Archives for posts with tag: grace

Suffering is a universal, shared, human experience. Everyone suffers at different times and to varying degrees – it’s something we can all relate to. Sometimes the pain is so overwhelming and sharp that it leaves us feeling like we can’t move forward with life. Suffering leaves us dazed, scared, weak, depressed, confused. A question that often gets asked in the middle of our trouble, more so when it’s especially poignant: Where is God in this suffering?

So where is He? Where is God in poverty and starvation? Where is He when a baby dies? Why does He seem silent while abuse takes place or addiction overruns and ruins families? Will He not lift a finger to relieve cancer and chronic illness that drags on for year after miserable year?

The evangelical in me wants to point a finger squarely at Satan; to say that God has nothing to do with suffering but to use it for good. And He does use it for good. But when I look at the way God works in the Bible, I see a God who not just allows suffering to happen, but proactively brings it to our lives to accomplish a certain goal. A King who does sometimes choose to inflict pain to bring about His will. So is God not good?

Jonah refuses God’s request and tries to sail away in hiding. God sends a massive storm. Intense fear is suffered by not only Jonah, but by the other people on the boat who had nothing to do with Jonah’s disobedience. Jonah is thrown overboard to save the ship and is swallowed by a whale. He suffers inside – in dank, dark, disgusting fish guts – for three days, praying for another chance. God grants him this prayer and the Ninevites hear Jonah’s message of God’s love and concern for them; hearts are changed, lives are saved in an eternal way.

Joseph grew up being favored by both his father and by God. His brothers resent and hate him; they sell him into slavery. He is falsely accused, stripped of his rights and his freedom, thrown in jail and forgotten about for many years. He always believed he was destined for greatness and didn’t become bitter or outraged in his suffering. He maintains his hope and people notice. He gets released from prison and promoted to second in command of Egypt. He is reunited with his family. Hearts are changed, lives are saved in an eternal way.

Jesus leaves heaven to come TO the suffering. Like a firefighter running in when everyone else is trying to get out. He didn’t pad himself with luxury or even basic comforts. He looks for people who are physically, emotionally and mentally sick and afflicted. He goes to them with the intent of taking on their burdens, makes them his own, is shamed and ridiculed by those same people – ignored or despised by everyone else. He is beaten, tortured and executed on a cross. Hearts are changed, lives are saved in an eternal way.

sufferingSuffering is everywhere and it’s a part of life. But not in a vague “everything happens for a reason” kind of way where we don’t seek to assume what is happening through the pain. Suffering is exactly the opposite. It is very purposeful, intentional, and anything but vague. God is in the suffering. Right there in the middle. He’s always working for our good, but that does not mean He’s always working for our comfort or relief.

When we are buried in grief and sadness – and let’s not dismiss how deep and dark our pain can be – we feel like what we’re going through is the worst suffering we could encounter. I think this is where we can misunderstand God and His love. What we believe is the worst suffering (death, cancer, affliction, poverty, crisis, etc) is actually not the worst suffering. Separation from God is the worst suffering. Eternal separation.Not whatever is happening here and now, no matter how dark. God can use our suffering here on earth to spare us eternal suffering. And, as we see in the examples above, sometimes our suffering is the medium through which God changes others’ hearts and saves lives.

Think about one of your dark times. When you came out the other end, you were not the same person. In the toughest times, we either bend and break to God’s will and develop an insight and maturity unmatched to that of our former self or we dig our heels in and put up walls. But we do not stay the same. We’ve seen too much; we’ve become aware of our limits and powerlessness in times of our greatest desperation. Hopefully it leads us to a knowledge of our need for a Savior.

If we believe that our earthly suffering, which is surely temporary even if it is long-lived, can bring about relief from eternal suffering, can we manage our pain better in our darkness? Can we glean some hope in knowing that the pain will not last forever? Will we allow our hearts to be necessarily broken and softened or will we become more proud and hardened? Are we willing to suffer for the sake of someone else’s life beyond this earth?

I have borne witness on several occasions to God’s people handling immense and extreme suffering with grace, truth and a light that spreads hope and points to the Lord. All suffering – all things in life – are meant to bring glory to God. When we seek and proclaim God’s glory through suffering or by the testimonies of those who suffer, we are doing what God wants us to with pain. Sometimes, our pain isn’t even about us. Can we still proclaim God’s goodness when intense sorrow enters our lives for the purpose of impacting someone else’s life?

One thing I am convinced of: We must not let each other suffer alone. Every time I see God glorified through life’s pains, I also see God’s people standing alongside those who are suffering. Through prayer and fasting, in bringing meals and incidentals, with time spent and relationships strengthened. And how God is glorified in those acts alone!

Suffering will happen in your life. What will you do with it? Will your question be, “Where is God in this suffering?” or will you have some degree of expectancy, “Whose heart and life will be changed through this pain?” Because God is certainly at work; we need eyes to see a bigger picture, humility to endure without getting lost in self, and devotion to a God who is always working for our good even with pain in the process.

We all have something, right? A fatal flaw that we can’t seem to shake? I’m telling you mine.

We’ll just rip it off like a bandaid and expose this thing for what it is: my ongoing sin of pride. Pride is so hard to overcome; in fact, it will likely be the battle I fight my whole life rather than something I can rid myself of once and for all. I understand how dangerous and filthy pride is, and I fight it in me. For anyone who passes pride off as “not that bad” a sin, read this short excerpt and, when you have some time, go ahead and read this whole blog by Fabienne Harford:

Pride will kill you. Forever. Pride is the sin most likely to keep you from crying out for a Savior. Those who think they are well will not look for a doctor.

We are all in need of a Savior. There’s no heavenly ranking system for sin. If you’re not crying out for a Savior, then you might be struggling with pride. If you are quick to notice all the other people who are in need of a Savior more than you, then you are definitely struggling with pride.

Anyway, it’s crazy, with as dangerous and blinding a problem as the sin of pride is, I can post this confession and be not at all nervous about the repercussions because America isn’t too bothered by pride – celebrates it even. But what if my Great Sin was something else? What if I asked for help kicking my crack habit? What if I confessed an affair? What if I needed to let my loved ones know I was gay? No way on earth would I freely reveal those things for fear that I would lose friends or at least be treated differently. This double standard is not a God problem. It’s not a Bible problem. It’s a problem we have as people. We’re the ones who have come up with the ranking system. Sidenote: In my heart and in my gut, I’m certainly more disgusted by a child molester than by a Wall Street guy who’s cheating someone out of money. I do think that instinct IS God-given, but meant more for us to protect those who are the most helpless and vulnerable rather than to incite riot against the person committing the crime.

It’s not just believers who adhere to the sin ranking system. I have a non-religious friend who has lived a very difficult life – chronic drug use and relapses, isolation from his now teenaged daughter, a brother who committed suicide. The future feels bleak for him and he was telling me one day how much “better” I am than he is. “What have you ever done?” he asked. “Pride. Pride. Pride. And I have a temper. I yell at my kids when they irritate me.” He rolled his eyes, passing my stuff off as small potatoes. And, I confess, I’d rather have my current set of problems than his. By the standard of the world, I am good. Just fine. My family may even be more functional than average. But as my minister Chris Seidman said recently, “It’s a level playing field at the foot of the cross.” My friend and I are equally in need of the mercy and forgiveness that Jesus offers.

There’s a lot going on right now socially in America. We’ve got tense race issues, gay marriage, gun rights, and illegal immigration. No need to delve into debates over any of those issues, but they’re the reddest, hottest, hot-button discussions people are having. I have my own opinions on these topics, but no ruling or legislation or law has ever disheartened me more than observing the total lack of compassion that spews from the mouths of those (on both side of the issues) who are angrily picking fights in the aftermath. These reactions expose the pride that we are all drowning in.

If we truly understood the gravity of our sin, how could we spend so much emotion and energy pointing fingers at each other?

If we could get a grip on how quickly we’re sinking in our own pits of quicksand, where do we get off berating someone else for the mess they’re in?

Love is what we’re supposed to be doing – letting our understanding of where our own sin has left us lead us to compassion for the people around us who are as wretched, messed up, and pathetic as we are. But that means we first need to GET it. Not many of us feel desperately ashamed and broken over our sin. While we acknowledge that there is a sin rank system in our world and, admittedly, the natural consequences of different sins vary greatly, there is no sin rank system in heaven. We all need Jesus equally and if that’s hard for you to swallow, then you may struggle with pride.

All this to say, it’s this attitude we have about “worse” sins that is keeping people from our churches. I am committed to changing my thinking. To learning to love people who sometimes scare me because of the places they’ve been. To letting the knowledge of my own brokenness lead me to compassion and to serving others who are also struggling with something, be it my same sin tendencies or something very different.

We’re all in this together. We really are. So let’s help each other succeed. And one other thing since this post is kind of a bummer: God takes our jagged, ugly brokenness, carefully and lovingly puts together the pieces with the restoring power of Jesus’ blood, and invites us into his presence to eat with him at his table. He doesn’t look back and he doesn’t keep record of our wrongs. Neither should we once we have received the freedom and joy we have been offered through salvation in Jesus Christ. No matter where we’ve been, we all have been given the same shot at happy endings to our life stories.

Not my grandma.

Not my grandma.

Sorry to anyone who clicked on this to read an actual list, hoping you could maybe get a clue as to where exactly it started going south during your conversation with a former friend who happens to match that exact description. That’s a weird coincidence.

But have you seen these types of lists circulating? I’ve seen a ton. There is one for every group and sub-group of human being, from “pet owners” to “teachers” to “women who had a C-section.” I was seeing so many people post these that it started making me nervous to have a conversation with anyone who had any type of life experience for fear that I’d accidentally offend them.  I’d read through the lists and discover comments of two varieties: Genuine but mis-communicated concern OR evidence of plain ‘ole self-absorption (projecting personal or preconceived feelings or reflections onto the receiver of their comment). Even so, I kept thinking to myself, “Are people really getting all worked up over something like this?”. Not having ever been a teacher, C-section mom, and just barely a new pet owner (hey, Frankie!), I just took it on good faith that these were legitimately insensitive words. One day I saw someone post about 5 Things You Should Never Say To A New Mom. Finally! I have been a new mom, so I followed the link, prepared to be super angry at what calloused things some heartless goon would let pass their lips onto the delicate ears of a new mother like me. And then nothing happened.

Not my daughter.

Not my daughter.

I get how, “Are you breastfeeding?” could be too personal a thing to bring up, but one of the things on the list was, “Are you loving it?” Really? I’m sorry, but if someone asking if you are enjoying being a new parent makes you steam, then maybe you need to take a breather. Maybe the commentor can’t remember how hard this phase is or maybe the commentor has never actually been in this phase. And I’ll be the first to echo every mom out there trying to make the rest of the world understand exactly how insane parenting makes us (this blogger’s description of her “day” SO resonated with me!). However, after reading a list that I could identify with, my initial hunch was confirmed (at least in my own head) that maybe instead of presuming that all of our so-called friends are deep-down-mean, we’re sometimes just a little too easily offended.

Not being easily offended could be something you have to work on. Like the other attributes of love as described in 1 Corinthians 13, not being easily angered or irritated may not come naturally. I have to work like CRAZY on being patient and not being proud. Those are mine. But don’t let a well-intentioned comment mess with your head.

There is a flip-side. I’m definitely not advocating that there is no need to pay careful attention to your words; I’m not saying that being offended is always the fault of the person who got their feelings hurt. Two – no, make that three – instances are coming  to mind of times where I said something really insensitive and stupid. Cringe-worthy, in fact. Thankfully, the people on the receiving end of those thoughtless remarks were proficient at grace and forgiveness. Being on the goon-side of insensitive comments helped me overlook an instance when, in my third trimester, a relative told me that I “didn’t really look pregnant, just bigger all over”. Who knows why she said that! Ha, I mean, really. I think we could all probably agree you don’t say that to a pregnant woman. Be that as it may, the comment caught me off-guard, but it didn’t offend me because I know she loves me and her comment was certainly not meant to be an attack on my self-esteem. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I tend to assume that most people are generally well-meaning. Or maybe I should just say that I’m not looking for reasons to be mad or resentful toward the people I interact with. Because, for real, mad and resentful is no way to live.

I look pregnant to me...

I look pregnant to me…

Ok, here are some math jokes to win back your excitable, one-legged, former math teacher friend. Good luck.