I caught up with a friend from high school whom I haven’t spoken to in decades. She told me of overwhelming difficulty in her family’s life for the last 15 years.
A colleague’s young wife passed away this year, leaving him and their five daughters to grieve.
A child of friends’ of mine is suffering through incredible health issues.
And I hear more and more examples of grief and misfortune of good people in my life.
How can one even process the sad and frightening experiences around us? They are the narratives of people who are sidelined by grief, despair and helplessness. It is exhausting, painful to watch people you love and admire walk through such frightening times in their lives. Sometimes the end result is good news, and you can hope and pray for that, but sometimes things don’t end well. This is the reality of our world.
My high school friend commented to me, “It’s funny how things can be in life.” then proceeded to tell me how her life had experienced waves of difficulty, over and over, from different directions, until she was left wondering how she could make sense of any of it. It wasn’t funny. It was excruciatingly sad.
My colleague and his wife leaned on the people around them for support during her illness, drawing strength from the love of people who cared. They experienced both optimism and anguish. In the end, her death was tragic, wrong. How could any good come from this?
This is where we err. In our linear way of thinking, we feel compelled to find purpose in the pain. We feel that we need to explain why something is happening, as if it fits towards a greater good. We think that if we can explain why something happens, it will mean that there is order in the world. But we forget that we live in a broken world, and our own wisdom can not make sense of things that are beyond our reason.
When our newborn son was in the hospital (he spent nine months there before coming home), someone said to me one day, “You must feel so blessed to be going to the hospital every day. You’re in such a great place to share Jesus with everyone else.” I smiled politely, but inside I broke. Helping other people was the furthest thing from my mind at that time. I was only surviving, mentally reminding myself to breathe, to eat, to sleep. But were my actions selfish? Was I so self-centered, thinking only about me, when all those people around me needed encouragement, support?
Now, I think I understand better. I was so weak, so helpless, lonely. I simply didn’t have strength. Eventually, things got better. Eventually, we mourned loss and celebrated victory, but we certainly weren’t soldiers of strength throughout the whole ordeal. Pain is real. It happens to good people and bad people. Some people bring pain on themselves. Some of them don’t. The reality is that we bear burdens at times that can break us … sometimes they do.
And when we find ourselves completely and utterly hopeless, God can begin to plant seeds of joy deep within us. Those seeds will not grow immediately. They will take time, but they will grow.
When I look back at some of the nasty stuff I’ve gone through, and I look at where I am now, I’m amazed. No, I didn’t have a bouncy positive attitude back then when things were at their worst. No, many times I didn’t think God cared, occasionally I was even convinced He was punishing me. Sounds depressing, but it’s the truth.
Now those heartaches seem distant, and I know that my feelings and insecurities were part of the package. It didn’t matter how I felt about the situation: God stayed the same. It didn’t matter whether I was strong or helpless: God stayed the same. It didn’t matter if I could make sense of it or not: God stayed the same. I somehow stuck to him, although weak and faithless at times, I simply leaned on the lowest common denominator: I knew that He lives, He died for me, and I will one day have eternal life when all of this is over. Somehow, I would continue trying each day to navigate through the storms, and make it through one more night. While I was struggling to just breathe at times, He was watching my steps. He was caring for my children. He was filling in the gaps where I failed. He was bringing fresh drops of encouragement here or there, so I would have hope. And he was strengthening my heart, so that I would be courageous for the future battles ahead.
An old Stephen Curtis Chapman song says,
We can only know the power that He holds when we truly see how deep our weakness goes;
His strength in us begins where ours comes to an end.
He hears our humble cry and proves again
His strength is perfect when our strength is gone;
He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on.
Raised in His power, the weak become strong;
His strength is perfect when our strength is gone.
After having gone through tragedy, difficulty and crisis when I was a child, a teen, a new wife, a mom, a divorcee, a remarried woman … the strength in God’s powerful message of hope stays constant. It is not optimism, or money, or acceptance in the Christian community, or a secure family, or a happy marriage, or even a bolstered faith that brings me through … because many times I have lacked each of those things.
It is truth … that God lives. He just lives. The world is messed up. People are in pain. But there is a secret place where we can hide no matter where we are. It is a shelter where our hearts can find rest.
An ancient song sings, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ ”
I do not share the same story of grief and heartache that others do. But I do hold experience that I can share with others.
I have been to the darkest place of despair. I have visited the valley of fear and hopelessness. I have been lost, shaken, broken and discarded.
And God found me there.
I have experienced things in my life that will never be explained as good. To somehow make sense of them would trivialize the depth of the hope I received in spite of them. Now the hope I hold in my heart is beyond human comprehension. It is a rich and valuable treasure, that words cannot explain. God gives me peace even when peace shouldn’t be there … that’s why His peace is described as beyond understanding. The fact that an all powerful God lives and cares about me is enough to rest in the joy of the future. He hasn’t forgotten me. He has not forgotten you.
The depth and intensity of despair will one day mirror the height and strength of our joy.
I rest in this certainty.