I felt it the other day as I bumped along in the backseat of the car, recounting as best I could my interpretation of some recent events. It was a brittle layer settling around me, hardening more rapidly than I could scrape it away. (Perhaps an alternate title to this post: “When Your Hide is Chapped and There Ain’t No Bag Balm in Sight”).
I imagine bitterness or resentment not unlike a callus of the heart. It’s the surface rubbed raw through hurt, then blistered in a cushion of (occasionally bursting) self-protection, then layered in a rough, thickened crust of skin designed to keep us from feeling as much.
But bitterness doesn’t tend to stay put. I’ve seen my own emotion bubbling hotly beneath the surface—and often splashing onto my kids or husband through a quick temper. At other times—and in other suffering friends—suffering oozes into cynicism, as dreams and hopes fade into relics, or gather dust in our confusion and loss.
Sometimes, as in this wisely-spoken post by Melissa Edgington, it’s just hard to deal when God says no.
Here are some ideas to help me—and you—steer out of the categories of Hardened, Embittered, Stiff-necked, Unbelieving, and Jaded—and further into keeping our hands open, hearts soft, and eyes up.
- Find at least one good listener who will
- ask great questions,
- listen long and graciously,
- be unfazed by your grief and even doubt, and
- still have courage to tell you the truth.
- This was gold to me after an accident I endured in Uganda. Honesty with God and (in my experience) one other person helps “keep your wound clean,” as author Sharon Garlough Brown writes. Ed Welch also mentions the wisdom in the listener “unpraising” someone’s acts which have caused shame (not in a way that bashes the person, but agrees and calls the deed out as wrong). If you’re wondering, like I’ve been, about the difference between self-pity or -absorption and honestly addressing what’s going on in your soul, perhaps this post on martyrdom can help. Essentially, there’s a determined Godward-ness, I think, in healthy suffering that keeps in mind God’s compassion toward us (as opposed to navel-gazing, and “grieving as those who have no hope” [1 Thessalonians 4:13]).
- Keep a running list, and a continued discipline, of gratitude. Right now I’ve got a running list in my journal of God’s particular goodnesses in this season; of little signs of affection from God. Suffering often severs our sense of that cord of individual affection running directly from God to us, and gratitude (as I discovered when my son was hit on his bike) can act like sprinkling powder on a laser: It helps us see that goodness again.
- Choose forgiveness again. …And again. I find I must choose forgiveness yet again when I encounter new ways an offense causes pain (someone who’s been abused as a child, for instance, may find new reasons to forgive as they enter into marriage). Perhaps we can take a cue from God on this one, whose mercies are new every morning. No, I don’t think He forgives us anew. His forgiveness is once and done! But the idea of choosing mercy every day is helpful (and an excellent reminder of what I’ve personally received) when I’ve been deeply hurt. Peacemakers suggests that we know that we can truly overlook an offense when we can
- refuse to gossip or dwell on an incident and
- move toward blessing (rather than vengeance) toward the offender.
- If you can’t do that, prayerfully consider gently confronting the person with the goal of reconciling your relationship.
- Treat bitterness as a flaring dashboard light. It’s a warning that something’s going haywire in your soul. Unresolved hurt has reached an angry or protective level. Leaving it there can be a cancer—and anyone who’s endured that will tell you they don’t want to wait a few months to see what happens. Deal with your pain directly (yet patiently; here are some thoughts on encountering our grief), prayerfully.
- Keep your eyes peeled for unbelief. Tim Keller, in this excellent “Questions of Suffering” podcast, points out it’s nearly inevitable for us not to ask “why” in searing times. Job certainly did it. And though Job points out we’ll almost never comprehend the complexity of answers this side of eternity, it’s easy for us to slip into cynicism (“God checked out”) or moralism (“if I do what’s right, I won’t suffer”). Both attempt to harness our out-of-control God. Neither chooses to trust Him rather than ourselves; to, as Satan challenges in the book of Job, love God even when we’re not feeling “blessed”; for no matter what we get (my major concern with the prosperity gospel movement that has taken Africa by storm). On New Year’s Day, I chose to fill a couple of journal pages of “I believe” statements. They’re specific to the massive question marks swimming over this next year. I return to that list occasionally, reminding myself of who He is–and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him. Even when I’m aching.
- Stay alert. Pain can leave us vulnerable to old, comfortable patterns (healthy or unhealthy; mine’s usually insecurity or anxiety). We can get destructive in our relationships (think of an animal in a trap!). We’re far more open to insipid lies. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. When our soul satisfaction has been upset, we find ourselves scrambling to fill the holes. And those impulsive, starved decisions can lead to some of our deepest regrets. Remember to decisively put on the Armor that protects your soul. (This is another great reason to wrestle with what’s going on, rather than ignoring it: It helps us stay alert.)
- Choose one life-giving activity. This pain or anger doesn’t have to be my identity (or yours). I’m empowered by choosing that one activity that makes me feel alive. Perhaps it’s where I offer a unique contribution or carve out some intentional time to heal and lower my expectations of myself (a bit like recovering from an accident).
As I type this, I’m praying for those of you who read this and grapple with your own losses and searing disappointments. This week, may you find refuge in the God who is close to the broken hearted; who saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).
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