There is something about suffering. For those of you who read this not near me on a daily basis, a little context: for 2+ years, I experienced constant pain in my neck. What began as a (surprising) pinched nerve after a 10k race resulted in a variety of doctors’ appointments, physical therapy sessions, x-rays, dietary changes, a steroid injection, and lifestyle changes, with no relief.
I have, however, become quite educated on the spine. (If you aren’t interested in the anatomical explanation, feel free to skip down.) Hereditarily, I have a more ‘upright’ neck where most are curved. I also have disc degeneration (which is not uncommon) and a bone spur on the C5 disc. The facet joints, in between each disc, are primarily long and flat, but with my neck’s lack of curve, around the lower discs, those joints are shorter and steeper, causing sharp pain and stiffness. (Let it be noted with joy that I am now seeing a chiropractor and experiencing genuine relief.)
After two years with no real change, I was in a pit and needed new vision.
My feelings and knowledge were at odds with each other, and the battle was exhausting me.
How do I magnify God when I would rather stay hidden from the world and distract myself from the pain? How do I glorify God when my body isn’t what I think it should be, when every other movement hurts, restful sleep is a struggle, and giving of myself feels impossible?
What did I feel?
- disappointment with my body not being what I thought it should be: whole, strong, without continual pain.
- tired physically because the human body, in its God-created way, expends a great deal of energy to combat pain, and mentally because I was changing well-worn habits.
- sadness in the season, and the reality of change.
- tempted to believe something was wrong with me as a person, or that was somehow my fault.
- insecure, hearing fear say “it might always be this way,” with true refreshment far away.
- completely overwhelmed with it sometimes.
- annoyed because it felt like an anchor dragging down my attitude and energy.
- selfish because I held many a pity party, even if no one else can tell.
- frustration because in my humanity, I wanted a quick fix.
- obsessed with healing and wholeness (to the point my body became an idol).
What did I know?
- I cannot ask or expect my body to satisfy me in ways only God can satisfy.
- there is much in life outside my control, no matter how much effort I give or pressure I place on myself.
- peace in Christ can be experienced even in the darkest of situations.
- God has given me everything I need for life and godliness.
- the many beautiful promises in the Bible that inspire hope in the midst of suffering or difficulty.
- I cannot unravel what God holds together – from my body’s health to relationships to identity to ministry. He is far greater.
- God promises to help, strengthen, and support me.
- my life is ultimately not about me; it’s been transformed to be about Jesus.
- God sees and knows everything, and I see and know only a part, dimly lit. I can trust Him to care for me.
- I can exalt Jesus’ strength in my weakness.
- His grace is sufficient – for anything, at anytime, and in every way.
- that this earthly body has been decaying since I was born, but my inner nature can be renewed daily.
- it is good to be near God, and in His presence is fullness of joy.
- my identity is found in Christ, not in any achievement, attribute, strength, or beauty in myself (or in another’s approval of me).
- orienting my heart, soul, and mind around anything other than God is idolatry (even healing).
- He is powerful, sovereign, infinite, and can redeem anything for His glory and for my good.
At this point you might be wondering, where is she going with this?
Truth be told, this post is about laying groundwork for my soul to believe that God is much, much, much bigger and better than any pain. And it’s vital to my life that I not only accumulate, but make knowledge of God an active force of my life.
Everything that walks in and out of our lives prompts a decision of who we will put at the center: self or God.
I idolized being pain free. I deemed my neck pain fruitless and a hampering on my identity and life. I cried often and laughed often, and it eventually dawned that even the best, brightest, and biggest of this life falls short of providing authentic happiness. Isn’t that what the Bible says? We were created for more, and this life isn’t the end of the story.
This is what I know: if we continually surrender ourselves to God, no matter how weak or mechanical our faith feels, we cultivate connection with the infinite Source of abundant life.
I share my learned truths from the past two years, and pray that they inspire your heart’s eye to gaze outside of your pain and onto God’s sufficient grace. I call them difficult because they are easy to say and more challenging to embody. (But not impossible.)
Difficult Truth #1: Self (mentally, physically, emotionally) can never truly satisfy.
Whether it’s perfectly healthy by our standards, or struggling and weak in areas, self was never designed to be sufficient on its own, and when we strive for that, we’ll always come up empty. Whether we’re happy, sad, discontent, disappointed, or successful, the answer to ultimate satisfaction is not a better or different situation. It’s more of God. Soak your mind in the truth of Jesus. Saturate your heart with His ways. Seek to remain in awe of Him. Before you know, God knows. Before anyone else sees, God sees. He sees every adjustment and movement in your soul. Also, His plan for redeeming everything is grounds for great hope.
If you have lived on this earth for many years, you have faced many trials. Those who have walked through suffering have been refined, just as the impurities in silver or gold are removed when they pass through a furnace. While you may not want to walk through the fire again, would you swap what you have learned through suffering for anything? The you you remember with a more youthful figure would not have the same intimacy with Christ that you have after walking with him through the fire. Betsy Childs Howard
Difficult Truth #2: You are not your pain.
Culture tells us to identify ourselves by what we feel with our flesh. Satan’s goal is to kill, steal, and destroy our identity by convincing us our pain will always define our past selves, despair our present, and cloud our future dreams. He never stops trying to alter our vision – enslaving us to self-pity, hopelessness, and anxiety. In Jesus, we are given new vision. We must allow God and His Word to tell us who we are and help us think about circumstances in the right way. Nothing can unravel what He holds together, and we are continually being transformed into His likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are never without the perfect Father, Friend, Counselor, Defender, King, Savior, and Shepherd. With God there is always more than what we see and feel on this earth.
Difficult Truth #3: We are called to self-deny more than we are to self-regard.
Self-denial: “the stopping of anything and everything that might hinder or distract us in our fellowship with God.” Jesus talks about it. I must remember what God deems important versus what the world and my flesh deems important. I confess to idolizing ease and happiness. I humanly desire to live without suffering, and self-denial can be uncomfortable. But, snap… from the Bible, I know God desires more for us. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). It’s not that He asks us to deny ourselves satisfaction, or to welcome pain, but to deny ourselves from pursuing abundant life in anything but Him. Denying self to be filled with His Presence carves a deep well of refreshment and joy that then overflows to others. (Psalm 63:1-3) For me, to bring it back around, this looks like asking Holy Spirit to produce the fruit I need to continue living abundantly when suffering comes. His help makes looking more often outside myself to others life-giving, not burdensome.
We come. We exchange our broken pieces for His wholeness. We keep coming. And we receive everything we need.
This is the great interaction, the deep wonder of being a follower of Jesus, that I believe we were created for.
And to think, all this bloomed from a season of suffering…