I know that’s an alarming title for a blog post, but please hear me out.
Typically I write some sort of New Year’s goal post. I’ve been thinking about it all month, taking time to reflect on last year, asking myself what I hope and pray for this new year.
All the while I’ve begun reading daily from Tim and Kathy Keller’s new devotional book on Proverbs: God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life. It’s only January 29, but already this book has impacted me.
I stopped short three days ago when I read, “The mark of wisdom is to be ready for suffering.”
The Kellers go so far as to say that if you aren’t expecting to suffer, then you’re not living in reality. But, on the other hand, if you choose to be ready for it, God can use suffering as a tool to grow you in wisdom (Proverbs 3:11-12).
Honestly, I’ve never thought of being prepared to suffer.
I suffered a lot in 2017.
People I love suffered a lot.
And I’ll admit here that many a day my prayer has been, “Lord, give us a break in 2018, okay? Please. Just let this new year bring some relief.”
But suddenly this book is telling me that I’m praying the wrong thing.
I’ve thought a lot about suffering, and the way it surprises me. It always feels like a betrayal by God. I thought He was taking care of me. But He let this thing I really didn’t want to happen happen. It feels like the rug is pulled out and I’m left alone on the floor, face down, tricked somehow.
But I’ve also been reading the Scriptures, and I realize that reality, like the Kellers say, is just the opposite — nowhere does the Bible promise that I won’t suffer. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture is full of sinful, suffering people. That’s reality. And Jesus’ words are very clear, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The apostle Paul tells new Christians, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
The problem of my suffering is not God playing some sort of detached, cosmic trick on me. The problem of my suffering is my expectations. No matter what the Bible says or the stories of the saints depict, I expect that I’m unique, that if God really loves me, He’ll protect me from suffering. And also, I want to be the one in control of how I suffer.
Proverbs tells me that that’s foolishness. The fool thinks that she knows what’s best, she’s wise in her own eyes (Prov. 3:7-8).
When my expectations are foolish, then I add to my suffering by being unable to learn anything from it. I also harden my heart toward God. I’ve been down this road aways, and I’m here to tell you that it leads to nothing but darkness and ruination.
I want to choose a different road, the road of wisdom.
So, quite simply, I’ve decided to expect to suffer in 2018.
I don’t mean this in a morbid, glass-is-half-empty way. I mean it in a realistic way. This way I won’t live in fear or waste my energy being let down again when it happens.
And these days it helps wrap my mind around this radical thing to think of suffering as a sort of forced fast.
Fasting is spending a season of time removing something you need or crave from your life in order to pray and let God fill up the void.
And suffering usually comes because God removes something we need or crave from our life.
It’s really, really painful. This helps me understand why so few of us practice fasting. We hate to suffer.
And because we rarely have the courage to fast, or simply because He is infinitely wise and good and just, God gently pries open our white-knuckle hands and removes something for us. Something we did not choose at all. He makes us fast.
He does this because He loves us.
If we’re His children, He’s absolutely committed to our good and His glory, from the day He saves us, until the day we go spend eternity worshiping Him. An eternity where we will never suffer again. Never.
For now, here on earth, there are times that it’s for our good to lose things we love. Sometimes it’s for a season. Sometimes it’s permanently.
Part of my process in this season of my life, through people helping me walk through suffering, is to learn two things:
1. God knows better than I do, and
2. Nothing that happens to me is ever, ever wasted.
Daily, I am learning to believe these two things. Some days are harder than others. But even those hard, dark days are not wasted with Him. Even the ways I sin and doubt Him and lash out at other people in my suffering are not wasted. Even the repentance I learn as a result of my sin is not wasted. He’s that powerful.
I am slowly learning to sit with the void God has allowed in my life, rather than frantically turning to distractions or affirmation or anything at all to make me feel better. I’m learning to sit in the darkness and ask the Lord, “What do You want to do here? What do You want me to pray right now?” I’m learning to ask Him to fill the void He’s made in my life with Himself. That thing He removed hurt so bad because it probably had a higher place in my heart than it should. He knows it would never have really satisfied me in the way I need.
I think I know what I need, but I don’t. What I truly need is Him.
I want Christ to be my greatest treasure. Sometimes He lets me suffer so that I see He’s not my greatest treasure. Sometimes I need to see I’m not as great as I thought I was. I need to be made smaller. Sometimes I need to see the things He is giving me. He always does this with compassion, as a father has compassion on his children.
One last thing: I remember from my Lenten fast last year, that in the beginning it’s easy to be wholly preoccupied with the thing I gave up (in my case it was caffeine. something small and silly), to ruminate over it and long for it. Sometimes I did it so much that I missed the things God was giving me (and in fasting, the whole point is that the best thing God wants to give me is Himself).
That is true in my suffering. My trial is wasted if I allow myself to obsess over the things He’s saying “no” to. I miss what’s right in front of me, the ways He’s faithfully caring for me each day, the people that are pointing me to Him, the things He’s asking me to be responsible for, to turn my attention to.
Here’s an example. I recently lived a season of close to two years when I struggled greatly with social anxiety and panic. I needed counseling and medication and rest. We’re a family who loves to show hospitality, but during those two years we were able to have very few people in our home. We were able to do less ministry together as a family. I had fewer friendships and a lot more empty space on my calendar.
I spent a lot of time in shame, questioning God. How on earth is it effective for His kingdom for a pastor’s wife to suffer with anxiety around people? To be hardly able to have a conversation with someone, much less minister to them? To have to sit next to the back door, hidden, during the church service, instead of up front supporting my husband? I was humiliated and I was angry.
But God used that season. He softened my heart and allowed me to let go of that thing I wanted so much: to do ministry in the way I saw fit, the way that made me feel good about myself. He showed me what was right in front of me: my husband and my children. They needed me. We’d all been through the trauma of adoption together, and each of us needed space and time, in our own separate ways, to heal. God showed me that my service to Him is His to give and His to take away. He shows me where He wants to use me. And that can look different in different seasons. He showed me how perfectly able He was to take care of people without me.
I am coming out of that season now, thanks be to God. We’re having people over again. And you know what?
We love it more for having lost it for those two years. We don’t take it for granted. It doesn’t define us or give us importance or worth in God’s eyes the way it used to. It’s a gift, and who knows, my anxiety might return and He might remove it again for a season. So we’ll enjoy this time while we have it, these people we are getting to know.
Yes, I’ve seen God be faithful in the forced fasting of suffering. I’m closer to Him as a result of it. So I choose to face this new year with hope.
Tim and Kathy Keller say that learning wisdom through God’s discipline will make me “a resilient person who through hard knocks has become poised and resourceful.”
Their devotional book I’m using is one practical tool for the road ahead. It gives me something each day that I can do, here and now, to grow in wisdom, even when I don’t exactly know what this year will be like.
My new prayer for 2018 is, “Lord, let my suffering matter.
Let the little suffering matter, like my washing machine breaking, and the big suffering matter, like waking up daily to the dark cloud of depression.
Let me live in the mystery of not understanding all Your ways. Use the big and small trials of this year to tear down the idols of my heart. Help me learn to give thanks in all things. Let me know my need for You more. Let me be satisfied by You more. Please let this suffering make my heart softer, not harder. Let it help me love people better.
Use my suffering in 2018 to glorify Yourself.”
I choose not to fear trials this year. I choose just to live in this day. God delights in me, right here and right now, and He will use everything that happens this year — the good things and the hard things, to show His love and faithfulness me and my loved ones. I promise that He will do the same for you.