the grace of suffering

I’ve been putting off writing this post for months.

Because how do you put into words the loneliness of depression?

How do you explain it when deep weariness seems to cling to you day after day?

How do you articulate to fellow believers, to people who look to you as a “strong Christian woman,” that only weeks ago you sat on your bathroom floor, barely able to breathe except to utter the words to God or whoever might be listening, “why don’t you love me?”

How?

 

Two years ago I was introduced to depression for the first time in my life.

I was a strong believer, newly engaged, serving at my local church, living with some of my best friends… so I shouldn’t be feeling this way, right? I should be happy, right?

But instead for months my days seemed overshadowed by what I could only describe as a “dark cloud” that wouldn’t lift.

We realized that my depression was caused by a medication I was on and (praise God), the dark cloud lifted when I changed medication.

But those days were soon followed by my then-fiancee having his first panic attack. The frequency of his panic attacks increased and what followed was months and months of unexplainable depression and anxiety.

I found myself, only a few weeks into marriage, holding my husband as he shook with yet another panic attack.

Day after day panic attacks and depression racked through our little family of two. I would find myself looking back and trying to remember a time before the darkness.

Trying to make myself believe that the darkness would lift.

But what if it didn’t?

 

I felt helpless and alone.

I would be fine one day, but the next day, my husband would have a depressive spell and I would find myself spiraling down with him.

I felt hopeless and I couldn’t see God anywhere in all of the darkness.

I had walked with God for years. I had gone to seminary to develop a theological foundation. I had done studies on the character of God.

And yet I found myself wondering, “how could a good God walk his children through something so desperately painful and difficult?”

 

They say that hindsight is 20/20.

That it’s easier to see the meaning of a season when you have a bigger perspective.

And even though over the last few months we’ve had more light days than dark, I know that our battle with this darkness is not over.

Sometimes I feel like I’m gaining perspective. On the lighter days it’s often easier for me to choose joy and feel hopeful and trust God.

But sometimes, even on a good day, I look back at the dark days (or look forward to the inevitable dark days to come) and wonder…

“Does all of this suffering even mean anything?”

I know I’m not the only one who asks this question. I’ve heard echoes of this question from friends wrestling with the repercussions of childhood trauma, from family members questioning why innocent children die, from women suffering daily from chronic illness…

You’ve probably heard echoes of this question in your own mind as you muddle through the brokenness of the world.

“Does all of this suffering even mean anything?”

It’s a haunting and heavy question.

But over the last year, in this combination of dark and light days, days of hopelessness contrasted with hopefulness, seasons of fear and seasons of deep trust… God has been gracious to give me some perspective… maybe not 20/20… but at least some growth in understanding on a few things.

 

First: Suffering is to be expected in the Christian life.

Suffering, in fact, is promised to the believer.

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

~ 1 Peter 4:12-13

I’m not sure where we all got the notion that as Christians our lives should be comfortable.

Nowhere in Scripture does God promise a life of ease and happiness on this side of heaven. He does however, promise deep abiding peace and joy in Christ, even amidst the inevitable suffering we will experience.

I think it’s helpful for the Christian to reorient their way of thinking about suffering. It’s not a mark of failure or weakness. It’s not a sign of God’s disappointment in you (although sometimes it can be a natural consequence of sin).

Suffering is a means of grace.

“What?” You might be asking, “How in the world is suffering grace?”

But when the trouble comes, say, “Ah! This is what I looked for; it is marked in the chart to heaven; the rock is put down; I will sail confidently by it; my Master has not deceived me.”

~ Charles Spurgeon

 

 

Second: Suffering is evidence of God’s love for us:

When you love someone, you often try to show them your love through acts of kindness, through words of encouragement, through gifts that make them feel loved and cared for, through hugs and kisses and sweet gestures…

But God’s love is sometimes very unlike man’s love.

Sometimes I feel that the way God is acting towards me – to put me through some hard thing, to walk me through a dark and difficult season – sometimes I feel that that reflects a lack of love towards me. I feel that God is not showing love to me in those times…

But I must remember: God’s love is steadfast and sure.

It is continual and comprehensive.

God’s love is unchanging, no matter what darkness he walks me through.

In fact. And this might sound crazy, but bear with me…

Oftentimes God’s love for me is even magnified when he walks me through darkness…

He is good even when he gives me a bitter cup to drink.

“So far as personal sorrows are concerned, it would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by His hand, that my trials were never measured out by Him, nor sent to me by His arrangement of their weight and quantity.

Oh, that would be bitterness indeed! But, on the contrary, the prophet here sees the hand of God in all his trials…

May we see that our heavenly Father fills the cup with loving tenderness, and holds it out, and says, ‘Drink, my child; bitter as it is, it is a love-potion which is meant to do thee permanent good.’”

~ Charles Spurgeon

 

Thirdly: Suffering points us to something better:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God… Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”

~ Romans 5:1, 3-4

Sometimes the depth of suffering is indescribable. People ask how you are, but how do you describe the deep and continual loneliness you feel? How do you explain the spiral of utter hopelessness and darkness you’re trapped in? How do you tell someone about the weight that you constantly feel in your gut?

Suffering is deep and painful.

But it is expressly in these moments of suffering that we must remember.

It is expressly in these moments of suffering that this truth is even more desperately beautiful.

Jesus is better.

Always.

When things are good. Jesus is better.

When I can’t get up from the pile of tears I’m leaving on my bathroom floor. Jesus is better.

 

Finally: Suffering produces in us something that is worth everything…

Oftentimes the growth that suffering produces isn’t seen quickly. Sometimes it is stretched over the span of months, or even years.

It is in these seasons though that, unbeknownst to us, God is growing in us long-suffering, patience, and deep trust.

It’s uncomfortable. It’s frustrating. It’s scary.

But. Somehow suffering serves to sanctify us – exposing our sin, growing our trust, and deepening our love of God.

 

Often, when we’re comfortable we become blind to the sanctifying work that the Lord needs to do in our hearts. We think that we’re okay, that we’ve got a hold on our faith, that we are fully trusting the Lord in every area…

But it seems (at least in my life), that God grows our faith and trust in him more when we are uncomfortable and dissatisfied with our circumstances.

It seems that it is in those seasons that he draws us near.

It is in those seasons of suffering that we experience an intimacy with the Lord unlike anything else.

 

So somehow, SOMEHOW, we can praise God for suffering.

We can confidently face yet another trial, whether it’s depression, conflict, poverty, loneliness, darkness…

We can even thank God for such trials, because we know that there is no greater growth than that which comes from the depths of darkness.

There is no prayer more genuine than the prayer that is uttered before the tears have dried

 

Because we know, deep down we know, that the “better thing” is not our earthly comforts.

The “better thing” is nearness to God, which he has been gracious to extend to us in the depths of our despair.

 

Because isn’t this the essence of the Gospel?

Isn’t Christ’s graciously extended hand made more glorious by the fact that his hand is extended to wretched, dead, and wayward sinners?

Isn’t his love magnified by the fact that we are so utterly unlovable?

It’s all grace.

Salvation. Suffering. Sanctification.

All of it is grace.

 

So my challenge to you, in whatever painful season you’re currently walking through, is to praise God for this hard path, because it is precisely this difficult thing that is growing you more into God’s likeness.

Remind yourself of the unchanging goodness of God.

Remind yourself of his kindness to you, even in giving you… especially in giving you… this difficult thing.

It is grace.

It’s all grace.

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