Posts Categorized as: suffering
Its amazing to me how much I tend to avoid pain. Motivational sayings, biographies, historical studies and THE BIBLE all point to the idea that pain is not always just a simple result of the fall—pain is often a gift and a tool in God’s hands (Hebrews 12, James 1 etc ad nauseum). It can be something used to purify our faith (I Peter 1) or something that produces perseverance (Romans 5). While I don’t ever want to be masochistic (we know that’s pathological) and get to the point where I enjoy all pain like I enjoy the feeling of really hot salsa, I DO want to get to the point where I stop whining to God about it and learn to endure.
One of the ways I’m growing in this is walking with my parents, from a distance, in the twilight of their days here on earth. I absolutely love every conversation and every minute I get with them, but it’s just part of God’s plan that our lives on this earth will sometime come to an end. I have grown to respect my Dad even more as he is making preparations for his transition from temporary to eternal. One of the things he’s done is try to make all the arrangements for his and Mom’s passings ahead of time. So, during his long stay in the hospital last fall, he took the time to write out his life’s history and his and Mom’s obituaries. Here’s the problem: He wants me (as the family academic) to type them out and put them in proper English. So, I took the two steno books full of Mom and Dad’s achievements and started working on them—that was very hard to do. It seems so final yet they are both still here… it’s been weird.
Inside one of the steno notebooks I found a note dad had written during his hospital stay. “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”— Albert Einstein.
I was really taken back by that. Dad was lying in a hospital or nursing home bed for 5 months and that’s the kind of thing he’s thinking about! At that point I decided that I would stop praying for God to stop Mom and Dad’s pain (and mine too) and ask God to continue to reveal himself to Mom and Dad in spite of it—to use it to draw all of us closer to him.
Think of what God asked Abraham to do with Isaac. Or what Joseph went through. Think of that poor lady who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment or the man born blind just so God’s glory could be revealed. God’s use of pain in our lives helps us. I hate that because I want to be comfortable and (when I’m dead honest) kinda rich. But as I’m watching my folks invest in eternity what I am seeing is that although I’m tempted to avoid pain, there is something I absolutely want more.
I want to love God with all that I am, and I recognize that to do so means I have to pick up my cross. It means I have to follow regardless of what that costs me; to go wherever he leads me. At this point it is tempting to say that, in the end, it will all be given back (like Job), or turn out for my good (like Joseph), but it’s possible that pain will endure all the way to the very end (like my Mom). There’s no guaranteed pain-free ending on this earth but that’s ok. What I am seeing in my Dad is that an absence of pain is not the indicator of things being right—it is the presence of God, despite the pain, that shows us what life really is and where it comes from. It is a life that transcends the loss of pregnancies, the loss of loved ones, horrible meetings with doctors, irrevocable diagnoses, long nights (and months) in the hospital, lonely seasons at work, frustrating colleagues, difficult financial situations, hurtful family situations and, thanks be to God, aging parents.
God’s good use of pain allows us to die to ourselves to the point that our sinful, mewling selves learn to approach the light of God’s presence that begins to burn away the selfishness. And in doing so it leaves a well of love. I resonate with the words of Madeline L’Engle when she says
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
Before, when I have preached or spoken about pain, someone inevitably comes to me and suggests that I’m perhaps missing the point of the gospel. Jesus did indeed come to set us free! And, truth be told, when people speak of the cross, sometimes they forget to discuss the joy that is given. What I really believe is that it is our fear, sin and brokenness that keeps us from the most abundant, life-giving and soul-satisfying life that can be had on this earth. And sometimes, God uses pain to get us there. And sometimes it lasts all the way until the end. But He is still worth it…in every way, for all time. I keep going to God and one day I’ll finally learn to stop dodging the pain. When that day comes, my life will be full of a light that is lovely enough to draw others.
God, have mercy on Mom, but in your way, in your time and with your design—however that turns out for all of us. May God’s mercy be on you too. Thanks for reading.
My Mom and my son Garrett along with our dog, Sugar at my Mom and Dad’s house in Nebraska
In May of 2013 my Dad had to make the hard decision to place my Mom in a facility (“Emerald Courts”) that specializes in caring for people with Alzheimer’s. We found out about Mom’s condition about three or four years before this and her condition had worsened to the point that this facility was the most loving thing for her. When she first arrived there, the facility asked us to not come see her for a few weeks so that she could acclimate to her new surroundings. When it was time to come visit, all three of the brothers (Dan from Oregon and Chip from central Nebraska) came with families to see Dad and visit Mom. It had been about six months since we had seen her and the experience of seeing Mom like that was excruciating. While we first visited I barely kept the tears at bay the entire time.
That summer was also a time when Shannon had surgery, Garrett had his wisdom teeth out and my dissertation was finally due to be defended and edited.
After we left Nebraska, Dad soon had some difficulties of his own. He needed major surgery on his small intestine. From August until December Dad had a total of three major surgeries and spent nearly the entire time in the hospital or in a nursing care facility. I suppose that without trying to be melodramatic, I can say that from May of 2013 until January of 2014, I was in one of the deep valleys of life.
I would not dare to compare that season with the valleys of those who have lost a child or who have battled cancer for years. Nor does it even compare to those Christians who are being persecuted around the world. I’m bringing it up because of something that happened to me recently and I hope to become more articulate in thinking about God and hardship.
A student of mine was visiting a church recently and he found a series of “positive proverbs” on the walls of the worship area of the building. Here are a few of them: Everything happens for a reason, Forgiving means forgetting, Faith can fix anything, A Godly home guarantees godly kids, and the one that I want to talk about today—“A Valley Means a Wrong Turn.”
I am convinced that good intentions and reductionism are somewhat ubiquitous in the Christian world. It is kindness (I think and hope) that leads people to try to distill the mysteries of Godliness into bite-sized pieces that are sticky to the mind. We want people to be happy. We hope they can find the abundant life in Jesus that we claim is available, we really want our churches to be full of life and full of new visitors. Thus, we capitalize on an element or two of faith and put it into a proverbial format and hope that people will somehow translate these pithy sayings into a better attitude and thus, a better life. Now before you think me the cynic, please know that I do think faith changes our realities and I do believe that a positive (and thus thankful) attitude has causal effects on our life here on earth. Yet, the part of this particular saying—every valley is a wrong turn—speaks to the avoidance of suffering as a wrong pathway. This is clearly a misunderstanding of things. In fact, I later found out the minister of that church was trying to do the same thing I am: stop that kind of unhelpful thinking.
The reason I take issue with this is not the urging for people to look for another, easier way to live. It is the idea that somehow the valley is wrong. This becomes deeply problematic! Who would say that the sadness of watching my Mom die little by little and yet still be walking around is somehow a wrong choice that we can somehow undo? Or is it a wrong turn in life to have to take care of my Dad who has always been self-reliant? Or do I have a behavioral/temporal solution to nurse both my wife and son back to health for problems that are simply genetic? Much suffering can be avoided by living like a disciple of Jesus but clearly, not all valleys indicate a wrong turn in life. Some simply come upon us. Perhaps some (see Hebrews 12) are even sent as a gift.
A better way of thinking about this is not to assume that hardship per se is the indicator of a wrong path but to examine what God is doing inside that valley. For some it is the testing of their faith (I Peter 1), for others it is to participate with God in mission (Col 1:24). But the sad fact is that we have an enemy and we live in a fallen world. If you add up the bad choices we make, the things that have victimized us, the way we have hurt others and the systemic evils of the world, its hard to see how a pithy saying about valleys being wrong turns is helpful. I don’t mean to be hurtful to people who do have good intentions. But thinking clearly about suffering is part of what it means to be a Christian leader (maybe just even being a Christian…) and knowing that the issue really isn’t the avoidance of pain. The issue is about whose hand we are holding when we are in the middle of the pain.
During Christmas of 2013 I took our family to see Dad and to go visit Mom again. It was sheer delight to see Dad back at home and to help him get the fireplace ready and start to get acclimated back to living on his own. It was also a chance to stop by Emerald Courts and see Mom. When I was approaching the door I had to stop and pray and ask Jesus to be present with me. The sorrow of seeing Mom slip away little by little is overwhelming sometimes. Of particular pain is how she is unable to speak very often. After I was inside I approached Mom slowly and softly said, “Hi.” She turned her semi-blank stare my way. After some time, she took my face in both hands and studied me without looking away. A slow smile crept to her face and she softly said, “I think I like you.” As my tears ran hot I whispered, “Oh, I like you too.” We stayed that way for several minutes. After some time we sat down in some easy chairs and just quietly held hands. During that time I whispered prayers of blessing and prayers of help for her and Dad. Occasionally she would see me as if all over again and say, “I like you.” By then I was grinning and saying, “I don’t just like you Mom, I LOVE you!” She would smile and we would return to silence. This went on for some time. Imperceptibly at first I began to feel another presence in the room with us, holding hands, going back and forth saying, “I like you.” By the time I was aware of this Mom turned to me once again and said, “I like you.” Before I could answer, she patted my midsection and said, “But you’re very fat.” I laughed so hard I began to cry again but this time those tears were not born of sorrow.
You might be going through a valley right now. Perhaps your own choices caused your suffering and perhaps it was simply a bad season. In either case, there is only one wise turn to make: toward the real and good presence of Jesus. His nearness to us is what gives us life even as other things try to take it away. Valleys are not always wrong turns; sometimes they are God’s gifts—hidden springs of life.