Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In that which suffering makes you a better person

I have cried myself to sleep more times in the past few years than I have in my entire life combined.

Stuff just happens. Life happens. Bad stuff happens.

I am no stranger to suffering. At first glance one may think I've had the perfect fairy tale life full of Candyland experiences and bright sunflower fields. As much as I wish that were true, it's just not the case.

I'm sure you, dear friend, are in my same boat. If I sat down with you right now with a cup of coffee in a quaint café and leaned in close asking you to share your life story with me, I'm almost certain tears would eventually pour down your cheeks as you spoke. We all have a story. We all have suffered to some degree. No one has had the perfect life even if it looks like it on the surface.

I started on my quest for answers on suffering when I experienced a horrible, painful loss in college. The wound was so deep, the hot boiling tears so fresh, the ache in my chest so unbearable. How? Why, God? That was a low blow. 

I started feeling unexpected gushes of anger towards the God who supposedly had my best interests in mind. Let me get this straight. I serve You all my life, stay on the straight and narrow path when others around me are dropping like flies, I keep turning the other cheek, I keep believing when all hope is gone, I give until it hurts. And this is how You reward me? You strike me with a lightening bolt of pain? What in the world did I do to deserve this? What could I possibly have done to earn this torture?

These were the real, honest, transparent emotions of an 18 year old Bible college student entering a crisis of faith. I could not sing. I could not praise. I could not smile. All I could do was listen to truth and chose to let it soak into my broken spirit as I accepted it in silence, day after day.

I did not get any answers from God as to why I had to endure those hardships. But I did walk away with a stronger foundation in my love for Him, and I walked away with a life verse.

Deuteronomy 29:29
"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law."

As the years went by and the trials came and went, I climbed the mountains and dipped low into the valleys of life. I clung tightly to this verse because it gave me hope. Hope that someday, the Lord would reveal the answers to all my questions. Someday when I enter eternity it will all make sense. All wrongs will be made right. But until that day, it was my job to continue persevering and living for Him and never give up.

As my husband and I accepted our first full time pastoral position after serving as volunteers for years, we had no idea how suffering would come into play in our future ministry. We were bright eyed, naïve, innocent young bucks ready to take on the world and all it had to offer. Sometimes innocence is bliss, is it not?

If there is one lesson we have learned individually and as a couple, we have learned to let the suffering of life make us tender towards God and others, not hardened. Like kneading dough, God can make us into something beautiful if we allow Him to pound, shape, and mold us into the masterpiece He has envisioned for us.

We can also take heart, dear friends, that Jesus Himself has endured the deepest of all suffering imaginable. Not only did He endure it, but He passed the test (with flying colors) and is standing in the fire with you now offering His hand. He will get you to the other side.

Hebrews 2:9-10
"But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. " 

Hebrews 2:14-18
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—  and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.  For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

These verses touched me deeply during my devotions a few weeks ago. Jesus suffered. Greatly. Horribly. Scripture says He shared in our humanity. He experienced pain and heartbreak. He knows what it feels like to have His best friends betray Him in His darkest hour of need. He knows how it feels to have someone walk away from Him forever. He knows what it feels like to have someone gossiping about Him, slandering His name, spreading rumors and lies. He knows what it feels like to offer His life and yet have someone reject Him. He knows how it feels to be spit upon, beaten, tortured, and killed.

Because Jesus suffered, we see in verse 17 that He became merciful and faithful. And in verse 18 it says He is able to help us because He Himself suffered. How much more do we, mere humans, need to become merciful and faithful? And don't we want to be able to help others who suffer as well? Then the answer is plain and simple.

We must suffer.

And so what are we to do with this suffering? How are we to respond when the waves of hardship come crashing over our heads and the floods of tears seem to wash all our hope away?

James 1:2-4
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

I had to memorize the entire first chapter of James for a discipleship course I took in in youth group at church. I remember saying these verses over and over in my head, trying to comprehend them. I believed it, though I did not understand it.

I stand here now, 30 years old and a few grey hairs wiser, and I can say now that I get it.

I get it.

I get that suffering makes us better people. It makes us mature. It makes us compassionate. It makes us tender and soft. It gives us empathy for others who suffer. It gives us grace and mercy for those who hurt us. It gives us eyes to see and ears to hear the cries of injustice. It gives us faith to move mountains and hope that the sun will shine over the next storm cloud on the horizon. It makes us wiser, kinder, slow to speak and quick to listen.

It just makes us better.

Just imagine for a moment, that a 3 year old child is given everything they want in life, day in and day out. You name it: candy for dinner, no bedtime, ice cream for breakfast, every toy they see on TV and in the store, first turn on the slide at the park no matter who was in line first, no responsibilities, no time outs for tantrums, no discipline for biting another child.

Are you stressed out yet? Of course you are. Because nobody wants to be with a child like this!

And yet, in the same way, we want to be like this mythical 3 year old toddler. We want God to give us everything we want, no questions asked. We want a pain free life. We want what we want when we want it. We want answers. We want easy. We want nice.

But God is a good Father. He knows what's best for us. He doesn't want us to turn out like spoiled rotten toddlers getting our way all the time.

He is doing a good work in us, if we would just trust Him. If we would just surrender to it and say, "Yes, Lord. Your will be done."

I liken it to giving birth. If a woman in labor tenses up with fear and misery and works against her body and fights as contractions come, it will be harder for her to endure the pain of delivery. It may cause her labor to be even longer. But if a women in labor lets her body work through the painful contractions and embraces the suffering she endures, it is easier for her body to birth that child. It doesn't mean the pain has disappeared. But it does mean she can work with and through her pain to bring forth something beautiful.

My friend, if you are enduring great suffering right now, I pray this over you. I pray in Jesus' name that as you labor through this intense pain and sorrow, that you will birth something beautiful on the other side. I pray that you will embrace your suffering, through your hot boiling tears and screams in your pillow, and feel His arms wrapped around you. I pray that you would sense His Spirit and His peace like you never have before. I pray that your love and trust for our Savior would grow deep and strong like the roots of a well watered tree. You are loved, dear friend, and you are not alone.

May we come out of every trial looking a little bit more like Jesus.

May we be an arrow pointing to heaven.

May we give out mercy and grace to others as we accept His mercy and grace we did not deserve.

May our hearts grow tender and not hardened.

May we shine His light in a broken and suffering world.

Galatians 2:20
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

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