In hard times, don’t give up on your life as a place to find grace and joy. Be mindful. Be receptive to God. It is possible to experience joy in the midst of suffering.
It’s mid-December, and my lawn is unseasonably green. However, winter’s hammer will drop this week, with double-digit lows and snow in the forecast. Due to the mild weather we’ve been experiencing here in Nova Scotia, it’s hard to believe that Christmas Eve is only ten sleeps away. The Christmas season is a time of joy for many, but for others, it’s a time of loneliness and sorrow. Today I’m posting about a hard but hopeful topic, finding joy in the midst of suffering. Much of this post was inspired by K. J. Ramsey’s book, This Too Shall Last.
Suffering takes many forms, including COVID-19
Life isn’t just about thrills and triumphs, is it? It’s also about hardships and suffering. Suffering takes many forms: physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. Right now, we’re in the midst of a pandemic that shows no sign of ending soon. We’ve received a bright ray of hope in that vaccines to protect against COVID-19 started arriving in Canada today, but even so, it will take months, perhaps even a year or longer before the number of infections ebbs to zero here and around the world.
Here in Nova Scotia, some have lost loved ones to COVID. Others have lost jobs. We’ve all lost our freedom. At my home church, North Shore Christian Fellowship, we can’t fellowship the way we used to. We can’t share food or hug one another. We must stay a safe distance from each other and, when indoors at our worship venue, wear a mask. I’ve realized that simply seeing a smile and hearing a laugh not muffled by a mask have come to mean so much to me.
Because of the pandemic, we feel isolated from one another. At times we’ve had to, in the words of our premier, Stephen McNeil, “stay the blazes home,” physically isolating from one another. We know our provincial health guidelines are intended to keep us safe, yet isolation can lead to mental suffering, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness. When you add this to other kinds of traumatic suffering one might be experiencing—perhaps serious health issues, marriage breakdown, job loss, or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse—you might wonder, how can I go on? There’s too much to cope with, too much pain, and I feel so alone. How can I find joy in the midst of suffering?
Jesus knows suffering
In another time of pain and darkness, a baby was born in a humble setting. Christ came to earth in human form, not as a man—strong and powerful—but as a baby dependent on human parents. He had human form. He had human emotions. He wept when he witnessed Mary’s sorrow after her brother, Lazarus, died. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in anguish as he faced his own death on the cross, Jesus prayed to his holy Father, asking if salvation could be accomplished in some other way. On the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus knows suffering. He came to earth to suffer and die so that through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, we could be reconciled with his Father. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel abandoned, and to feel that no one, no one, understands what you’re going through. Think of him in the garden, praying, knowing that the future of humanity rested on his shoulders, a future that could be set in place only through his shameful death on a cross, as though he were a criminal. And while he prayed, his disciples—men who loved him, and whom he loved—slept, not knowing, not understanding what he was going through.
Not a “before and after” story
Do you feel forsaken? Completely alone with your pain? Do you feel that no one understands what you’re going through? That no one really sees you in your suffering? Do you feel there’s no help for you, no hope for you? In your suffering, do you feel bitterness, resentment, and/or anger against others and against God? Do you wonder how you can go on when the suffering is prolonged or doesn’t end?
Vilis and I have friends who lost their son, whom I’ll call Wesley, in a drowning accident when he was eight years old. Whenever we get together with them, Wesley’s name comes up in conversation. I have another friend who lost his six-month-old daughter, whom I’ll call Grace, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In the annual Christmas letter I receive from him, he always mentions Grace. For these parents, the suffering doesn’t end. It may change over the years, but it will never be gone from their lives.
There are many kinds of long-term suffering that, as K.J. Ramsey, author of This Too Shall Last says, are not a “before and after story.” They are a story of ongoing pain with no clear resolution in sight. Perhaps the pain is physical. Ramsey was diagnosed with an incurable autoimmune disease in her early twenties. She went from going on hiking and camping trips to not being able to get up off the couch, to not being able to turn the pages of her Bible. Perhaps the pain is emotional, the result of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Perhaps the pain is relational—a marriage breakup, a child walking away from her parents, or parents disowning a child. Such suffering can have lifelong consequences. Such circumstances can make it difficult to find joy in the midst of suffering.
Suffering, in itself, is hard, but what about when people keep expecting you to just get over it, to get better soon, to triumph over this hardship because that’s what we do. Those people want it to be a before and after story, but maybe your story isn’t a before and after story. Maybe it’s a now story that goes on and on.
Ramsey writes: “We live in a conqueror culture, vultures preying on weakness, fixed on gnawing our sorrows into stories of success. If we can’t protect ourselves from pain, we’ll overcome it. We’ll search high and low for its purpose, and having found it, we’ll show the world God’s strength.
Even this effort exhausts us, bringing us back to the barren ground of being in bodies that won’t do what we wish they would in lives that don’t look like we wish they would look. And if what we hear from God’s people is largely the language of try hard and triumph, the sugar-lipped expectation that we’ll get better and move on, when our efforts are futile and triumph seems distant, we might just believe that the story of Jesus isn’t for us or isn’t even true. Prolonged pain becomes shame, a hidden hurt that we might not be loved by God after all.”1
God meets us in our suffering
So often when we’re suffering, that suffering comes with a sense of weakness, of vulnerability, of shame, and of being abandoned. We don’t have everything together. We’ve lost control. We’re no longer in charge of our lives. If the situation goes on and on and we see no way out of it and no comfort in it, it can become unbearable. Like a friend of mine did, you might cry out to God, “What else will you take away from me?”
It is true that pain and suffering are part of life. They have been ever since God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as punishment for their disobedience. God loved Adam and Eve. He created them as the culmination of Creation, and after he had breathed life into them, he said that his day of work was very good. He walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. He wanted to spend time with them. He guided them and gave them work to do to care for his Creation.
God never walked away from Adam and Eve. They were the ones who hid from him; they were the ones who put up the barrier between themselves and God. Why? Why did they hide and put up that barrier? They felt shame at what they’d done, shame in their circumstances. Suffering in their disobedience, they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves to conceal their nakedness.
When we are in pain, whatever kind of pain, we tend to draw into ourselves. Adam and Eve drew into themselves. They hid from God. They blocked him out and put up barriers against him. And yet, God knew them in their disobedience and shame. He came to them in their suffering. He sought them out. Yes, he punished them, but not because he no longer loved them. The gospel of John tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”2 God loved Adam and Eve, in their shame, in their weakness, in their vulnerability, and he loves every one of us.
Suffering creates space for light to enter
Suffering is raw and immediate. It tears at you. It fills the day with darkness and overshadows the future. And yet, that very tearing creates space for light to enter. If creates space for hope and joy if we let it, if we don’t put up barriers, if we let ourselves be vulnerable to God’s will for our lives. Sometimes hope isn’t what we expect it to be. Sometimes hope is a man dying on a cross, and Christ’s resurrected presence with us in our pain. Sometimes joy isn’t big and all-encompassing, but rather, is found in small, mundane things that surround us in the midst of our suffering. Sometimes joy comes from finding more of ourselves through community with Christ within our suffering.
In January of 2018, my hundred-year-old mother lay dying in a nursing home in Alberta. God was calling her home. I flew out west to be with her, and, along with my sisters and brothers, spent many hours at her bedside. In the midst of this draining, emotionally charged situation, I came down with stomach flu and vomited my way through the night two days before my mother died.
That night, I was in pain, physical pain and emotional pain. I lay curled up in bed at my sister’s house, feeling utterly miserable, utterly filled with sorrow, and utterly alone in my spirit. Reaching out to God, I sang a worship song silently in my mind, but more than an act of worship, that song was a cry for help. Over and over, I repeated the words from Ernie Cox’s “Including Me,” which speaks to how Jesus saw, blessed, and saved all humanity.
And my Lord Jesus did see me. I felt the sensation of loving arms holding me in my pain. The pain didn’t disappear, but I knew I wasn’t alone, and I knew I was loved. I was loved just as I was—weak, vulnerable, hurting, miserable, on the verge of throwing up. Jesus saw me, truly saw me, in my distress, and he didn’t judge me. He loved me because that’s who Jesus is.
K. J. Ramsay writes: “Grace is not always rescue. It is often Christ’s presence meeting us in weakness and sustaining us in sorrow. Grace is not just power to overcome. It is power to endure.”3
God’s unending love for each one of us is more lasting, more indestructible, and more relentless than any sorrow. In our darkest nights, God is with us. When you are immersed in suffering, don’t give up on your life as a place to find grace, and as a place to find joy. Pay attention to each moment, however hard that might be. Be aware of your surroundings—the warm sunshine on your shoulders, the sound of the wind in the trees. Be mindful. Be receptive to God. It is possible to experience joy in the midst of suffering.
On that night when I felt Christ’s arms holding me, I was filled with an incredible warmth of love. Small, mundane details of where I was in that moment came into sharp focus—the coziness of my soft pajamas, the soft light of a bedside lamp. I was completely present in my painful circumstances, and all was not darkness. A thrill of hope, a spark of joy lit that night and sustained me in the trying days that followed. I was not alone, Christ was with me, and joy and suffering could coexist.
Place our suffering before God as an offering
The Message version of Romans 12:1 reads: “Here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”4
We can add suffering to that list of everyday, ordinary life activities. We can place our suffering before God as an offering, and in doing so, find the grace and joy of community with Christ. We are not less because we are suffering. It just happens to be where we are right now, however long that “now” lasts.
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”
Jesus came to earth in a time of suffering and darkness. He came as Immanuel, “God is with us.” “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” I’m sure you all recognize these words from “O Holy Night,” one of our most beloved Christmas carols.
Twelve days ago, I heard a newly released version of this carol performed by Halifax musician Ben Caplan, and it was unlike any version I’d ever heard before. It was raw and immediate, like suffering is raw and immediate. The opening was dark, almost turmoil, as if echoing the time and setting. Near the end, Caplan’s voice assumed the bright clarity we associate with the song, but even then, his words seemed as much the cry of an anguished soul for help and salvation as an act of worship and celebration. In this rendition of “O Holy Night,” pain and joy go hand in hand. Have a listen:
We are in this life together
We are all parts of one body, the body of Christ. We are his beloved bride, his church. As such, we have a role to play, the role of being Immanuel’s hands and feet and eyes here on earth, wherever we are, in whatever situation we find ourselves. That role includes truly seeing sorrows and sufferings experienced by our brothers and sisters not through our perspective, but through the perspective of the one who is suffering. We are not to judge. We are to comfort those in affliction and carry one another’s burdens. We are to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We are to assure those who are experiencing hard “now” stories that they are not alone. We are a community of believers, and we are in this life together. Together we can help each other find hope and joy in the midst of suffering.
If you know anyone who might receive encouragement from these words, please share this post.
- K. J. Ramsey, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers, 2020, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 32-33.
- John 3:16-17
- Ramsey, p. 188.
- Romans 12:1