend through our favorite get-away destinations—Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin—only a two hour drive north of our home. There’s something about the place—the bluffs—the woods—that calms me, where our Creator woos me into deeper relationship and understanding of some of life’s mysteries laid bare in nature for us all to see—if we will see.
We began on the Eagle Trail—a trail along the coast of Ephraim Bay where 150-foot limestone bluffs showed us some remarkable truth—a visual I have brought home with me in my mind and in photographs. Here is where we find life on the ledge—life growing and sustaining in places no one might expect called the Niagra Encarpment, a 650-mile geological formation running from Peninsula State Park, across the shores of four great lakes—Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—from Wisconsin to New York. The 150 foot rocky bluffs provide critical habitat for cedar trees—some over 500 years old—delicate ferns, and rare land snails. This Niagra Encarpment weathers harsh elements—wave-splashed, ice-pushed, ever changing, yet remaining, standing strong and mighty and tall with windrows and rounded cobbles and boulders strewn near the water’s edge.
It means overwhelming torrent.
Doesn’t life feel like a niagra sometimes—an overwhelming torrent? And yet, here in this place of wonder, we saw cedar trees with twisted roots dug into rock, holding on, leaning toward the light, determined to survive whatever harsh comes their way. They sink their roots into rock crevices that catch bits of soil and moisture, then are helped along by rock-bound algae and fungi. God provides even for the mighty cedars with just enough of what they need.
And the delicate ferns? Just a taste of soil in those same crevices keep them rooted, surviving. The contrast is striking—majestic, ancient cedars and tiny ferns sprouting from the same rock. Either way, they live and have learned to thrive right where they are in routinely hard, seemingly impossible situations.
I walked with my husband, thinking of all we’ve weathered in our 21 years of marriage—of all the twists and turns life has taken—of all the joy and all the suffering—and how being rooted in our Rock who gives us just enough—our daily spiritual nutrients—and keeps us coming back for more. Well, we may still be delicate ferns in some others’ sight but I do believe, in the sight of the Lord, he has been growing us up into mighty cedars, always reaching higher, always anchoring deeper. And though we’ve been twisted and turned in our struggles to survive some very harsh realities, I do find beauty in the twisted and turned. There’s something quite artful about the roots and the trunks and the high-rising, leafed branches, and the leaning—yes, the leaning—always, the leaning, the stretching, the rising toward the Light that keeps all growing and standing strong, through all. God is with us always. No matter what, using wrenching realities of this life to make us stronger, more rooted in Christ, our Savior, THE Lover of our souls.
This is why I write so much of suffering—to point the way, always to Jesus—God with us—to shine His light in our darkness—to offer hope to the struggling, the suffering—as one who knows and has been called to lay down her life—to open and be vulnerable and not worry about what Man thinks or how Man judges—to show what God can do and is doing—though the process might look messy and too much and we’d rather not focus on less than the pleasant and beautiful in life. Someday, for some one—I do believe God will use these words—and this one small life who is willing to be vulnerable and show her struggle—her wrestling—her refusing to let go of God—until He blesses me fully with His full presence—and blesses all who will walk through the furnace, rooted in our Rock, the Savior of our souls.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.