Bittersweet: God is Working in Our Pain for Our Benefit

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Over the span of four days, I slowly read the story of Jesus and Lazarus in John 11. This story is heavy on emotion and relationship and life in and after death. But the thing that really got my attention this week was Jesus’ statement to his disciples: “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (v. 14-15).

This verse used to make me cringe, as it seemed nearly heartless. After Jesus purposely chose to wait two more days so Lazarus would be good and dead, he follows that action by saying this?

On our own, we do not see this as a helpful sentence from Jesus. Many times, our broken, sad hearts think that what would be the most beneficial for us would be for Jesus to take our advice and fix things—exactly as we tell him would be best for us. We don’t necessarily care about the big picture when we are so consumed with just trying to make the pain stop. And oftentimes we think that Jesus must not see or care.

And we miss glory. Our tear-glazed eyes cannot see beyond our own lashes. We don’t always see and value that God is working in our lives to bring glory to himself (v. 4). Nor do we always understand why he often uses the trials in our lives to bring more glory to his name.

But not only does God allow and use pain and loss to bring glory to his Son, he also allows and uses pain and loss for our benefit—ultimately, our belief in him (v. 15, 26). Jesus places great value on belief, faith, and trust in himself and he will do whatever it takes to strengthen our belief in him (Mark 9:23-24, John 14:1, John 20:29).

Jesus is not a heartless or powerless God. On the contrary, in his great love and care of his followers, he pours into our lives the very things we need to deepen our trust in him. The heart-wrenching pain, sorrow, or suffering we experience were never meant to be an end in themselves. This “momentary affliction” (2 Cor. 4:17) is meant to drive us into the arms of the one who has loved us with an everlasting, faithful love (Jer. 31:3); and in this great love, ordained for us the very days, times, and seasons of our lives (Eph. 4:1, Ps. 31:15, Ps. 139:16). Our hearts and lives are safe with him.

Even when we cannot yet see what he is doing in our lives, Jesus is working for his glory and our faith in him. The suffering, loss, and deaths we experience are not wasted, nor are they the result of an unkind or weak God. Rather, our very lives are held in the hands that were wounded for us, to bring us to God.
(Is. 53:5, 1 Pet. 3:18).

As with everything he does, for his glory and our belief in him, Jesus does all things well (Mark 7:37).

Bittersweet: Write to Live

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Bittersweet. Over three years ago, I wrote a post with that title. At that time, I was in the middle of a transition like nothing else I had ever experienced before. New job, new church, new ministry opportunities, new home (actually, I had to move in with my dad for two months, as I was in between apartments—thanks, Dad), no longer using the degree I was paying off…generally everything I counted comfortable and certain from the previous few years had been turned upside down.

During those months, Father God loved me in a way I hadn’t fully experienced before. I was confident in his call on my life, but was as uncertain as the wind on just about everything else. For my birthday that fall, my older sister gifted me with a book that spoke to and held my heart in that season. She gave me Shauna Niequist’s book, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way.

At the same time that I was reading Bittersweet, I was also seeing my counselor who not only helped me walk through the transitions but faithfully pointed me to Jesus in the process. I remember this one cloudy Thursday morning in particular. In between our chairs was a globe of the world and outside the rain-streaked window were lots of car lights. People going places. I felt stuck on something.

My counselor was reading my journal entries from the previous week, when he just stopped, looked up at me and asked a question I have hung onto ever since, “Rach, who are you when it’s just you and Jesus?”

That was something I thought about for a very long time—and something I still think about. Weeks later, I was able to tell him that my truest self is who I am on the pages of my journals. The prayers, the stories, the thoughts, the memories on those pages are the realest reflection of my relationship with Jesus.

In response to my answer to his question, he simply told me, “Write. Rachel, write often and much. Put it all down on these pages and pour out your heart to God.”

Over the years, I have continued to pour out the depths of my soul in tight, black letters of ink and smudgy tear spots. And over the years, I have also come to the realization that in some sense, my very life depends on writing. I write to feel, to understand, to live. I write because the deepest places of my heart need Jesus the most. And when the prayers and cries of my heart find their way onto paper, their verbal counterparts seem to be pulled from my lips in audible words to Jesus.

Sometimes, I get too busy, too tired, or too sad to write. Sometimes, I have no energy to give words to the dark, deep places of my soul. But in this bittersweet season of change, I have been compelled to once again take my counselor’s advice from several years ago and simply write.

Write to live. Or rather, write because I desperately need Jesus, because Jesus is life itself.

A Broken Song

img_0634A few years ago, a beautiful song was written that has been the music of my soul ever since. This incredible creation is by Rend Collective, simply called “Simplicity”.  It is all of slow, contemplative, sorrowful, deep, and yet joyful. It is honest, heartfelt, and vulnerable. There is a tension between what should be and what is not. And yet, in the pain, hope is found.

Jesus has faithfully used this song to hold my heart together and remind me that he is worthy of all worship—even when it is broken and torn. Over the years, I have come to realize that if we wait to worship God until the happiness returns and the joy overflows in our souls, it is very possible we will be waiting a tremendously long time. While I fully believe that there is a deep, full joy in Jesus, I wonder if it isn’t nearly always walking hand-in-hand with sorrow. When Paul said that he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”, I think he had a better grasp on how these two things can be so closely entwined to be inseparable for much of our lives (2 Cor. 6:12).

Before Jesus went to the cross, he told his disciples to remain in his love, followed by telling them, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Abiding in Jesus’ deep love brings a full joy, but that does not mean it is a joy absent of all sorrow. In fact, in this same conversation with his disciples, Jesus goes on to tell them that they are going to be deeply sorrowful—sorrowful to the point of tears—but that it will all go away when he returns (John 16:20-23).

Jesus does not tell his followers to simply be “happy” and paste a smiley face sticker over their hearts. Rather, he acknowledges that the sadness they feel is real—and in a sense, right. Our hearts were made for Jesus—and though his Spirit lives in us, we long for the day when we will be physically at home with him. Jesus also knows that all the pain this earth brings will be forgotten when he returns as the fully reigning King, with he himself being the one to wipe away all tears and forever remove the mourning, crying, and pain that is associated with this sin-soaked earth (Rev. 21:3-4).

Going back to Jesus’ conversation with the disciples before his death, he ends his conversation by telling them that, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It is heartening to hear Jesus tell them to “take heart” instead of “be happy”. In both Greek and English, this word/phrase means to be courageous or be comforted. How grateful I am for the vast difference between the comfort of Christ making one courageous amidst tremendous difficulties and the superficial obligation to find some semblance of happy in order to appear a certain way.

Sometimes, Christians are unsure with what to do with sorrowful, suffering people. Sadness can make us uncomfortable. Brokenness needs to be fixed and fast. Sometimes, we even unintentionally nudge people to some form of outward wholeness so we can quit feeling awkward around the pain and wounds they carry. We remind them that Christians should be the most joyful people around. And yes, because of the gospel, that is absolutely true, but the deep joy that characterizes the lives of many believers is often wrapped in sorrow and suffering.

We are broken, wounded souls who come to Jesus with broken worship. And while we have an unshakable hope and joy in Jesus, that does not mean we are absent of all sorrow and pain. The afflictions in our lives are at work to prepare us for a weight of glory that will surpass any sorrow we experience down here (2 Cor. 4).

The past years of my life have helped me more clearly see that it is possible and right to worship King Jesus—even (and maybe especially) when our souls are completely broken in the dust at his feet. We will again praise God with full joy, but part of hoping in God is going to him when our souls are crushed, knowing he alone is healer (Ps. 42:5). And knowing that he is worthy of our worship.

Jesus, receive our adoration. May our wounded hearts and broken lives give you the praise, honor, and glory that is due to your beautiful name.