Those closest to me keep encouraging me to write about navigating through suffering, disappointment, and discouragement. They think that because I have a nero-muscular disorder (see my post God is With Us In Our Pain), was diagnosed with cancer last November, and had surgery in March to end three years of suffering with a prostate condition, that I must be good at it. Good enough, anyway, to offer some insight and wisdom. But, frankly, I’d rather be known as a great rock-climber, surfer, or skydiver.
There are numerous sources of suffering. Some are caused by our own boneheaded decisions, serious illness, relational brokenness, social battles for control at work or church, treachery and betrayal, persecution, and plain ol’ economics. Most of us are as unprepared for these as we are for earthquakes. My personal experiences have mostly been in the areas of serious illness, treachery in ministry (a youth pastor attempting a church coup), treachery in business (people taking credit for the success of my projects), and job changes due to the national economy.
The degree to which suffering personally affects our hearts is directly related to our humility and transparency before God in prayer. That might seem like a simplistic, irrelevant conclusion, but remember, they tell me I’m good at this. Spiritually speaking, the only thing we have in suffering is what we bring with us. In other words, we must cultivate a strong and loving relationship with God before we are stressed, pressed, or transgressed.
Spiritually speaking, the only thing we have in suffering is what we bring with us.
Our body’s immediate response to external and severe relational threats is the fight-or-flight response. It’s the body’s call-to-arms that shoves adrenaline into the blood stream enabling us to fight in our own strength. During this time, we often publicly quote Scripture, talk about putting on the spiritual armor, and vocally state how we are fearlessly standing firm in our faith. Those are all good, true, and biblical. But is it chest-pounding pride and adrenaline speaking? A kind of spiritual militantism? Or, is it a humble and unconditional trust in God that was cultivated long before the disaster ever befell us? I’ll get to this point later.
If it’s adrenaline, then our strength will last for six to eight weeks, max. At that point the body’s adrenaline is depleted and it can’t generate anymore for quite a while. Without adrenaline, we enter a period of clinical, life-threatening exhaustion. Our physical strength is spent, gone, kaput; and it’s not coming back anytime soon. Recovery will take six to nine months, maybe more. Attempts to rush recovery will only set the clock back to day one; or it may do something much worse.
We will tell our bodies, “C’mon, pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” but it’s lost the boots.
At this point, we will probably start to doubt God’s presence. We wonder why He didn’t answer our prayers for deliverance. We are bewildered. We turn from prayer. We are angry. The voices of those still encouraging us, grow distant. Our hearts harden. We become isolated and alone. Symptom management dominates most of our new world; insurance companies dominate what’s left.
Typically, one way or another, satisfactorily or not, the issue gets resolved. We recover. Life moves on. We start to pray again, but did we learn anything? Did we grow closer to God? If not, a good opportunity was wasted. Why? Because, if we are a genuine Christian, we never were alone. God was with us. By not turning to Him, we turned away from the only One who could comfort us in our pain and in the lonely silence of our heart.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3–4, CSB)
If it’s a sudden illness, the scenario changes. Adrenaline isn’t involved. Instead, we work from the strength we had before the illness. A strength that surgery and medication can drain in minutes or hours, instead of weeks. Our perspective of the situation is still framed by our pre-illness worldview. We assume we will return to the life we had. That we “will beat this thing.” In fact, we tell ourselves, and others, that this illness will simply make us a stronger and better witness for Christ, and they applaud.
By God’s grace, it may do exactly that.
If, however, the illness is chronic, and disabling enough to prevent us from ever returning to work or ministry participation, we will find ourselves in a new “normal.” A world where some people, with no medical training beyond what they learn from T.V. ads, attempt to diagnose and treat.
Image it being the first day in many months when you feel barely well enough, and then only with great effort, to attend church or a social gathering and you are greeted with such insights as:
“My brother, Johnny, had the exact same thing. He found that Selsun Blue changed his life. That’s what you need, Selsun Blue. Yup, you just rub it in. No grease or odor, ya’ know,” an unfamiliar voice advises and walks away.
Then there are those who scold us, “Get off gluten! That’s your problem.” Or, “Vitamins, you must not be taking enough of the right vitamins.” Or, “If only you had eaten ___ and not ___, then you would never have gotten sick in the first place.”
Another will advise, “Don’t listen to those medical doctors, they don’t know what they’re talking about! You need to see: “my chiropractor,” or “my message therapist,” or “my acupuncturist,” or “my natural path.”
“You should do Yoga!” someone will eventually say. “All you need is a deep cleansing breath.”
“Exercise,” another will offer, “that’s what your need, exercise! Why, I run five miles every day before work, and I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” a person says thumping his chest instead of God’s grace.
My two personal favorites are:
- “My life has been transformed by exhaling before I inhale.” (What???)
- “So, did you diagnose that rare neuro-muscular disorder yourself?” (Seriously???)
Actually, I spent twenty summers at our family’s summer home located one mile from the Plymouth Nuclear Power plant. Gee, that couldn’t have had any affect on my health, could it?
Perhaps the most difficult part of a chronic illness is losing the respect of friends. It begins with a look of disappointment from those who knew us when we were active, productive, healthy, and successful. They liked that person. They respected that person, but this new one is a frightening version of what they fear might befall them.
How do we navigate these spiritually treacherous waters?
Just as I stated earlier, the degree to which our hearts are affected is directly related to our humility and transparency before God in prayer. Again, the foundational principle is: the only thing we have in suffering, is what we bring with us. We must cultivate a strong and loving relationship with God, before we are stressed, pressed, or transgressed (see my post Gray-haired Heroes of Faith).
We must cultivate a strong and loving relationship with God, before we are stressed, pressed, or transgressed.
How do we do that? Let me say, as a coach not a critic, that a church-going and daily devotional strategy of following Christ probably isn’t enough for a crisis. I’ll put it another way. We can’t learn to run a marathon by dutifully walking on a treadmill for thirty minutes each day. Not only is it insufficient, it’s the wrong kind of exercise. Walking for thirty, or sixty, minutes each day is highly recommended and will serve us well in life, as will daily devotionals and church-going, but it’s not marathon training.
Am I saying that more time in prayer and Bible study is needed? More is better, but that might only translate into more tread-milling. What I am saying is more difficult; more subtle. It’s a focus on the disposition of our hearts, our minds, and our wills in relation to God’s. It’s us being in unity with God’s heart, mind, and will (John 17:20–26). Just as Christ is in unity with the Father. You see, Jesus wasn’t just completely surrendered to the Father’s will, their wills were the same; their passions were the same; and therein lies the unity. The Father was the center of everything Jesus did. John’s Gospel tells us that He only said what He heard the Father saying, and He only did what He saw the Father doing.
Likewise, our eyes must always be on Christ. He must be the center of our lives. In fact, from Him, and by the Holy Spirit, we draw life. Yes, we must pray, but more than that, we must recognize who God is in all His glory, and who we are in comparison; therein lies the humility. The longer we gaze upon the perfection and glory of God, as revealed in Scripture, the more our pride will be highlighted in comparison. Pride is the obstacle course on the path to humility, and humility before God results in the peace and transformation of our hearts. His perfect love actually does cast out all fear.
Pride is the obstacle course on the path to humility.
Replacing pride, or any other shortcoming, with Christlikeness demands a transforming transparency of our thoughts, actions, and motivations in prayer to God the Father. It’s like praying from within a glass bubble where we are completely exposed and examined from all 360 degrees, and we can’t run away.
This isn’t easy. We don’t do this with anyone else. We are never this transparent, so it’s a skill that must be learned. It takes time. It takes intentionality. It takes submission. It takes a passionate love for God, and His Word. Be encouraged, though. God will coach us along the way if we desire it. He will help us on this journey, like He helped Elijah get to the mountain. It’s a journey that’s better started now out of love for Christ, instead of later out of desperation. Although, God is gracious. He can help us even then.
You may ask, “Isn’t this just vague theory? I want the ‘Five Steps to Success.’ The ‘Three Keys that Unlock Kingdom Power!’ ‘I want to bring fire down from heaven!’”
Nope, it’s neither vague, nor about what we want. It’s a relationship. It’s about what God wants. It’s the only winning strategy. Think about Jesus. Was His heart consumed by what the Pharisees did and said about Him? Did He toss and turn at night by the camp fire? No. Instead, on the night before He suffered, He poured out His heart in prayer to the Father; before the high priest and Pilate, He submitted; and upon the cross, He forgave.
I’m learning to carefully examine my heart before God, being sensitive to identify my fears. I then ask myself, “Why?” I want to know the reason for my fears.
Am I afraid of other people not doing something the right way? Why?
Am I afraid of my reputation getting tarnished? Why?
Am I afraid of becoming irrelevant? (Ouch) Why?
Am I afraid of losing my job or position? Why?
Am I afraid of people undermining me? Why?
Am I afraid of not getting my way? Why?
Am I afraid of financial ruin? Why?
Am I afraid of being alone? Why?
The most challenging question I sometimes have to ask is, “Why don’t I feel like praying today?” The usual answer is that I’d prefer to sulk. Once, God interrupted one of my brooding sessions saying, “Don’t mope. My creative beauty is in your world and Mine.” It was a mild rebuke and a reminder of His presence in this broken world and of His knowledge of my thoughts.
God is with us.
I ask these, and many questions like them, while acknowledging that I am in the presence of Almighty God. I contemplate how and why Jesus wouldn’t, or didn’t, do what I am doing or thinking. In one way or another, I find that each answer is rooted in pride, or self-preservation, or fear. Fear is a lack of trust in God; it’s embarrassing.
I take my why answers to the Father and ask Him to transform that aspect of my heart so I can be more like Christ. I also ask Him to fill me with His Holy Spirit because I am already so full of myself. In this process, I am gradually aligning my thoughts, will, and heart with God’s. I am learning to be united and in agreement with God. As Paul said:
I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. I know both how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me. Php 4:11–13, CSB
This is my strategy for growing toward Christlikeness regardless of my current circumstances. Do I execute it perfectly? No. Am I getting better at it? Gradually, yes.
Ultimately, my relationship with God is the only thing I can bring into a major crisis, or just into my day.
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Rob Oberto, D.Min., is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon. ©2018 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.