How I Suffer and Keep Trusting God

suffer and keep trusting god -- man behind fabric wall

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Someone struggling with serious health problems wrote to me today and said, “Dave, some of the stuff you’ve faced with your MS is horrific. How in the world do you keep trusting God and believing he loves you?” What a great question. With her permission I have reprinted my answer, below, because I wonder if it might be helpful to others.

Question: I just don’t understand how you and God can have a relationship when you are suffering from such a depressing, debilitating disease. I want you to know I do not in any way pity you. I do not disrespect you as a person by drawing attention to your illness. But how do you hold onto this relationship when you suffer so much? I just can’t wrap my head around that. And by asking that question I feel so much like what people would describe as a “baby” Christian who is still caught up in why bad things happen to good people but I’m so tired of pretending I’m a grown up Christian. I want to know how you reconcile that. And I want to also add that I feel so sad that you have to go through what you go through. I hope in no way that you feel I am minimizing or trivializing your suffering by asking such an immature question.

Answer: I’m so glad you have someone of whom you can ask that question. I had no one. Unfortunately I’m not sure I have anything to say that will be that helpful. I’ll try, though. BTW, my illness is as much a feature of my life by now as the fact that I am bald, or a writer, or a pastor. It’s the most routine thing in the world for me to talk about. Don’t worry about asking.

Maybe the best answer to your question is that I have already tried the other options.

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Four ways we miss love

do not miss - ways we miss love

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On February 10 I posted about how some people were not comfortable with how I speak of God, because my language isn’t traditional enough and doesn’t reflect enough orthodoxy. This morning I received a beautiful, if short-lived apology from one of those to whom I had been referring in that post. Only it went on. And on. It became at first philosophical, and then a bit forceful, and finally culminated in the following:

Actually you’re in the perfect place to think about such things Most of us are distracted much of the time from anything that Truly matters…Yes you are in the struggle of your life we all are in the midst of a great struggle.… You’re missing the purpose of your own. I recognize that you are probably dismissing me and any concern Or insight or truth I think I may have. You’re always online and Commenting and you are not able to do that much right now so I thought maybe you would be up for it Being a pastor and all I will promptly Remove you from my list of friends since There seems to be no point and I don’t want to be tempted to comment anymore in response to your postings.

This was promptly followed by:

101 other things I could do today and would like to do..just felt led by the holy spirit to take that time this morning. I can’t explain it…i’m not nutty..how about considering providential love!

I wanted to publish this to try to unpack all the things I am asked to accept here, and how it illustrates a vision of Christian spirituality that, though it purports to be loving, is in fact dramatically missing that most important ingredient.

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The Universe Arcs Towards Grace

Through my recent posts on this blog, others who are suffering, some more deeply than I, have connected and sent me questions, looking for encouragement in their own struggles. The post below is a response I gave today to a woman with stage four cancer who wrote to ask, “how do you NOT give up?”  I hope you, like her, can find something here to encourage you on your unique journey through suffering.

I am humbled that you would ask me your questions. I’ll take a crack at an answer but of course I can’t promise anything. I have observed that the universe arcs towards grace. There is a kind of redemption built into everything, it seems. This doesn’t mean that all wounds and diseases are healed individually, but rather that you are living in a universe that washes, starts again, heals and renews. This is plainly observable by watching seasons come and go,  and many other cycles of nature.

With that in mind, ask yourself this question. In general, have you grown in wisdom, insight, grace, and love as you have gotten older? Most people do. This opening up to love and presence and grace is also, I believe, just built in to who we are as people. So the universe is a redemptive place, and you are created to grow more and more at home in it as you increasingly find that you yourself are becoming more loving, gracious, etc.

Often we think we grow because of huge efforts we are making, but I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact, when we get really honest we see how often good things end up happening accidentally after we have made really crappy choices! Though we certainly suffer consequences of our actions regularly, we also find ourselves carried along on this arc of grace, so that we often learn and grow in love even as a result of very foolish things we do.

This is where my hope springs from — the realization that I have been placed in a universe that arcs toward love and redemption, and I see that very same arc in myself. Just as I have grown towards greater love and joy almost in spite of myself, I trust that will continue to happen because that’s the kind of world God made. My hope springs not from the certainty that I will get better, or that the end of my suffering is necessarily near, but from my sense that the place where God put me to live is a deeply good place, despite many very bad things that happen in it. It seems often even most of those things end up becoming opportunities for redemption, where people get second and third chances to start again. Indeed I have many times been the grateful recipient of one of these chances to start again.

If I really believe that the universe is a benevolent place to be, I then easily believe it is because of the benevolence of the one who created it (however he/she/it did so). I believe this being – God – loves us intently, at the core of his person, and that you are already so deeply one with him that there are already ways in which you and God are indistinguishable, just like you share indistinguishable features with your own children. This is to say, your life ALREADY bears evidence of who, and whose, you really are.

I have found that the more I suffer in life, the more it peels away pretense. I become more real, more vulnerable, and I better project to others this immense love I came from and where I will one day head back to! People see it and are drawn to it because it is the source of their lives also.

This is love God showed in Jesus – love that suffers but doesn’t make victims out of others, that is able to rejoice and hold up under suffering not because every individual wound is healed, but because one knows that no matter what happens in this life, we are actually perfectly safe. As my hero, Dallas Willard, writes: you are a divinely created spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe!” You are immortal! I have told my girls all their lives, “you are never going to die. One day you will close your eyes, and you will awake the very next moment in the Kingdom of your Father. On that day, your story BEGINS.”

I hope this doesn’t just seem like gobbledygook. God, to me, must either be believed in this deeply,  or not at all.
I encourage you to spend some time reading my blog posts over the last few weeks. I write about when giving up is okay and not okay, about holding on through the really tough stuff, about dips into depression, and why ultimately despair just never makes any sense.

I encourage you to read Psalm 139 as well. This is where you came from. You were created in that love and intention, and not the slightest bit of your suffering is wasted. It is all being worked into this grand scheme of redemption, the broken pieces of our lives and of the world that God is making whole (one) again. Every person faces trials and tests in life, and those moments of our greatest tests become the moments of our greatest triumphs as, in the end, whenever it comes, we stand fast, bravely, even with joy, believing so deeply that the greatest things lie not behind but ahead of us.

So do not judge yourself as you suffer. Love yourself, for you are so deeply loved. Grant yourself the compassion you would grant your best girlfriend if she were in your shoes. As you struggle through your days, continue to see small graces. You’ll see they never disappear. Allow yourself to be afraid, to grieve, to be angry. But also get quiet sometimes and allow deep peace to come. You don’t need to fix or control this. So far, every single day you have been able to do what was needed for that day. There is no reason to suspect any day will come, ever, when you cannot do that, no matter what the day’s agenda brings.

With those thoughts, I am spent. I hope somewhere in there is something useful for you. Of course I am not in your position and can’t pretend to understand all you are going through. My goal has simply been to give you my reason for hope, and the reason I do not plan to give up.

Oh, last thing. Let people love you.

Always.

Sick of Cancer

fuckcancer - sick of  cancer

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Have you ever been in that place where you seem to be surrounded with horrific things? As I write, two of my closest friends on the planet are fighting cancer. This morning I got word that an amazing young man with cancer, for whom I had done premarital counseling and then his wedding in 2010, succumbed to his disease this morning. I gotta be honest, it’s starting to get to me. I’m sick of cancer.

jess-jeff

Jessica and Jeff on their wedding day

Yes, we pastors and counselors are the people frequently called on to do funerals, to talk/walk people through their darkest times. This is a deep privilege. Though I have never looked forward to officiating a funeral, I always find them to be one of the most valuable things I do. At the same time, I too have my moments where I just wanna scream, “ENOUGH!” I’m sick of the way people have to suffer. I’m tired of seeing cancer and death work their disgusting chaos in the lives of people I love. I’m sick of young lives cut short, dashing ebullient dreams against razor rocks. It makes me so angry, I just want to — do…uh…anything? That’s it. The helplessness. The sense that all there is to offer as you watch a loved one suffer is words which, let’s face it, everyone knows are totally insufficient. I’m really, really sick of cancer.

My theology doesn’t accommodate this.

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God’s Love, prt. 3

 

God's Love w/ Pencils

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Remember, Jesus himself invited the comparison of God’s love to the love of human parents for our children. If you extend your love to your children constantly, every second, for a specified number of years, are you then justified in killing or torturing them for having not responded? Could you even desire to? If you were capable of doing that , wouldn’t that mean — by obvious definition — that you never really loved them to begin with? Wasn’t Jesus example on the cross saying that love transcends death — that it pays the ultimate price, that it goes to hell and back again, that there is nothing that can come between us and God? Wasn’t Paul saying that in Romans 8? If so, doesn’t that sound to you very much like the love we human parents know for our own children, even though our love is so imperfect?

It’s hard enough that our humanity prevents us from loving fully. It does not help  matters that we don’t allow ourselves theologically to integrate what we already know about love as parents with what we believe about God’s love for us. If God’s love for me ultimately will allow him to do something horrible to me, then as far as I’m concerned God doesn’t love me at all. As a parent, I will love my girls forever and ever, no matter what they do, whether they ever respond or not. No matter how badly they would ever treat me, my dying breath would be a wish for their well-being. Don’t you love your kids that way? If you do, it is heroic or kindly of you? Of course not. Good parents just can’t help loving our kids that way. There’s nothing we can do about it. They are ours, and we are forever in their corner no matter what. Every decent parent on earth knows that. Are we supposed to deny this natural knowledge of love in order to lower the standard for God? Jesus seemed to be saying God’s love is superior to, greater than, ours. I believe it.

Let’s face it. As parents the only reason many of us can tolerate those terrible doctor trips to get vaccinations is because we keep reminding ourselves it’s for a greater good. We innately understand this to be the only possible justification for allowing or inflicting suffering, except where God’s love is concerned, in which case we seem okay holding God to that lower standard I referred to. In our teaching, the God who was enfleshed, lived, and died specifically to redeem us somehow transforms into a God whose redemption was limited to the briefest span of our lives — that being our lives on this planet in these bodies. (Sidebar: One of the best contributions of the idea of purgatory is that human suffering in the next life at least has redemptive purposes. In fact if one believes God consigns humans to hell, it is perhaps only the idea of purgatory that makes it rational in any sense.) If I have to believe God will dish out wanton and unredemptive suffering to me or anyone I love, then God would be my enemy. That is a realistic thing to consider. Perhaps God is an enemy of his creation. Perhaps there is no God at all. I do not believe either of these two ideas and, along with rejecting them, I also reject the notion that God’s love does or ever will inflict or allow the infliction of non-redemptive suffering. If I am wrong, then in the final analysis, God either does not desire my well-being, or does not ultimately have the power to secure it. If either is the case, I cannot trust him.

However, if I believe God is love, and all that must be true in order for that to be the case, I am quite secure. So are you. You wanna know the really awesome thing? If I’m right, you are secure whether this is the God you believe in or not.