Bittersweet: God is Working in Our Pain for Our Benefit

sunset decorah

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


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.

Found in Him

As the days and weeks continue to flow by like a steady stream, I am realizing two things. All of life goes on. And Jesus’ love for me is not based on who I am or what I do.

The past few months, my classmates and I have been studying the book of Philippians. That book was always a favorite of mine, but these months of intense study in this book have opened my heart to see that there are riches and depths to this book that I never fully saw or appreciated.

I have cried so many times at the way God has used this book to speak to the depths of my soul during this particularly challenging, changing season. I am humbled at the goodness of God—he never shows up too early or too late to our life situations. He is always on time. In my timeframe, I would have thought he showed up two years too late. But his thoughts are way above mine and his plans are beyond mine (Is. 55:8). He can be trusted.

Nearly all of us want to be found in something—career, relationships, school, ministry, and the like. We want to find that spot that was made exactly for us, while also craving significance and meaning in our lives. We wander, try and fail, and attempt something else in our search for meaning. We compare ourselves and come up short. We hang onto something too tightly and it gets choked or breaks in our grasp, leaving us—frantically—scrambling for the next anything to grab onto.

All of these things are fragile, frail, fleeting attempts to hang onto something that was never meant to support the weight we try to hang on it. And for a long, long time I have struggled with this—this searching for significance in what I do or who I am. But what I have finally come to realize is that there is nothing and no one to be fully found in but in Jesus and his righteousness (Phil. 3:9).

It is counting all else as rubbish and worthless compared to being found in and known by him. The truest significance is being in Jesus. It is not found in making a name for myself or being known for something I do. Rather, it is in the losing of myself that I am truly found. He must become greater and I must become less (John 3:30).

As I transition out of the life I have known for several years now, how desperately I have needed to know that God loves me, not in spite of me or for what he can get out of me, but because of who he is. And because he is unchanging (Mal. 3:6, Heb. 13:8), I do not have to fear that one day I won’t be enough in my frail self for him to keep loving.

But not only have I been consistently reminded that God’s everlasting love for me is not grounded in my love for or service to him, he has also brought people into my life at this time who have given me the very grace of Christ. There is nothing I can give them in return for all they have given me. I am a grateful debtor to the gracious kindness of Jesus overflowing in them.

Christ is my hope. Christ is my life. My life is hidden in him (Col. 3:3) and my citizenship is with him in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Who he created me to be is secure in him. Before the foundation of the world, he called me by name and knew who I would be (Is. 43:1, Eph. 1:4).

Life goes on. And so does Jesus’ love.

Dear ones, I hope you feel the enormous freedom in not being found in what you do or in who you are. I also hope you feel the immense relief that your piece of life is not sustained by you. And I pray you deeply know that you are loved and treasured—not because of who you are or aren’t—but because of who Jesus is.

Find Rest in Jesus

These past days I have been in La Crosse for work training and what a restful time away it turned out to be. The days were long and full, especially as I had school to do into the late evening hours each night. But in the midst of being busy, my soul is at rest.

Actually, my soul has been at rest and peace since Sunday. There are plenty of things to feel stressed about, plenty of things to be anxious about the future with, and not a few things that are carried in sorrow. But in the middle of these things going on around me, I have found that having Jesus is all I really need. He is all.

With hours of drive time, quiet evenings and early mornings at the hotel for restful reflection, and the sustaining prayers of dear people, my soul has found deep rest. God has been reminding me that the prescription for weak, worn-out, empty souls isn’t found in “regrouping”, just pushing through the pain, or trying harder.

No. Rather the treatment is found in Jesus himself. It is being with Jesus (Acts 4:13), resting in Jesus (Matt. 11:29, Ex. 33:14), seeing Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6), delighting in Jesus (Ps. 37:4; 43:4), and being loved by Jesus (Eph. 3:18-19, Rom. 8:35-39). I know of no other medication, treatment, therapy, or cure that could do even a pinch of what Jesus does. And even considering the good that can come from these other means, none of them will last and satisfy forever like Jesus does and will.

In the confusion and heaviness of our lives, pulling ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps is not the answer. We need Jesus. We also need to preach the gospel to ourselves. And we need people in our lives who will give us the depth and width of the Bible. It is being so overwhelmed by God and his Word, that we are able to echo the words of Peter to Jesus, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

Not only does Jesus have the words of eternal life, he is eternal life itself. “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

To whom else could we even dare to go to with our worn-out souls, when we have all of life in the fullness of Jesus himself? There is no other answer. None but Jesus.

Obedience is Better than Sacrifice

This is something I wrote on December 29, 2016, in response to God’s very clear call to me the morning before.

Sometimes obedience is following a known path. But sometimes it simply means going, when you have no idea where you are even going. I believe God can and does use both of these journeys in the life of the believer.

I am experiencing the “blessed” privilege of getting to walk the second path—the journey that simply begins with, “Go.” God has been graciously and faithfully revealing more and more of himself to me in his Word, in my classes at Bethlehem, through the words and wisdom of some precious people in my life, and in times of prayer with him.

This week, God met me in such a direct way that his imperative “go” was a non-negotiable. Though I cannot see where all this next road will take me, I am confident that I am being called to leave what has been my life for the past couple years and simply go with him.

I cannot refuse him. Nor can I refuse the longing in my heart that he put there in the first place. There are things I see that could be possibilities on this winding, new trail. There are also things that cradle the depths of my soul that I fully believe are God’s good gifts to me that are meant to be poured out as an offering to the One who gave them to me. Jesus has my heart and I cannot stay any longer when he has so clearly told me to go.

What I have come to see in my own life is the fact that sacrifice is often easier than obedience. But it is not better (1 Sam. 15:22). More often than not, I am willing to sacrifice various aspects of my life for God; but it is far harder to obey him in the unknowns, in the undesirables, or in the messy situations. But God does not want or need the sacrifices that come from a disobedient heart. As God works in my heart, I am aware that at times, I have sacrificed much but obeyed very little. I have given for him, but I have not gone with him. The Christian life is the chance to truly die to fully live. It is also the life of the greatest joy, the fullest purpose, and the deepest relationship.

So, to all the unknowns, uncertainties, losses, pains, and brokenness that will likely find me on this new road, I say, “Jesus is better and enough. I cannot refuse him. It would break my heart.” And to all the joy, hope, beauty, relationships, and life that will also be found on this path, I simply say, “Jesus is also better than any and all of that, as he is the greatest of all good gifts.”

Following Jesus brings a richness to life that is impossible to find anywhere else. With unspeakable joy and hope, I look forward to this next season.

Listen to Your Tears

This summer I started reading a most wonderful book by Emily Freeman titled A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live. In this book, Emily calls her readers to realize we are all image-bearers and artists. We were born to create and be a “living poem”.

While helping people discover the art they were made to live, she made a profound but very little statement about listening to your tears. What?!

She went on to explain that the things that move us to tears should be seen as some of the most important things in our lives. Tears are “magic water” and help us see the hidden picture in our paint-by-water lives. We are moved to tears by the sheer beauty or horrific awfulness of various aspects of life and should take these moments to evaluate the bigger story behind our tears.

Sometimes the things that make us cry have nothing to do with that particular item, scene, etc., but there is a story or a memory that is triggered by the image we saw or the music we heard.

Since a child, art and music have moved my soul to tears. The gut-wrenching beauty of “Canon in D” or Van Gogh’s Starry Night are enough to make me forget all else but the wonder overwhelming my senses. Children in Myanmar, snow on the mountains in Montana, and rain falling on rusty cans are all other things that can easily make me cry.

But these days there are much different things that are making my eyes overflow. Other things that are shaking the depths of my heart. These days, my heart is being moved by Jesus.

The last few weeks have upset my life in some big ways. Rather, Jesus has turned things right side up. All that Jesus is has grabbed a hold of heart and is literally shaking the tears from my eyes. He is doing something in me that is painfully good. He has called me to something else—something different, and while I know just a pinch of what that might all entail, I have a settled sense of peace and rest in his good plans. I cannot refuse him, nor do I want to.

I have missed him. Only I didn’t know just how deeply I missed him. The full, beautiful, precious gospel has gone after my heart in a way that hasn’t happened since 2009, when I first found saving faith in Jesus. These days I am finding that not much else matters but simply being with Jesus—enjoying him, treasuring him, and realizing he truly satisfies. Lives that have “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13) are lives that are consumed with Jesus. I have a long way to go in this, but it is my prayer that by the time 2018 breaks through, much more of my life will have been lived with Jesus.

If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then tears must be the windshield wipers that make things clearer, dearer, and sweeter. And while there are many good things that move our hearts to tears, by far the best one is Jesus. He is a love worth crying over. He is a relationship worth being real for. He is a joy worth singing, writing, and speaking about. He is a Treasure worth giving everything else up for. He really, really is.