Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Myth of the Fireproof Suit

I have often wondered in the last few years what people do without Christ. The suffering I have endured has been intense, and I honestly have questioned how I would still be standing up each day without knowing—really knowing—that what God promises us in the Bible is true. Jesus has saved me from the depths of despair time and again. He continues to pick me up out of bed each day, give me purpose, and give me hope. But, the road I have walked down has been hellish. I don’t claim I have suffered more than anyone else. I just know it has been hard. So hard…even with Christ.

Every day, all over the world, terrible things happen to people. Sin and death wreak havoc. And, they are not respecters of people—Christians and non-Christians alike suffer. In fact, suffering is one of God’s lesser known promises. It is all over the New Testament. Check it out. It is sobering. “In this world you will have trouble…” John 16:33.

Sometimes suffering surprises Christians. We can get a false idea that believing God and trusting Him means we will be protected from suffering—at least the really bad stuff. I don’t know if I ever consciously believed that. But, I sat at Audrey’s bedside every night, sang Jesus Loves Me with her, and prayed for her safety just like every “good” Christian mom does. I wouldn’t have asserted that my prayers would have kept her from all harm, but I did think they might help a little. I have learned so much since then about what it means to trust God…and what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to me—even really bad things.

Maybe you are beyond that place, well-aware that trusting God doesn’t spare you from suffering. But, there is another false belief many of us unknowingly hold that I think can be just as problematic. We believe that when we suffer, we will somehow be spared the pain of the process—the grief, the fear, the anger, the uncertainty, the sadness, and the time it takes to deal with it all. I don’t know exactly how that belief has crept into our doctrine, but I think it can cause a lot of unnecessary guilt.

A dear friend of mine who is a strong believer just found out she is pregnant. The first two weeks were terrible for her. There was a lot of confusion at her doctor’s office concerning the health of the pregnancy—and actually about its mere existence. It was stressful enough to cause the best of us to go crazy. She experienced severe anxiety during the uncertainty. After her hormone levels were proved inconclusive, she spent the better part of a week and a weekend wondering. On Monday, after an ultrasound, she was told there was no baby. She grieved. Then, four days later, on Friday, she was told that there was, in fact, a baby—and it looked perfectly healthy. She celebrated and praised God for a miracle. On Saturday, once the worst had apparently passed, she was still crying. Her husband was baffled. She also felt confused by her fear and her sadness, especially after she was given good news.

My friend spent two straight weeks on her knees, faithfully calling on God to give her peace. And, she felt it. But, she also experienced every other emotion known to man. And, I think she would admit to feeling guilty about that. I think she would admit that she thought—even if just for a minute—that if she just prayed harder or trusted more that she would not feel the negative emotions.

I’ve been there. Not in the same circumstances. But, I’ve been there. Here is some truth, Christian sister: Faith—even a deep, dynamic, personal, relationship with Christ—does not spare us from all of the natural, human consequences of suffering. Expecting otherwise is like expecting to walk through fire and not get burned. Our faith is not like a fireproof suit! We cannot tumble off of a motorcycle, slide through flames, and come out unscathed on the other side. That only happens in the stunt show at Disney World.

Our faith helps us in many ways, but it does not shield us from all of the pain in life. One woman who lost a child describes it this way, “Our faith keeps us from being swallowed up by despair. But I don’t think it makes our loss hurt any less.” (from God is Good, Alcorn). Randy Alcorn goes on to explain that the family’s faith, “kept their pain from incapacitating them…God stood with them in their pain, but God did not remove their pain.”

While that may sound like bad news, I really mean it to be encouraging. We can quit feeling guilty when we cannot experience our own suffering without flinching. Speaking of his wife’s battle with cancer, C.S. Lewis once said, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

When we lean into suffering instead of trying to avoid it or be immune to it, I think there are real spiritual treasures to be found. It is in the process of working out our faith, particularly in suffering, that we find out who God really is and are transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Many of us have Romans 8:28 memorized (“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.”). But, do you know what Romans 8:29 says? It says that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son.” In other words, God’s purpose for my suffering is Christlikeness. It means that God defines “good” in terms of what makes me more like Jesus.

This is freeing for me. God is interested in using each part of my life—including my sufferings—to make me more like Jesus. He knows changing me isn’t going to be pretty. He knows that I will go through the fire, and I will get burned. But, he is there, refining me, meeting me at each turn, reaching into my fear, my doubt, my sadness, and my anger. And, he is long-suffering. He is not going to give up on me, even if it takes a lifetime. He is there to make my suffering count for something. He will be there cheering me on when, broken and bloody from this life, I cross the finish line.

Are you hurting today? Feeling guilty because your faith isn’t “strong enough” to keep you from doubting, feeling loss, being disappointed, or getting angry? Cut yourself some slack. You aren’t wearing a fireproof suit. Lean into your suffering. Feel it all. Take each pain to God. He is more than able to make what he wills of it. And, he promises it will work out for your good in the end.

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