These past weeks I am finding comfort in Paul’s letters. Not only in the encouraging, joyful parts, but mainly the pieces that speak to his incredible suffering. Oftentimes, the encouragement is so closely tied to the sorrow as to be seen as the same thing—“sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). Heavy sorrow and great joy. Joy in Jesus even when everything else feels like death.
For many of us, this is the Christian life. Sometimes this sorrow comes in waves that threaten to drown us, or a darkness so thick to nearly suffocate us. We feel weak, afraid, and exposed. Our trust in our Savior is not shaken, though our souls and bodies are experiencing something else. The deep places of our hearts are still joyful in Jesus and we love him with a love that is unending (Eph. 6:24), but we are in a very hard place.
For myself, it has been years since I had time like I do now. In February, I had a journal entry with many questions concerning what was going to happen to me when school ended and suddenly, all I had was time and more time. What was going to happen when my past would finally catch up to me? When I no longer had anything to hide behind, what would happen then? What happens when grief, quiet, and memories are what fill my thoughts? Who will I be when I am simply myself?
Will the grace of Jesus be enough for that? When the nights are sleepless and the days are long, will Jesus be enough to fill the hollows? And how will I respond to both him and the crushing weight of the past?
Well, school ended and the days are long and sleep does not come easily. No will this post have a nice, tidy ending, as this is an on-going story that only God knows the end to. But as I walk through things that have the shadow of death all over them, there are still a few, faintly burning lights in the valley. And they are enough.
Embrace the Pain
So often we try to run from pain. We flee our pasts because they are so full of memories that break our hearts. We fill our days with anything to keep us from having to remember and feel. We become workaholics, alcoholics, drug addicts. Or we spend all of our free time at the gym, volunteering, or traveling. Anything to simply not feel anything.
All of creation is laid bare before God (Heb. 4:13), so why do we keep putting tattered fig leaves over our pain? Why are we hiding and running when God was there with us in the past and will be faithful to walk the road of darkness in the present?
We despair of life itself, but that is only meant to push us deeper into Jesus. In our weakness, he is strong (2 Cor. 12:9). When we are faithless and doubting, he remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). With David, Elijah, and Job, we can pour out our hearts and hurts to the One who knows our hearts and hurts at a far deeper level than we know them. God is at work in us and he will complete the good things he has started in us (Phil. 1:6), but how can he complete what he has begun if we refuse to let him work in us?
Pain and emotions tell us something about the story, but they are not the story.
Pain and emotions tell us something about the story, but they are not the story. For myself, they have been hard friends that have pointed me to areas in my heart and life that have not been touched by Jesus. These “friends” reveal where my heart is, what I am hoping in more than Jesus, and wounds that need the bandages taken off. For followers of Jesus, pain can be one of the ways the Spirit helps us see our sin and how we have sinned against others in our brokenness. God is working for our good in our pain, but we have to go to the deepest places with him in order to find healing. Pain can be a helpful friend if we use the space and time we are given to read, pray, journal, think, reflect, and be with Jesus.
Evidences of Grace in Others
When all around us threatens to give way, sometimes it can be excruciatingly hard to see God at work in our own lives. We feel the pain and we know that he is working in us, but it looks and feels slow and messy. Our natural instinct is to cover over the pain and hide the mess from the Christian community. We try to tell ourselves that they all have their stuff together and appear to have nearly arrived in their sanctification.
But, in fact, real Christian community is a place of honesty and realness before God and with one another. These people are not afraid to be real about their own heartaches, seasons of darkness, and the sin and suffering in their lives—past or present. And in our nearness to these people, we will see evidences of grace and Jesus at work in them. These people intentionally (and often unintentionally) are living out 1 Thess. 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” They are also leaving us an example to follow, as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1, Phil. 3:17).
This past week, I found myself drawn to the Jesus I was seeing in a handful of people I was around. It is like a moth trying to get as close as possible to the street lamp. You just want to be near the beauty in them that is Jesus. These people embody grace, love, joy, compassion, peace, hope, and so many other things. For struggling souls, seeing Jesus in these people brings comfort and hope that God does bring beauty from ashes and throws darkness into light (Is. 61:3, 2 Cor. 4:6). They breathe Jesus in their words, and extend Jesus in their actions.
The beauty of Jesus in these people is captivating because Jesus is.
Unlike unbelievers who should be drawn to followers of Jesus because of the “hope that is within them”, I find myself drawn to these believers because I know that the same Spirit that is in them spilling out this hope, is the exact same Spirit in me. This gives me hope when I cannot see it in myself. These people are a light in the darkness, a city on a hill, and the fragrance of life to greater life (Matt. 5:14, 2 Cor. 2:14-16). I am also attracted to these people, because they are often displaying some evidence of Jesus that is weak or barely flickering in myself. This beauty of Jesus in them is captivating because Jesus is. I want what they have. And this is what we, struggling people, need. It is encouragement to press on and keep letting God work in us to conform us more and more into the image of his dear Son (Rom. 8:29).
Immerse Our Souls in the Gospel
Although we may be hearing the fullness of the gospel in church and in our conversations with other believers, we also need to be rehearsing it to ourselves. As often as the devil tries to accuse, shame, and destroy us, we cannot afford to only have the gospel given to us by others. Daily, we need to be in the word, preaching to ourselves who Christ is and who we are in him. We must fill our thoughts with the beauty of Christ and everything that is worthy of our thoughts (Phil. 4:8), or our thoughts will be consumed with everything but Christ.
We are not the sum total of our pasts. We are not the sin and suffering that clings so closely to us (Heb. 12:1). We are not what was done to us. We are not our brokenness. We are not the emptiness or darkness we feel overwhelmed by. We are not ruined or beyond the reaches of grace. We are not our weak prayers. We are not even our spiritual accomplishments. We are not any of this.
Rather, we are dearly loved children of God, redeemed by God, for God. We are his and he is ours (Is. 43:2, Song of Songs 6:3). No one can take us away from him or separate us from his incomparably deep love (Rom. 8:31-39). We are hidden in Jesus and covered in his righteousness (Col. 3:3). And we can change. Our God is constantly doing new things (Is. 43:19) and he will work in us and for us (Phil. 2:3), making us more and more like Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18). Our hearts were made for this One.
I do not know where the road will lead, but I do know that it will be covered in enough grace to get me safely to glory–to Jesus.
And while I often do not know what to do, I look to Jesus, because he does know the ending. And though I do not know where the road will lead, I know that it will be covered in enough grace to get me safely to glory—to Jesus. The darkness may be deep, but Jesus is deeper still. The One who swallowed up death and hell is far vaster than the hollow, long days and nights. And no brokenness is beyond the capability and compassion of Jesus’ healing hands. Sin and suffering may be great, but his grace, love, and mercy are greater still.