Two anonymous questions:
– What are you suppose to think when all you can think is God is taking everything I love out of my life?
– So, what do you do when you feel in over your head? One of my best friends is struggling with faith, my husband is struggling with a lot of stress from his job, and my mom is struggling in a relationship with her bf. Then I read the news, and everything looks so dismal. I feel like there is so much hurt around me. I know my prayers are effective, and that God is sovereign. But I just want to stop all the hurting. Any words of advice?
Hey my wonderful friends, I must first say: I’m really sorry about everything that’s happening and I dearly love you both. I know it can’t help much, but you must know before I turn into super-advice-robot or go off on Christianese cliches that I know how it is, being in a whirlwind of hurt with seemingly no way out. So anything I say here couldn’t possibly be a magic formula or silver bullet to instantly re-arrange your feelings, and I can only hope to cheer you on for just one more step, which will be enough.
Please allow me to offer a few thoughts on all this. As always, please feel free to skip around.
– Sometimes pain is just pain, and there’s no spiritualized lesson. I’ve said before: Not every pain has a lesson. Not every hurt can be spiritualized into a moral fable. You don’t have to force anything good out of this. When it feels like all our blessings are being taken from us, it’s wrong to say, “God is teaching me to live without them.” Maybe He is, but who’s to say that while it’s happening? When there’s one more shooting or funeral or CEO getting away with fraud, I’m not going to say, “But God is using it for good.” God is mad at injustice too.
It’s possible that we get to see some good from pain, but it’s not for me to connect-the-dots on “why” this or that person was hurt or betrayed. My hope can’t be in things “working out” or else I’ll idolize results instead of helping my fellow friend. We often say “I passed the test and got the job, so God is good!” — which is okay to celebrate, but that can imply that God is only good to the good kids and somehow neglects all the other people who didn’t make it. We can’t connect every blessing this way either. To spiritualize any of this is cruel and dismissive.
When I hear other Christians say “God has a wonderful plan for your life” or “Pain is what forces you to grow,” I get what they’re saying, but this falls totally flat when I’m actually going through something. It doesn’t work. It’s like when I get migraines, there’s always someone who says, “Drink some cold water.” Nice gesture, but that’s a bandage for a bullet wound. Which leads us to —
– Nothing in this world is as it’s meant to be. Can we just say that pain really sucks? And that none of this is what it’s supposed to be? We live in a fractured, fallen, hostile, weary world, where the thread of sin has woven itself into every human heart and even into nature itself. We live in a universe of limited resources with colliding selfish desires and a race of apparently friendly civilized people who will devour each other in a second. This is our reality, and I think if we deny this by saying “God is good” all the time, we won’t be prepared for the eventualities of life.
– We very rarely have a strong theology for when life hurts. Most Christians are taught if we pray enough, serve enough, and frenzy ourselves into faith, that life will go great. The only problem with this is the whole Bible. Following God and trusting Him in a world of counter-intuitive values to Scripture is just dang hard. We don’t get instant pay-off for this. To trust Him often feels foolish — but that’s exactly how it’s supposed to feel. Certainly there’s good theology for why pain happens: but in the moment, we’re allowed to call out evil for what it really is.
When life hurts, we’re allowed to vent and be angry and frustrated about everything. None of us are home yet. David and Isaiah and Jonah and Jeremiah and Martha and Naomi were all the same: they never held back their weeping, their outrage, their vengeful prayers, their longing for justice and peace. Because we’re human, and God is okay with our shaking of the fist.
– You still choose who you get to be. It could be that nothing ever changes around you for the better. We could be stuck in a lifelong struggle where the storm clouds never leave; we might limp all the way to the horizon. And we’re all headed to entropy, whether by choice or time. From dust to dust we go.
This probably all sounds really bleak. But I’ve seen people go one of two ways when the house falls down. One is that they allow a terrible season of life to turn them just as terrible, by either totally shutting down or acting out, and they become miserable. They do have a valid reason to be bitter: but this bitterness isn’t worked out like a flu. It sets in like poison. And pain continues to perpetuate pain. At first they were simply hurt by life, but soon they chose to keep hurting others. We are all broken by sin: but many of us keep choosing it. It’s why children of divorced or abusive or alcoholic parents also become those very things: because they couldn’t cut the cycle. That’s more reason for healing, and not less.
The other way is tougher. We get hurt and it hurts: and yet, all the flailing slobbery responses from our pain is brought to God Himself. Our exposed raw nerve brings about the worst in us, but we wrestle with it, measure it, fight it, navigate the mess inside, each and every day. And this is the dark part of us that God can shape, re-shape, and wholly heal. It’s not easy. I don’t mean to make it sound pretty. But crafting character was never going to be easy.
Life will hurt anyway, whether you sit down or move forward. We will bleed anyway, and healing hurts even worse, because we must do the hard work of walking in our wounds. But I would rather hurt by healing than hurt by choosing to wallow in what happened to me. I would rather hurt standing up than sitting down. This is always where God comes in alongside us, not to bring blessings to our surroundings, but to be the blessing Himself. It sounds corny and we naturally resist it, but this is where we become something new.
The one thing that keeps me moving through the onslaught of our world is knowing that Jesus bled too. He knows exactly what afflicts us, because He showed such solidarity on the cross. He knows my pain more profoundly than I could dare to fathom. Jesus entered the impenetrable membrane between a perfectly loving Father and a disastrous deadly people, and so we have a God who has touched the dirt of the earth and met us in our aching slumber.
Jesus was not above us as a guru who stays above our troubles, for he was brought as low as a criminal accused of false crimes, yet he overcame even the entropy of death so that we might share in that victory. He’s the friend who can relate to my every pain, yet the leader who can lead me through the very same hurt. He is, in fact, more present in our pain than anywhere else: he has not checked out, but completely checked in.
I don’t primarily believe in a God of circumstances, but a God in them. And He absorbed that cycle of hurt in the cross, where he showed a greater way to transcend our fallenness.
I’m sorry that this all might be soft consolation for what’s happening. I know that no mere words can cure you today, and perhaps this is all so familiar that I am just one more preacher. But I sincerely hope you can trust Him, even with a tiny shred of faith. It’s okay to be mad with Him, so long as you’re not mad without Him. If you must lean in any direction today, I hope it’s towards Christ, who has brought healing first to your heart, and empowers you to choose who you can be when everyone else does not.
I’m praying for you, and you know: miracles can still happen. Your situation could change. I can’t promise that, but I still believe in a God who can part the clouds. Everyone once in a while, we see an infinitesimal glimpse of God’s power breaking through our world, and I hope we have eyes to see and a heart to be thankful. Until then, we fight to be be healers who do not pass on the pain, but make something of the pieces. You can still love those around you like crazy, and maybe that’s exactly the best place to be.
My book on persevering through pain is here.