“Life is not a straight line leading from one blessing to the next and then finally to Heaven. Life is a winding and troubled road. Switchback after switchback. And the point of biblical stories like Joseph and Job and Esther and Ruth is to help us feel in our bones (not just in our heads) that God is FOR us in all these strange turns. God is not just showing up after the trouble and cleaning it up. He is plotting the course and managing the troubles with far-reaching purposes for our good and for the glory of Jesus Christ.”—John Piper
The truth is, I want the straight line.
I want to go from one blessing to the next until I get to Heaven.
For many years, I skipped along that beloved straight line, believing that life was good and pretty and sunny and fun and kind and orderly.
And then the roof caved in leaving brokenness, darkness, confusion, tears, bewilderment, shock, loss, sadness, fear, and weariness in its wake.
Against my will, I was jarred awake to the brutal reality that this world is not heaven. It is enemy territory and the pain is searing and relentless.
I had so much head knowledge.
But suddenly, that wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough to cope with a life that was no longer safe.
I found that I craved safety. Yet there was no sense of safety in my circumstances. It was as if I was straining to balance on a tightrope and when I got up the nerve to finally look down, I was horrified to discover that the safety net was missing. And the winds were picking up, the sky was darkened by gathering clouds, and the only thing that was below me was sharp, jagged rocks.
I have never felt so vulnerable, terrified and small.
What to do?
I am a firstborn. I am a go-getter. I am driven. I am results-oriented.
So, my first choice was to look past the pain and begin to search for the silver lining. Surely this would help me become a better person. I will know why this happened in hindsight. I will be wiser. I can help others. I have lessons that I need to learn and this experience will help me.
I was on a quest to have two questions answered: Why is this happening? and How do I get out of this?
I asked for prayer, but I was very careful to lace my language with very cheerful terms.
“He is at work even when I can’t see it!” I would say brightly after sharing my pain. “I know He will work all of this for my good!” Heads would nod in agreement and assurances would be plentiful.
So why did those words sound empty to my own ears and why did I leave that place feeling like I hadn’t been truly honest, that my pain had been minimized, and that I hadn’t been heard at all?
(This is NOT an indictment against very dear and well-meaning people. They are simply doing what I am doing, which is trying to make sense of a God that we know is good but who allows awful things that we simply cannot understand).
I assured myself that this, too, shall pass.
Except…that it didn’t.
The pain continued.
I would often feel like I was swimming in a rough ocean, trying to make some progress. I would get swallowed by a huge wave, tossed around like a rag doll, fight my way to the surface, struggle to get on solid ground (as solid as shifting sand can be), take few gulps of air…only to get knocked down again and this time be pulled further out to sea by the relentless undertow.
Looking through the pain for the silver lining wasn’t working anymore.
So, I sought to escape the pain.
Trips, shopping, eating out, getting together with friends. Fun, fun, fun.
Then the money dried up when the economy crashed and my husband’s job was eliminated. Things have been challenging ever since.
No more disposable income meant no more easy avenues for escape. And things just got tougher. There was illness, betrayal, job loss, death, setback after setback.
Lines began to appear on my face. Gray hairs began to overtake the blonde. The dark circles under my eyes could no longer be hidden with the most industrial strength concealer.
My prayer requests were no longer couched in cheerful language.
“I have no idea what Jesus is doing,” I would say.
Tears, which I once refused to show in public by sheer force of my will, fell freely now.
The varying responses would be an uneasy silence, platitudes, a hug, a listening ear, much-needed and appreciated practical help, or an offer to pray, all depending on where those people were in their spiritual lives.
I felt helpless. My feelings were hurt by the One who said He loved me and had a good plan for my life. There were just no easy answers anymore.
I hated living with mystery. I wanted answers. I wanted my old life back.
Haven’t I been faithful? Haven’t I led Bible study for years? Haven’t I raised my kids to love Jesus and live for Him? Haven’t I been a good wife, mom, sister, daughter, and friend? Haven’t I been a mentor to the younger moms in my church and community? Haven’t I done a lot of volunteer work? Haven’t I given generously to those in need?
Haven’t I done it right?!
And there it was.
Do you see the common denominator in those questions?
Do you see the sense of entitlement? I did this, so You must do that. You owe me a happy life! (cringe).
Except He wasn’t playing that game. He never was.
My life was so crowded with knowledge and stuff and activity and self-will that I refused to truly see the one thing I needed to see the most.
All along, I had been asking the wrong questions, which were why and how?
I had completely missed the WHO.
“Have I been with you for so long a time and you do not know and recognize Me yet, Susan?” —Jesus (John 14:9).
The question that Jesus had asked Peter on the Passover night over 2000 years ago, He now asked me.
There, in the midst of all the loss and broken dreams, was Jesus.
Not as I wanted Him to be, not as I wished Him to be, not as I assumed Him to be…but as He IS: holy, righteous, perfect, Love incarnate.
The time had come for what I needed most: an encounter with the God who had died for me.
The very worst thing that has ever happened to anyone happened to Him.
Pain has a way of crystallizing what is most important in life with laser-like focus.
The single most important event in this world is the Cross.
It was time for me “to see the crucifixion for what it is, not looking away, through, or past it.” (Tullian Tchvidjian, Glorious Ruin, p. 69),
“The cross is the ultimate statement of God’s involvement in the world this side of Heaven.” (Ibid).
The cross is my reminder that life on earth is not a picnic and my God has higher dreams for me than a pleasant life.
The cross is bloody, brutal, violent, horrific…and as much as I would like to sanitize it, give it lip service and only glance at it… the truth is that meditating on what it means is the only sure-fire way to put suffering on this earth in its proper perspective. The cross is a symbol of a holy God’s hatred of sin and His willingness to deal with it once and for all at the cost of His own life.
The willingness to look at the cross head on without flinching is what enables me to do the same with the suffering in my own life.
And to realize that the same God who has permitted the trials is the same One who allowed Himself to be nailed to the cross to take my place, to die the death that I deserved.
It was the only remedy for my sin-sick soul, the only thing that would save this rebel from hell.
When I lose sight of this most crucial truth, it is then that I lose my way and my demand for a pain-free life takes center stage. When that happens, I am blind, ungrateful, small.
What I couldn’t see when my pain loomed larger than my God is that ultimately, the pain was a kindness.
Because my greatest need is not a happy life.
My greatest need is an encounter with the living, resurrected Christ, who has delivered me from the domain of darkness and transferred me into His kingdom granting me redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1: 13-14). My life is hidden in Him, which makes me forever safe. He can only do good to me. He does not promise me an easy life, but He does promise to never leave me. He gives me beauty for ashes and is willing to fill me with His indestructible joy. He hears every prayer and sees every tear.
And when this short life with all its sorrows and joys is over, He promises that I will see His face and be with Him forever in a beautiful place where there is only joy and light and wonder for all eternity.
All the pain, the heartache, the trials served one grand purpose: they stripped me of everything but what is most essential: Jesus and me. Because that is exactly how this life ends, the only thing that ultimately matters.
I have learned to live with mystery. Life is still hard and there is no end to troubles in sight. I still battle fear sometimes. I definitely get weary. I have questions and granting forgiveness is still the hardest thing I have ever had to do. There are still tears and grief.
But I am free from the demand to have a problem free life. I am no longer looking for this world to be Heaven. I am not blindsided when pain hits. I have His hope, His joy, His light in the midst of this fallen world and I know I am being guided by His hand. My sense of entitlement is gone.
My greatest calling is to bring glory to Jesus and I can do that regardless of what is happening in my life.
I will close with these wise words from author Larry Crabb from his most excellent book, Shattered Dreams:
“When arrogant people who know they deserve eternal misery tremble before a holy God of passionate wrath, they discover grace. They encounter the depths of God’s kindness and love, a kindness and love they find nowhere else. They fall to their knees and worship Christ as their Lord and Savior and as their truest friend, really their only true friend. They know they don’t deserve a hug, no matter how badly they’re hurting but they get an eternal one anyway. That’s the grace that takes their breath away.
They enter into the community of broken, forgiven people who are hungry for all of God they can get. Nothing stands in their way—not shame, not the fear of revealing too much, not a desire to be well thought of. With abandon, they seek God.
And they welcome shattered dreams as friends. They enter their pain and discover an arrogant spirit that says, “I don’t deserve this.” They tremble in their unholiness before a holy God and discover how passionately they want to have a good relationship with Him. Then He reveals the new way of grace, the gospel that lets them draw near to God and discover how wonderful He is…the journey continues, a journey through shattered dreams to the exquisite joy of encountering Christ.” (pp. 196-197)
I wish for you that same exquisite joy.