I’ve been learning a lot about suffering recently, and I’m happy to tell you there’s an upside…
First, if you’ve always wanted to shed those ugly extra pounds, grief is the perfect diet plan for you! No exercise necessary! Just experience a tragedy and voila! – you no longer have the desire to eat. The pounds will start dropping off in no time!
And if your Bible reading has waned, one good torturous loss and you’ll be endlessly flipping the Holy Book’s pages for answers. Though you try to distract yourself with your favorite TV show or a movie, don’t worry. Absolutely nothing will entertain you. You’ll be a Bible scholar before you can say “existential crisis”!
Yeah, that was sarcasm. That’s what I do when I’m in pain.
Last week our foster child, a three-year-old little girl who’d spent more than year with us, was taken from our care. She’s now separated from the brothers and sisters with whom she’d bonded and celebrated two birthdays. She’s been given to a “family friend” of her frequently incarcerated parents, a bailbonds person she’s only met recently in brief visits.
Chances are this little girl will never see us again. But she’ll regularly see her father, an illegal alien who faces charges for trafficking millions of dollars in hard drugs. We decided we’d try to adopt her when she started complaining her father was touching her groin. Now both he and his psychologically-impaired wife with have unrestricted access to her. The trajectory of her young life seems almost certainly laid out, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to help her.
This is a tragedy, plain and simple. And now my wife and I know what it means to grieve, in the deepest sense we’ve ever known.
It took me five days to stop crying every time I thought of her. I would see her empty chair, a toy she loved, anything that even remotely reminded me of her and I’d just start sobbing. It was one of those agonizing cries that are so deep your chest hurts when you’re through. Eventually, I decided I’d just try to pray for her every time I thought of her.
I’ve done a lot of praying this past week.
Honestly, I’m not proud of some of my prayers. I finally understand what those “imprecatory Psalms” are all about.“Imprecate” means to “pray evil against” or invoke a curse. Those are the ones that have probably shocked you when doing your devotions with Kind David’s poetry, like Psalms 109…
“Let his days be few, and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow…”
Those are the kinds of things you start praying against the people who’ve taken a helpless little girl out of your protection and thrown her to wolves. I know what you’re thinking, that I want revenge. No, what I truly want is justice – for evil to be held accountable, and the world somehow to be set aright. And in this screwed up world, I realize God is the only one who can sufficiently repay all the evil.
But God seems determined to wait until the next world before He fixes some problems and settles the scores. And while we wait for that day, suffering abounds.
It’s been interesting to notice how people respond to you when you’re suffering. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, that much is sure. We all know there’s nothing good you can say, and when people try it’s usually something stupid like “she’s in God’s hands now”.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I’m sure that’s what they said when that little Syrian boy washed up on the shore of the Aegean Sea earlier this year. Yep, he’s certainly “in God’s hands” right now. But I think that’s little comfort to his grieving parents.
Many of our friends have just tried to be there for us, which has been greatly appreciated. They’ve avoided the silly platitudes and just hugged us, sometimes through the phone from a distance. Even friends who don’t share my faith have been amazingly tender with me, and sincerely expressed their love and concern. It’s truly been a comfort to know we are so loved.
But some others can’t seem to deal with suffering. Some have a deluded belief that God never allows an unhappy ending on this earth. They “claim in faith” that God will return that little girl to us, making all sorts of careless proclamations on my Facebook page. Honestly, we’d just rather deal with the grief right now than keep hoping against hope.
And some who were close to us and our little girl through the whole mess have decided seeing our faces now is too painful. They’re too disappointed and focus on their own hurt while ignoring ours. So they’ve concluded it’s best for them to walk away. Our shared experience evidently makes it too painful to even be around us.
So right now, we’re living a level of suffering coupled with rejection we’ve never experienced before. And we’re doing what every other person in our shoes does…
We’re asking God, “Why?”
Sure, I’ve read the Book of Job. I know how the righteous man who’d truly done nothing to bring on his own suffering argues with God for over 40 chapters. He challenges God with why He would allow such horrible things to happen to not only him, but to his family as well.
My other little girl, almost the same age as the one taken from us, is wondering where her friend went. She’s suddenly scared when we drop her off at daycare twice a week. She seems worried that we won’t come back to get her, that we’ll just “go away” the way her friend did…
You see, it’s one thing when I suffer. I’m a guy – I can deal with that. It’s quite another when God allows the ones I love to suffer and won’t let me fix it.
That’s why I ripped off a text message to the woman who told my wife it was “just too painful” to be her friend anymore. How dare you add more pain to my grieving wife. How dare anyone be that selfish. No, I wasn’t hateful, but I sure wanted to be.
But I did ask the woman “why?”, that same question that I’ve been asking God. And in both cases, I don’t feel the least bit sorry for asking it. It’s the only question right now that makes any sense.
Thankfully, God hasn’t walked away from us. Here’s what I believe He’s answering so far…
Answer #1 – You said you wanted to know Jesus. Well, then be prepared to suffer. Because without it, you’ll never really know Him.
This Scripture passage has been dogging me over the past week continually…
I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death… – Philippians 3:8-10
The Bible makes it clear that if you get to know Jesus, you’ll find He’s a man who knows more than a little something about suffering. Isaiah said He’d be “a man of sorrows” and “well-acquainted with suffering”. Even when Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, that didn’t stop Him from first recognizing the grief of Lazarus’ family around Him and crying Himself.
The shortest verse in the Bible tells us so very much about His compassion: Jesus wept.
When you think about it, that was part of God’s purpose for Jesus coming to earth: so we would know that an omnipotent God could truly “get it”. He would know what it’s like to be a fragile human.
The Bible says Jesus was fully God and fully human. And to be truly human is to know suffering. So if you want to find Jesus, be prepared to spend time searching for Him in the valley of suffering.
Answer #2 – You said you wanted to be like Jesus. Well, that transformation only happens with suffering.
So when we pray to Him that He would bubble-wrap our lives against all pain and loss, we’re praying a prayer that’s ultimately the worst thing for us spiritually. All those faith teachers on TV are telling us God will always heal us and deliver us from trials. But instead of bringing us to God, they’re dragging us farther away from the only place we’ll ever find Jesus: at the cross.
We’re praying in effect for God to do something that would make it impossible to know Him. By praying against suffering, we’re praying to be kept strangers from Christ and to never become like Him.
Obviously, this is not what we want to hear. And there will always be voices who’ll teach us an easier way than Christ’s. Buddha said that the whole problem with the human condition is “attachment”. If we can just keep from loving something too much, it won’t hurt when we lose it.
So just don’t love anyone too much. Brilliant advice.
So we distance ourselves from human suffering. We avoid the friend in the hospital, the grieving widow, the orphans who’d bring their pain into our homes. But try as we might, suffering will find its way to where we live. I wonder how many people who’ve avoided fostering and adoption for the sake of “protecting their families” then experienced suffering through their own children? Perhaps God is saying that no matter how we sidestep it, pain is coming for us. Before we know it, it will take up residence in our homes and hearts, no matter how we try to avoid it.
God is relentless in bringing suffering because it does something nothing else can. Evidently, my own heart is so incredibly selfish that the only way to make it like His heart is to put it through an extreme purification process. My heart is so hard that only suffering can tenderize it to the place of empathizing with others like He does.
So if I run from suffering, I’ll stay self-possessed and protective of my own heart. But through suffering, I find empathy for others around me and become transformed to the likeness of Christ through “the fellowship of His sufferings”.
I realize you may see this as a curse, by in reality it’s “the cure” for our selfish hearts and the key to living a life that matters.
That’s because God only uses people He’s already broken. Without suffering, we’re completely unqualified to represent Christ to a hurting world. More than a TV ministry or large church complex, our true qualifications for representing Christ are the scars we bear. Without those, we bear little resemblance to the humble preacher from Nazareth.
Answer #3: You said you really wanted My Presence in your daily life. Well, then suffer with me, and I’ll be there with you.
We became foster parents because we saw a need to bring healing to children from dysfunctional families. I guess we should have realized some of that misery was bound to rub off on us.
We saw it during the last week our foster child was with us. While in the bathtub with our other two little girls, she reached out to try and touch our 2 year old daughter in the groin. When we scolded her, she responded by saying that’s where her father had touched her.
This is why people avoid helping others, why those friends are now avoiding us. When you reach out to hurting people, the hurt inevitably spills into your life. I’m sure there are some friends who’re using us as a “cautionary tale” now. “See what happens when you try to save the world,” they say. “Better just to mind your own business and take care of your own…”
Shame on them.
But there’s another class of people I refer to as “The Fellowship of the Broken”. These are the folks who, when you talk about your suffering, you see the pain reflected back in their eyes. These are people who’ve stopped trying to run from the cross and left the bubblewrap behind for good.
God has led them to their own cross, and they’ve embraced it and crawled up on it voluntarily. They’re ready for it to do its cruel but kind work to them.
Their suffering has somehow made then both more human and more Christlike at once. When I talk with them, it’s as if I am speaking with someone who knows Jesus intimately. They don’t complain like others when life’s little disappointments come. They’ve learned to accept them, because they’ve experienced so much worse.
When the inevitable happens and they return to “the valley of the shadow of death”, they simply turn away from the noise of the world and retreat into the arms of their God. While they never truly welcome suffering, they welcome the renewed opportunity for real intimacy with Christ at their shared cross.
I never an answer back from my text message to our friends. I didn’t really think I would, though I still hope they reconsider and stay friends.
But I did get some answers back from God. Not all the answers I wanted, but it’s a start. And the good part is that even when He’s silent, He’s still present with me. Like the best of friends, He keeps quiet, and sits here beside me. He puts His arms around me, and we cry together again.
When they came for her things, I admit I didn’t give them everything. I kept her little pink blanket she often slept with. It’s hidden in my bottom dresser drawer, as a reminder of her. That and some picture are all I’ll ever have.
But God knows what I’m feeling. And He, more than anyone, truly understands. I am thankful for the time he gave us with this little princess, and treasure the closeness with Him this trial has brought. He’ll have to take care of that little girl now, and me as well. Because we both need Him so very desperately.