How to find meaning in any suffering

I bike the Greenway in the early morning light. I don’t even mind the spots of rain landing on my glasses; I’m so grateful that I’m able to bike my whole route again, and that it feels good again. 

The freedom feels like my first days home from the dust of Afghanistan, when every new morning I delighted in the emerald grass, the new flowers that had opened during the night, and the feel of the breeze in my (uncovered!) hair. Even still when I get into the shower, I often give thanks for hot, running water.

Sometimes one only recognizes the value of a gift when it’s taken away.

And sometimes one only realizes how much a certain freedom has been missed when it’s given back and the joy overflows into thanksgiving. 

And yet, while I give thanks for energy on the days I have more of it, I also give thanks for these past five difficult weeks, and continue to ponder the gifts in them. There are gifts we can only receive in the hard times, and when life spreads a rocky stretch of path before me, I want to bend and pick up every gem hiding among the rocks.

So, the gifts: I’ve already shared a prayer slipped through my mail slot and how, as I prayed it, God has been reorienting my love back towards him, loosening my grip on comfort and control and security. That alone was worth this challenging time. There’s something about suffering that drives our roots deeper into God, if we let it.

But there’s another gift that has been fluttering around the edges of my thoughts recently in the form of a question: What does it mean to share in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church? 

Paul’s words in Galatians and Colossians have long been familiar to me:

“. . .I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Who gets to live those verses? Every life has its suffering, but who can say that their suffering is part of Christ’s affliction, useful for the church? Until last week, I assumed that the cause of the suffering was key, that only those undergoing explicit persecution for Christ’s sake, people like Paul who are stoned and beaten and imprisoned because they speak of Christ, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Now I wonder if it’s not just the cause of the suffering, but their response that joins their suffering to Christ’s. And, as a result, whether suffering of any cause, or at least a much wider range of causes, can be part of sharing in Christ’s afflictions, depending on how we bear it.

Jesus took into his own body not only our sin, but also our sickness and suffering and pain (Isaiah 53:4). When we, now as part of Christ’s own body in the world, carry in our bodies sickness and grief and the other systemic effects of brokenness that entered the world with the first sin, and when we let Christ in whom we live turn those deaths into life for us and for others, are we not also sharing in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church and the world? 

“Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT).

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)

Paul himself sometimes lumps his personal, likely physical, sufferings, in with insults and persecutions, seeing them all as places to experience God’s life-giving strength being made perfect in his weakness.

“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Everything we suffer was carried by Jesus on the cross, and since it is all part of his sufferings, we can share in his sufferings if we live our sufferings with him, letting them press us close to Christ and become part of the way he both transforms us (James 1:2-4) and uses us to encourage others as they see God’s sustaining presence and comfort in our lives (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

As I bike the return route, the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking through the leaves that are at their most glorious in their dying, all shades of ripe tomato and sun-tinted goldenrod and the orange of a Thanksgiving pumpkin.

One thing to do when you’re hurting

“Push into the burning,” I used to tell laboring women when their time to push had come. Some did it naturally, unable to hold back from the powerful forces at work in them. Others, afraid of the burning, tried to pull away from the pain. Eventually they realized that the only way forward was through the pain.

As with birthing a baby, so with any other kind of suffering: in order for it to lead to life, the only way forward is through it.

I’m relearning this lesson myself these days as a trial of a new medication seems to have worsened my POTS symptoms, and those changes have persisted even back on my previous regimen. It’s probably not the fault of the new medication. Rather, I’m told that it’s common to have a spike in POTS symptoms toward the end of the child-bearing years. Though I don’t really know what will happen, that implies that this worse stretch could go on for some time.

It is true that what I have gained in this journey has been far greater than what I have lost. My limitations have pressed me into the arms of Jesus more deeply than my strengths ever have.

It is even true that I would not want to have missed it, so great have been the gifts in living this story. 

It is also true that as I find things worse again and face the possibility that they may be worse for some time, some heavy part of my heart cries, “O God, do we really have to go here again?”

I’m invited to remember what I know:

  • God never wastes suffering.
  • In my weakness, I get to know God’s tender love in a way I can’t experience elsewhere.
  • And this: there’s no healthy way to move around pain, only through it.

I’m called back to the 40% of the psalms which are lament psalms and listen again to how honest the psalmists are with God, all their grief and anguish, questions and disappointment freely poured out to the One who is always listening. And then, hope begins to rise through their pain as they find themselves loved and accompanied even there. 

It’s true that as we face suffering, we’re invited into gratitude. But it’s not gratitude that is pasted on like a band-aid over an abscess. It’s not an invitation to side-step the sadness, but to trust God and let suffering do its work in us. And it’s not gratitude for the suffering, but for God’s faithfulness in it and the work he does in us through it. “Consider it a sheer gift, friends,” James says, “when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4 The Message) If we use thanksgiving to try to avoid the pain, we miss the gifts that can only be given through suffering.

The way to genuine gratitude lies through honest lament, just as the way to the healing of an abscess lies through the draining of it. Jesus wept with the pain of Lazarus’ death, and then moved into thanksgiving, not for Lazarus’ death and his family’s suffering but that Jesus’ Father heard him even in that place. David cried out, “How long, O Lord?” and “Why have you forsaken me?” and then, slowly, as his grief was spilled, and he pled for God’s help in his current situation, he was drawn into remembering God’s faithful care in past pain and his heart found freedom to choose once again, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13, cf. Psalm 22) 

We have a God who does not abandon us in our suffering, but stoops to suffer for us and with us. Here is the comfort that can give us courage to face into the challenges and let suffering do its work in us: we don’t face it alone. So, friends, let’s run into the open arms of the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and, as we pour out the pain, find the grace that we need for whatever we’re facing today (2 Cor. 1:3).

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PS. If you would like more help running into the arms of God in your suffering, check out my two free email courses, The Gifts of Anxiety and An Invitation to Rest, Brian Doerksen’s sung version of Psalm 13, and Michael Card’s book, A Sacred Sorrow.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

Let grace be grace: Learning to see


I watch the widow place two tiny coins in the offering plate. Her neighbors’ noses are in the air as they let their handfuls of change drop in, noisily burying her pathetic gift. She is nothing, her gift nothing—1%, maybe, of an acceptable offering. What is that to their fine gifts, their fine selves?
Another woman breaks a vial of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. The noses are in the air again: how could she be so wasteful? (Too much might be worse than too little for these impossible-to-please critics.)
But Jesus’ math is different. After the offering plate has finished making its rounds, he gathers his disciples and says to them, “Did you see that widow? Everyone else just gave change. She gave 100% of what she had.”
And to those hassling the woman who poured out the perfume, Jesus responds, “Back off. She has done a beautiful thing.” Her gift, too—her love, her self, her reputation—was exactly right.
Let grace be grace,” I sensed Jesus inviting me at the start of Lent. One piece of that seems to be, “Let me teach you how to see.” It’s impossible to see grace when we don’t know how to look.
Recently I happened across a health and productivity scale which ranked me from 0 (bedridden) to 100 (working full time without symptoms) and discovered that despite continued slow improvement over nine years, I’m still somewhere below 50. Until I saw the score, I’d been (most of the time) content. But all of a sudden, though I knew in my head the score wasn’t about failure, . . . let’s just say I’m not use to seeing 30 or 40% on anything related to me.
I’d thought I’d moved past it until I sat with the friend who helps me listen and found myself talking about it—with tears. Eventually she asked, “I wonder how Jesus sees the 30%?” Instantly I knew. “He doesn’t see me as 30%. He has all of me. 100% . . . There are places I hold back, but even those are his to work with as he wishes.”
Immediately I felt whole again, no longer 30% of a person. Only later did I realize that maybe the 50 or 60 or 70% that the world doesn’t see and thus declares missing are Jesus’ favorite bits (if he has favorite parts of me). Those limits, those places that keep me working limited hours from home and needing daily naps, the places that the world doesn’t score as valuable, are the places that are specially his, specially ours, pushing me deeper into trust and into receiving his love and giving mine back. Those are the places that keep us most deeply connected.
“Grant us the courage to delight in the life that is ours,” I’ve been praying again and again, the line from the SoulStream noon prayer becoming a refrain that echoes into the corners of my life. For me that prayer means first of all, “Grant me the courage to look at Your face, not the faces of the world around me, when I need to be reminded who I am.”
Now that I’ve been reminded how Jesus sees me, I’m free to be content once again, even while I continue to do all I can to be as healthy as I can be. Jesus meets me here, here in this particular life. Here we work together to bless others in ways that only he and I together can, and here we rest and enjoy each other. Remembering that, once again I can truly say I love this life that he has chosen to live with me.

When "good girl" isn't enough

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I recently had to clear up a misunderstanding with someone, and it was hard. I discovered all over again that I have a very strong good-girl in me who has a big fear of even getting close to the edge of rules. That makes me a great law-abiding citizen, but it is a problem when many of my unspoken rules can be summed up by this one: Good girls don’t rock the boat. Which means they don’t get angry. They don’t bother anyone. They care only about others, so they don’t ask for what they need, and definitely not for anything extra. And if someone unknowingly hurts them, they certainly don’t let that person know.
This good girl broke all those rules in one conversation—and when she felt the fear, she realized why she doesn’t break those rules very often.
BUT, even if it was a bit messy, that conversation opened up the possibility for that relationship to continue and flourish, as sisters now, equal adults both free to love and grow.
AND, it opened up the possibility for me to know more of the true God rather than the god I’ve made in my own image—an insecure god who cares more about nit-picky rules than he does about love . . . or about me.
It’s intriguing how these outgrown (but not entirely gone) beliefs about God surface from time to time. Whenever they do, it’s a gift, because there’s new freedom just around the corner.
Seeing the false belief about God is a big step toward healing, but it isn’t an automatic cure, so I’ve been hanging around with the Real God, enfleshed in Jesus, watching as he interacts with a woman making the transition from “good girl” to “equal (and loved) adult.”
She has been sick for twelve years, and has done everything she could think to try to fix herself. She has spent all her money, been to all the doctors, followed all the rules. Nothing has worked.
Her bleeding—the very thing that makes her so desperate for Jesus’ help—is a barrier to receiving that help. As a bleeding woman, if she touches a man, she will, according to ritual laws, contaminate him.
But she’s desperate. And too ashamed to ask for what she needs. So she takes a deep breath and breaks the rules and touches the clothes of this rabbi.
And Jesus stops. Something about this is important enough to interrupt his life-and-death errand to heal a little girl who is dying.
He looks around and asks, “Who touched me?”
The woman’s heart is pounding and she wishes she could melt into the stony street.
Jesus is still waiting, looking for the perpetrator.
She falls at his feet and, in front of everyone, confesses her desperation and her rule-breaking and the knowledge that she has been healed.
And Jesus? He calls her “daughter.” It’s the only recorded time he does this, and he does it not in a moment when she keeps the rules perfectly, but in the moment she breaks the rules and reaches out to ask (through her actions, because she can’t find her voice) for what she needs.
He calls her daughter in the moment she throws aside the rules and all her own efforts to make herself acceptable and stakes everything on grace.
He names her as family, tying her to himself, in the moment when she risks it all and feels most vulnerable and afraid of rejection.
In her longing for healing, she breaks the rules, and, instead of condemning, Jesus commends her for her faith—because she has trusted him, trusted his character, enough to step through the rules that blocked her access to him.
The rules that were intended to keep God’s people close to him had become a means of keeping her away. And in helping her find her voice, in freeing her not only from her body’s bleeding but also from the bleeding of her heart, in declaring, through naming her daughter, that she is accepted and loved, that she matters and she belongs, Jesus puts rules in their proper place again: it’s the heart of God behind the rules that is central—the heart of love that always wants us close.

Becoming your proper size: how to really rest this summer


They call it paradise and, aside from the daddy long legs stalking me in the shower, it pretty much is. A soft blue and yellow bedroom with hydrangea blossoms on the dresser and a recliner in the corner, lounge chairs by the waterfall in the back garden, kayaks to paddle among the islands. These are all part of it, but they’re not the heart of the paradise.

It’s the freedom to be my proper size that brings the peace and lets me rest.

There’s a lack of urgency that resides here. A comfort with being human. . . with beauty and mess and hunger and joy, fatigue and tears and laughter. Dirty dishes and fruitflies are part of life, taken care of in their time, but coexisting quite happily for a while with sweet nectarines and gouda sandwiches and fresh blackberries capped with ginger yoghurt cream. On the days that I can, she’s happy for me to wipe the crumbs off her counter.  When illness takes hold, she knows how to make a bed in the warm air where I can listen to the bees and watch the sun set the maple keys aflame. She has done it for others. I am human and small and it’s okay. Life is not an emergency and I can lay down control.

Living in the real world

I am sad to leave this place, to start back to my busier life. I fear being pressed and pulled by the world ungently, urgently, forcing me to the center where I do not belong, driving me (by dint of my exaggerated self-importance) to shoulder burdens I was not meant to carry. Urgency takes my eyes off the One who has it all under control, making me think that I need to control it. It tricks me into thinking that the world of the urgent is the real world and rest a brief and tantalizing illusion.

But Jesus speaks:

“Come to me, all you weary and burdened ones, and I will rest you. . . “

It’s a permanent offer, and one without condemnation. No fear of our humanness. Just invitation. “Come. I will rest you.” These days apart I have tasted the real world, the world of welcome and invitation and the love that invites rest. The urgent is the illusion.

His rest can happen in the chaos, miles from recliners and kayaks; His rest comes with staying our proper size, and that can happen anywhere.

 “. . . Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

He is humble – having a true view of reality – and when we step out of our do-it-yourself yoke, out of the world’s expectations, and into his yoke with him, we begin to see rightly too, regaining our proper size.  He is gentle, and, walking with him, we learn to live gently, not urgently.

Living gently: it’s a lot about listening and responding. A child gently handling an animal senses its timidity, its fragility, and responds with respect and care. A gentle mother hears the heart cries beneath the angry words and responds to her child in healing love. A gentle life is not driven by the urgent but makes space to listen to the heartbeat of God and others and self, and act in tender response.

This is how Jesus rests us: He helps us live our proper size. Small and fragile and (rightly) dependent, and cherished and made great in his love (. . . but more on that soon.) Rejoice with me, will you, at this invitation to put down the burden intended for greater shoulders and rest in His love?

Shout for joy to the Lord all the earth. . . .
It is he who made us and we are his,
We are his people and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100)

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A repost from the archives, part of a summer series leaning into God’s repeated command to remember.