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Archive | Suffering

Forsaken by God — When Our Fears Become Our Reality

The older I get, the more I feel a need for God’s protection. I’ve been through enough things the first time to put all kinds of barriers around myself to keep me from experiencing it again. Miscarriage? Been there, done that. Do NOT want to do it again. Marriage struggles? Been there, done that. Do NOT want to do that again. Conflict with family? Been there, done that. Most certainly do not want to go through that again. Church conflict? Yes. Personal failures? Yes. And so forth.

I talked with several friends recently who each shared with me in separate conversations that God allowed them into EXACTLY the situation they were trying to not find themselves in again. I was struck that this was not a unique situation, but one in which many of my friends found themselves. We wrestled together with God. Why, Lord?! Why, when we know it’s a problem and we make wise choices in an attempt to avoid it and we pray for Your protection, do we find ourselves in exactly the same situation again? Why didn’t You protect us?

It’s a vulnerable question. Why didn’t God protect my friend from the very situation she did everything she knew to do to avoid? She had a more mature response to it than I did for her, and I started to note something forged in her character through that experience. 

Our pastor preached this week from Psalms 22, and I received it as a gift of God’s grace to us for exactly these situations. God doesn’t leave us to navigate such situations on our own. No, in His Word written and preserved for us, He acknowledges that these situations will happen and then gives us a model for engaging Him when it does.

Psalm 22 A Psalm of David. 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

David cries it under the inspiration of God, and God preserves it in His Word for the generations that follow. It is finally and fundamentally fulfilled when Christ echoes it on the cross. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” By Christ’s final act on the cross, the issue of being ultimately forsaken by God is finally put to rest for good. God will NOT turn His back on us. He will NOT forsake us. He gives us these words to cry out to Him in prayer even as He reminds us that Christ was forsaken in our place that we would never be separated from God again.

Psalms 22 ministers to us when we struggle with a God who didn’t move for us as we expected, who didn’t save us from a painful road of life that we prayerfully tried to avoid. I have no simple answers otherwise for how to deal with such disappointment—disappointment in your circumstances as well as disappointment in your God who did not act as you expected. The only encouragement I have is that He invites you to stay engaged with Him, to wrestle with Him. He may very well touch your thigh so that you limp the rest of your life, yet like the wrestling of Jacob of old, you will emerge on the other side with something forged in your heart, some bond in your relationship with Him, that others of us who haven’t similarly struggled will note from afar. I do NOT like watching my friends struggle as their fears become their reality. I long to protect them (and myself) from such things. Yet, I have to admit that their faith afterwards as they limp forward in life has blessed me. Really, it has convicted me! Such enduring faith is a precious gift of God, to be valued highly, though it is not forged in easy ways.

A New Normal

I have had a few circumstances over the last 4 years that have grown and changed me. Inevitably, it is hard, not easy, circumstances that change us deeply.

Three years ago this month, my aunt was murdered. I remember my sister’s story of the moment she had to tell my family. They were all on family vacation in the mountains. My sister got the call on her cell phone from another aunt. She told me she just stared at the scene in front of her–everyone enjoying the mountain air and time together as family–knowing that the news she had to share would change everything. It was a surreal moment. She did tell everyone, and nothing has been the same. Three years have passed. It’s fully incorporated into our lives now. It’s the new normal.

I’ve been thinking about this new normal. What has changed now? Besides all the obvious changes surrounding such a tragic loss, the foundation of change in my personal life has been, simply, my perspective. God shook the snow globe of my life, and some truths that were obscured by complacency have now taken a more prominent place in my thinking. Here are some truths that are front and center now.

1) This world is not my home. I have to repeat this to myself regularly, but frankly it’s foundational to understanding everything else in this life.

2) Evil is very bad and we are not immune from it in this world. And rather than shaking my faith, this reminds me exactly why I desperately need a Savior. I need Jesus to save me from my own sin within me. And I long for King Jesus established on this earth as the sovereign authority who rules with complete justice. When God’s kingdom is fully established, there will be no more murder. There will be no more sickness.

3) Happy is a yuppie word. I struggle with the term happy. It isn’t a fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, and peace are not necessarily grown in our lives through traditionally “happy” circumstances. Yet the beatitudes use the term freely. Blessed or happy are the spiritually bankrupt, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and, maybe most surprising, those who are persecuted for righteousness. Whatever happiness/blessedness is in Scripture, it is counterintuitive. I’m learning to think about happiness in new ways.

4) Our need for God is better highlighted in hard circumstances. When life is good, I inevitably gloss over my need for Him. But His unchanging character is the only anchor for my soul when life gets messy.

If you’ve had a life-shaking, perspective changing event rock your world recently, I recommend spending some time in Hebrews 11-13. Three years ago, the Lord saved me from despair through that section of Scripture. It reminded me that hardship, persecution, and endurance have been common to the Christian life since shortly after time began, and they will continue to be so until Christ returns. It also reminds me that despite it all, God’s purposes can not be shaken. It teaches me that my new normal is really just the old normal with complacency removed.

Hebrews 12
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction

Fruitful in the land of my affliction. That phrase may sound poetic to some and archaic to others. Personally, I find it striking. I first wrote about it a few years ago when I was in a very dark place, and it is time for me to revisit it. The phrase comes from Genesis 41:52, where Joseph names his second son.

The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

I have heard a number of sermons over the years from the life of Joseph. He often becomes a moral lesson – be like Joseph when you are sexually tempted and unjustly accused, and God will exalt you as He did Joseph. I strongly resist that view of the life of Joseph. God’s not conforming me to the image of Joseph. He’s conforming me to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Joseph’s story is powerful because it reveals God, not because it reveals Joseph. My circumstances will be distinctly different than Joseph’s, but my God is the same.

There is much to learn of God in Joseph’s story, and the naming of Joseph’s son is one such place. Many thoughts hit me as I meditate on why Joseph named his son Ephraim (which sounds like the Hebrew word for fruitful). First, it’s counterintuitive. Joseph was fruitful in the very place that should have sucked the life out of him. The paradox intrigues me. But, second, I resist the name, because I don’t want to be fruitful in the land of my affliction. I want God to END my affliction, and then I want to be fruitful in the beautiful land I imagined would be God’s best for His children. However, like Joseph, I am powerless to end whatever troubles plague me, and I get impatient waiting for God to move. It is in those moments that I wrestle with God, “How can I do what You have called me to do in THESE circumstances?!”

Once I calm down and take an objective look at Scripture, it finally hits me that no one in Scripture seems to be very fruitful EXCEPT in the land of their affliction. In fact, you can argue from Scripture that suffering, affliction, and death to self are essential to God’s plan for fruitfulness in His children.

John 12:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

I have situations in my life that plague me, that I would desperately love to see changed. God tells me to pray for His will to be done, for His name to be hallowed, and for His kingdom to come. I long for those things to come about in my home, in my neighborhood, in my church, and in the larger Body of Christ. I talked about this in depth here. But in the midst of waiting for the affliction to end and God’s kingdom to come, I am blessed by God’s story in the life of Joseph, and I meditate on what it looks like to be fruitful in the very places from which I would most like to be delivered. And I receive hope that affliction doesn’t end the possibility of fruitfulness but may instead be the very thing that prepares the ground for “fruit that remains.”

John 15:16 NAS “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain … “

Helping the Hurting

I first posted this in 2008 after a tough year of walking with several close friends through seasons of deep pain.   My tendency at times, because I don’t know what to do, is often to do nothing at all. That is a big mistake. Silence, even if your motive is well-intentioned, can be the most hurtful response of all.
So here are a few thoughts on walking with a loved one through a season of deep pain.
1) There is a time to mourn. There is a time to weep. Ecc. 3:4
Some day in the future, there may be a time for advice or a time to try to cheer up. But respect the time to mourn. Weep with those who weep. I have noticed when I am seriously hurting, there are some people that I just can’t have around because their response is to either give advice or try to distract me from my pain. Instead, I have to walk through my pain, and I treasure those who have the love and patience to walk with me.
2) Be quiet.
Listen. Don’t talk. I don’t mean that we need to remain mute when coming alongside the hurting, but take seriously James 1:19, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” When your hurting friend speaks, you listen. You listen well and ask follow up questions. You don’t redirect the conversation away from your hurting friend and toward yourself. If your friend needs to talk through their pain, listen.
3) Don’t pretend the pain doesn’t exist.
This is particularly important when it comes to the death of a loved one. Don’t ignore the person who passed on in an effort to distract your friend. They are missing their loved one, and you can’t ignore them anymore than a big white elephant standing in the room. I remember meeting at a restaurant the parents of a friend who had died unexpectedly a few weeks before. We all talked like nothing had ever happened, and I regret to this day that I ignored the elephant in the room. I wish I had said simply, “I am so sorry for your loss,” and then given them a hug. I, of course, had no idea what to say, but I realize now that saying NOTHING was even worse.
If your friend miscarried her child, let her show you the hand made blanket she made for him. If she’s having problems getting pregnant, love her enough to check on her about that specifically. If her father died unexpectedly, don’t avoid mentioning the beauty of the deck he was building for her before he died. If her husband left her, give her room to be honest about her pain.  Whatever the situation, don’t feel you have to do acrobatics to avoid the elephant in the room. If talking about their loved one fits the occasion, then do it.
3) When the time comes, speak the truth with love.
Support and encourage your loved one with the truth of God. But remember that speaking truth alone is not necessarily loving. If that were the case, Paul would have no need in Ephesians 4 to exhort us to both speak the truth AND speak lovingly. So point your friend to the character of God in loving ways. The way you say things and the empathy you show have power to minister grace to your loved one according to Paul’s instructions on language at the end of Ephesians 4. In times of pain, there is hope in the fact that God is sovereign and in control. But there is also questioning and pain. Wrestle with your loved one as they struggle with the sovereignty of God in the midst of their painful circumstances. Don’t cop out with easy answers or glib Christian sayings.
I don’t claim to be an expert on this by any means, but these are ideas that have been on my mind through times of my own pain and as I try to walk with other friends through theirs.  I hope something here is helpful to you.

Hear My Prayer, O Lord

In his book, Adopted for Life, which I hope to review in the future, Russell Moore tells of a haunting image in a Russian orphanage. He recounts the unexpected silence as he entered a room full of infants. Instead of crying, they just rocked themselves silently in their cribs. They had long since learned that no one came when they cried, so they didn’t try anymore.

As disturbing as the reality of that situation in the orphanage is to me, even more disturbing was how it resounded with my own prayer life with my Father in heaven. Satan tempted me to identify with it. I have many long unanswered prayers. Satan says, “Nobody is coming to help you. Why do you bother? Just shut up and rock silently as an orphan in your misery.”

It is work to fight off that image, to believe in faith that “the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective” (James 5:16 NIV). So I was thankful for this prayer that we recited together in church last week.

All-patient Father, Gracious Spirit, Merciful Son, it is hard to wait:
to wait for things which seem to be good and right and glorifying to you;
to wait for wants and to wait for needs.
Sometimes it seems that You are silent.

Teach us, Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer,
to trust that when You seem silent, You are not inactive;
that when you seem silent, we are still a part of Your wonderful plan of redemption;
that when You seem silent, we can still trust You over and above everything else.
Deepen our trust in You.
Give us calm assurance in You.
Give us rest in You.
Prompt us to be more jubilant in hope,
and more patient in times of trouble, worry, and want.
Urge us—even burden us—
with a desire to go to You always in prayer with the confidence, persistence and hope of a beloved child.

Teach us, Lord, to wait with faith and expectancy.
And by this, grow us, fulfill, us change us, encourage us, and challenge us.
Give us this grace,
so that we might trust in and follow You alone.
We pray this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

My circumstances tell me that I’m an abandoned orphan who might as well rock silently in my misery, for no one is coming to help me. But the Word of God tells me something altogether different. I am God’s adopted child. Though one week of unanswered prayers seems like a hundred to me, a thousand years is like one day to God (2 Peter 3:8). What seems like excruciating delay in my view of time is still swift on God’s timetable. And though my prayers seem to be weak and ineffective, God says they are powerful and effective (James 5:16). They accomplish much! Waiting seems of little value to me. It’s drudgery. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to the kingdom to accomplish this stuff and get moving on to the next thing? God says in His Word that waiting is good and promises blessing on those who wait on Him. But even more than that, He gives me Psalms 69 to aid me in the struggle to wait. He equips me to stay engaged with Him by giving me this prayer of David’s.

1 Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.

13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
14 Deliver me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
15 Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
16 Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
17 Hide not your face from your servant;
for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.
18 Draw near to my soul, redeem me;
ransom me because of my enemies!

29 But I am afflicted and in pain;
let your salvation, O God, set me on high!
30 I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the LORD more than an ox
or a bull with horns and hoofs.
32 When the humble see it they will be glad;
you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33 For the LORD hears the needy
and does not despise his own people who are prisoners.
34 Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and everything that moves in them.
35 For God will save Zion
and build up the cities of Judah,
and people shall dwell there and possess it;
36 the offspring of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall dwell in it.

I love the model in this lament. David’s cry to God is raw in its pain. Yet he ends with praise. My pastor pointed out in this Sunday’s sermon that lament is not a destination. God welcomes it, even encourages it. Yet it is not to be the place we park. It’s a gateway to trust and praise. And David models it well for us in Psalms 69.

Instead of seeing myself as the abandoned orphan crying out to no one, God reminds me that I am His precious child. Just as my children’s sense of time differs greatly from my own, so does mine from my Father in heaven. He may wait to provide, but He will provide. As I lament in my waiting, may I always end parked on trust in Him.

Pressed to the Father in Suffering

I was rereading the first posts I wrote for this blog. I came across one on Miscarriage and the Father that begged to be updated and reposted.

A friend called me after she went to the doctor for an ultrasound to find out the sex of her baby and instead was informed that her baby had died. She needed to decide if she should have a D & C or wait on a natural miscarriage. There were emotional and physical pros and cons of each. While I have miscarried and could identify with her at one level, I have never had a D & C and didn’t have much wisdom to offer one way or the other on that.

But we talked about God the Father. She already knew the truth of God’s character, but it was helpful to us both to talk through it again.

God the Father is sovereign—in laymen’s terms, He’s in control.

God the Father is wise—He knows what He’s doing.

God the Father is compassionate—He loves His children.

Another friend shared with me that after working through her long term infertility and even adopting a child, she is facing the same emotions and struggles all over again after their attempts to adopt a second child fell through. These circumstances cloud our ability to see our sovereign wise, and compassionate Father. Suddenly, we wonder if He really does know what He’s doing? And if He does, maybe He’s not in control after all. But most often, we think that while He is in control, He couldn’t possibly love us and still allow this kind of suffering in our lives. The cloud of our circumstances obscures His love and compassion for His children.

And here is the crossroads. Do I let my circumstances inform how I view my Father? Or do I let Scripture’s truth of my Father inform how I view my circumstances? That is where we must wrestle in these moments. Thanks to Mrs. Kissam, my 8th grade Latin teacher, I know that the term compassion is from the root Latin words for suffering together (com—with or together, and pati—to suffer). Meditating on the root of this term opened my eyes to something about my Father. If Scripture is to be believed, then He doesn’t just generally feel sorry for me or love me with a standoffish type of concern. He enters into my suffering. He suffers WITH me.

Exodus 34:6 (NIV) And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,

Understanding the term compassion, that God accompanies us in our suffering, leads me to wonder about this verse on Paul’s desire to enter into Jesus’ suffering.

Philippians 3:10 (NIV) I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

I can’t say I fully understand either one—God entering into my suffering or the possibility of fellowship with Christ in His. But as I go through my own suffering, it changes my perspective significantly to think that my Sovereign Father is walking intimately with me through it. Suffering can separate us from God. I’ve had moments where I was so mad and frustrated with God that I couldn’t even turn my face toward my Bible and avoided prayer because I didn’t want to put into words how disappointed I was with Him. But suffering can also bind us to God. It often takes extended suffering to do this–where you’ve held yourself aloof from Him until you are exhausted. You fall into His arms because you have nowhere else to fall, and you rest in Him. It’s the cycle of suffering — those first days where you have a naive, almost giddy hope in God doing something big, which then dulls over time into numbness and/or anger. Then you hit complete exhaustion before being pressed so closely to Him that you finally understand the phrase “fellowship of suffering.”

In those moments when the cloud of your circumstances hinder your view of your Father, preach the truth of His character to yourself. And when you are exhausted from it all, fall. It’s ok. Your wise Father who is in control of all things is WITH you in your suffering. He will catch you.

How long will you bear with me?

Love is patient … (I Cor. 13: 4)

Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all. (I Thess. 5:14)

Keep loving one another earnestly … (I Peter 4:8)

I have a few friendships that have involved long seasons of enduring. It could be enduring physical suffering. It could be enduring emotional devastation from broken relationships. It could be enduring disillusionment with the Church and Christianity. For most, it’s a combination of some or all of the above. Sometimes, I’ve endured well. Sometimes, I’ve given up. “Really, you should be past this by now!” I read this excerpt today from Shattered Dreams by Larry Crabb, which I also wrote about here.

We Christians are an impatient lot. We insist on gathering grain before it grows. We want to see flowers before spring and fruit before fall. When a brother or sister is going through a tough time, we insist that the Spirit’s work be obvious. Unless they speak of their trials from a spiritual perspective, we tend to apply pressure more than we dispense grace. We rarely belive that life is hidden in the barren tree. Let a friend express his exasperation with a four-letter word, and immediately we’re more concerned with his language than with his agony (oh, how painfully convicting).

No farmer goes to the orchard in winter to pick apples. Christians do it all the time. And when the fruit isn’t there, we walk off in disgust. The good farmer patiently waits with his basket, knowing he will soon fill it with delicious fruit. …

Two unwritten rules eventually surface in our response to one who hurts. First, mourning has a time limit. … At some point, we insist on victory. Second, we think there’s a proper way to mourn. Ugly battles should remain out of sight. … Church is too often a place of pretense and therefore a place without hope. When brokenness is disdained, where the real story is never told, the power of God is not felt. Where brokenness is invited and received with grace, the gospel comes alive with hope.

Crabb’s insight is very convicting to me. I get really angry when I watch other Christians give up on each other and write each other off. I hate it when I see their dispensations of grace expire on each other, and they either walk away or turn against one another. Yet, I do it too. I give up. I turn against. And sometimes, I just walk away. I like the old Kenny Rogers song, “You gotta know when to walk away, know when to run.” But much harder than running away is staying engaged in painful situations. It’s easier to write people off than endure for the long haul with a hope that transcends results I see this week, this month, or this year. Yet, that is the hope to which God calls us–a hope for ourselves, but also a hope for those around us.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. (I Cor. 13:7-8)