A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Tag: pain

How am I supposed to have joy when my world’s a wreck?

joy in sorrow

It needs to be said: I am a teeny bit of a freak show right now.

Yesterday, we moved out of our house, which was (after months of supreme effort) stripped and echoing, like a rumbling empty stomach. A half an hour before we left, we said goodbye to our dogs, who wagged their tails obliviously down the dirt road on their leashes with their new owners. (My children were in tears.) We said goodbye to our closest Ugandan friends. (My husband and I were in tears.) We prayed in a tight circle on the front lawn.

It was at least a month ago when my husband looked at me, my face pink and slimy again from tears that seemed to squeeze out at all the wrong times for months on end. He said, “I’m not frustrated you’re crying. I’m just remembering that you’re grieving, and that takes a long time.”

(Have I mentioned I love him?)

I was reminded of is words when a friend mentioned that in the year after someone dear passed away, very few people walked that road with her. Grief is…lonely. And we grieve in waves. Sometimes the waves are close together, sloshing upon each other with slopping, crashing forces and sucking undertow.

 

Shouldn’t Christians be happy?

I’ve written before about the hidden art of Christian lament and profound grief; of bringing our deepest questions into the sanctuary that is our worship and gratitude. One of the most mystifying words in the Bible to me is joy. What in the world does “joy” mean? When I think of it, I consider someone who’s, say, lost a child. What’s joy look like there, when the edges of your world curl black?

I find value in the words of John Piper:

We [Christians] are a happy people. But we are not what you might call “chipper.” There is a plaintive strain in the symphony of our lives. I think Jesus was the happiest man who ever lived. And O how sorrowful! A man of sorrows…

[The world] need[s] the greatness and the grandeur of God over their heads like galaxies of hope. They need the unfathomable crucified and risen Christ embracing them in love with blood all over his face and hands…They need to see “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

A friend shared with me an exercise she learned in counseling. She took a sheet of paper, and chose a color to represent every emotion she was feeling. Then, she covered her paper with circles whose size was proportionate each emotion. I think of this when I realize I’m often experiencing many emotions at the same time. Even on our blackest days, we have a pervasive, underlying sense of contentment, hope, and even happiness in God.

 

Happiness is…?

Yet joy might not even be accurately described as an emotion. The words of Tim Keller were a balm to me this morning:

…we must remember that in the Bible, the ‘heart’ is not identical to emotions. The heart is understood as the place of your deepest commitments, trusts, and hopes. From those commitments flow our emotions, thoughts, and actions. To “rejoice” in God means to dwell on and remind ourselves of who God is, who we are, and what He has done for us. Sometimes our emotions respond and follow when we do this, and sometimes they do not. But therefore we must not define rejoicing as something that precludes feelings of grief, or doubt, weakness, and pain. Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow.

Here is how it works. The grief and sorrow drive you more into God. It is just as when it gets colder outside, the temperature kicks the furnace higher through the thermostat…The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you. In other words, you are finally emotionally healthy.

When I think about grasping joy in grief, I find it inextricably braided with trust; with God’s inexplicable, unshakable care for me—that inimitable trio, faith, hope, and love. So hope, to me, is a defining characteristic of Christian grief: We do not grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Our grief is different.

 

What hope is not

Here is what hope is not always. It doesn’t always mean

  • Answers (see Job).
  • Rescue (see Jesus).
  • Lack of weakness (see Paul).
  • Lack of doubt (see John the Baptist and Elijah).
  • Happy feelings (see David).

Emily Dickinson famously wrote, Hope is the thing with feathers. It takes us beyond here, beating with life and promise.

In the previous post, I mentioned we grant humanity to those around us when we don’t walk around their pain, but lean into it. (Think the Good Samaritan here.) I am increasingly willing to walk through others’ pain. But what about walking through my own funk, when my own soul sprawls there, feeling robbed? As I texted a friend this morning who asked how I was doing: I am getting the idea that God wants me to walk through all this and not around it.

Wherever this finds you, may you unearth joy not after your sorrow, but even further within it.

 

Like this post? You might like

Cry: On the Hidden Art of Christian Grieving

For the Days When You Feel Powerless, Parts I, II, and III

Doubting the Dream Weaver

On Keeping Your Heart Soft When Times are Tough

 

 

 

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Suffering–and the People We Become

We lounged in the lamp lit half-dark: my husband and I, and our college friend. We’ve been friends for about two decades now, which makes us feel impossibly old. We still easily bend over in outright laughter over hilarious references to our college days and their mishaps. Now, though, we have things like minivans and tax returns, and my friend and I swap tips on how cast iron is really the best way to cook fish, or omelets, she says.

But years aren’t the only thing under the bridge. That night, I marveled sadly how out of our six parents, we wouldn’t have guessed we’d have lost two of them by this point. My husband and I have moved to Africa, caught malaria, gotten robbed, etc. My friend has dealt with multiple nightmarish diagnoses of those she loves.

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Not the way I saw it going in my head: On second-guessing decisions

 

I think perhaps a reader phrased it best a few weeks ago:

[My husband] and I have wrestled with our “calling” to adopt years ago. We clearly felt it, and we have second guessed it almost every day since then, wondering what were we thinking? Did God really call us to this or were we just emotionally carried away, or as [this post] put it, is it an act of worship? I think in my naïveté, I assume that if I obey what I think God is clearly placing on my heart, he will “reward” me somehow with happiness and not trouble. My very wise husband points out that this is very bad theology!

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Turn here: Roadsigns for a Grateful Happiness

A friend of mine who eventually lost his wife, and the mother of his four children, to Lou Gehrig’s disease once recalled to me a profound moment with God. While he still cared for her as her body spiraled downward, he had lain on his bed, overcome by loss.

But God seemed to be pointing him toward thanks. Not able to immediately turn to full-on gratitude, my friend simply started small. He thanked God for the ability to breathe; for the bed he wept on; for the air conditioning. From there, his gratitude snowballed, steering him into praise.

My friend’s attitude has revolutionized my approach to my bad days; to my pain.

 

thank you neon sign

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God’s Leash

 

Last Sunday afternoon, while on his bicycle, my eleven-year-old was hit by a motorcycle.

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While he was applying his brakes, sliding on rust-colored mud into the intersection, I was at home, deciding I would take a Sunday nap. I’d barely closed my eyes when one of my children called my name. This happens quite frequently, as one might imagine, and my husband has lightly chided me on contributing to our children’s entitlement with my jumpiness to their needs. So I waited to see if they’d come get me. I don’t remember what finally tipped me off that this was not the typical, “She won’t share the biiiike!”

I didn’t expect the stranger at the gate, or my weeping son, clutching his shoulder, a small tear in the new shirt his grandma had brought over from the U.S. The sight of his mangled front tire unsettled me; somehow torqued metal seems to accentuate the gravity of an accident, alluding that our limping bodies don’t tell the whole story.

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When I don’t get God

when i don't get god

I stood in her guest room, head tilted. Framed snapshots and professional photos surrounded a sizeable, well-framed headshot of her mother when she had still been healthy. Such a lovely, kind smile.

A three-year battle with a rare cancer took her four years ago now. A godly, loving woman, a pillar in her community and family, whose power of her absence belies of the quality of her presence.

My friend has four young children now, some who never got to bask in that smile. In a vulnerable moment, my friend’s voice thick with emotion, she confessed her confusion. Not a faithless one; more like the Psalms—all those that wind through despair but conclude with expressions of trust more profound because of it. She gestured at her home, littered with sippy cups and kid-detritus. She spoke of God’s sovereignty, then shook her head.

“I just don’t understand…how this is better without her.”

 

I don’t either.

And it’s not the first time. It had only been a couple of months since my accident traveling home from the airport. The one that left a man dead.

Looking back on those cloudy moments, I sometimes watch a few of the vague pieces of the puzzle pressed into place with a soft click. Ah, yes. I see it now. But many of them lay scattered, their intention fragmented.

Romans 8:28 is unquestionably a bedrock of our theology. I hang my life on it. No doubt, I had many willing to readily offer me this Scripture when I stood confused that God would use me in Uganda to take life that night; that He would choose the taxi I had hired. (Christians, myself included, can occasionally feel uncomfortable with ambiguity.)

Yet perhaps the exquisite poetry of the Psalms reiterates that those who mourn—who say, this world isn’t how it’s meant to be—are indeed blessed. Are indeed comforted, as they feel out the edges of their sorrow in its breadth and depth. As they understand just how much is mystery; how much they cannot control.

I’m in the midst of a life decision right now; those forks in the road. One seems preferable to all the rest for me. My reason says, Why, of course that’s the best choice.

To be honest, occasionally I find myself attempting to leverage my reasoning in God’s direction. There’s a bit of biblical precedent for this; Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus all presented God with well-considered arguments centered around His character, His people. God’s the author of rationalism and truth. He listens compassionately.

Still—sometimes my reasoning can lack reverence; can lack faith.  It’s offered argumentatively rather than humbly. I hear Job’s words:

I know that you can do all things,     and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,     things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… (Job 42)

When I was eight, I broke my tibia in a nasty fall off the monkey bars at family camp. (I know, I know. Hey, I’ve already warned you that I possess notably limited amounts of coordination. My six-year-old niece utterly surpasses my monkey bar capacity.) Once we arrived at the doctor’s office, I knew they planned to intravenously anesthetize me. And I was terrified. I remember that I kept trying to convince the PA I was falling asleep. I didn’t need that silly injection!

My reasoning was limited to my eight-year-old brain, my eight-year-old understanding of the world.

Paul David Tripp writes,

We must not forget that we will never experience inner peace simply because all our questions have been answered. Biblical faith is not irrational, but it takes us beyond our ability to reason….

It is important to study, to learn, to examine, to evaluate, and to know. But we are not rationalists. We do not trust our reason more than we trust God. We do not reject what God says is true when it doesn’t make sense to us. (emphasis added; New Morning Mercies: A Gospel Devotional)

Author and pastor Timothy Keller articulates plainly that (as he elaborates upon in this well-reasoned presentation to the staff of Google), “Just because we don’t see a reason for evil and suffering doesn’t mean there’s not a reason for it.”

Keller notes elsewhere that this doesn’t make suffering good. He points to John 11, when Jesus, at the tomb of His close friend—whom He is knowledgeably about to raise (see His prior words to Martha)—still weeps. God overcomes the horror wrought on this world by sin and its consequences, its unbearable curse. But He still confirms that suffering isn’t the way He originally crafted this world to be.

And yet…I find unshakable confidence that those same reasons I can’t wrap my mind around God’s reasoning—the reasons that He is not me-sized—are the exact reasons He’s worthy of my worship.

 

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