Does Good Come Out of Suffering?

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If you’ve followed the news as of late, you’ve most likely heard of Brittany Maynard — a 29-year-old newly married woman who has made the choice to die. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Maynard has opted not to put her family through the stress of watching her slowly deteriorate and has chosen death with dignity — a program that allows for terminally ill patients an end-of-life option. Surrounded by her family and friends, she will consume the contents of a prescription pill bottle and depart from this earth.

Maynard originally made the decision to take the prescription November 1, but according to a recent video released by CNN, she is now waiting for the “right time” to take the fatal dosage.

While I certainly sympathize with Maynard’s situation and have compassion for her in her difficulty, I am saddened by her decision and the voices in our culture that support the idea that we have the right to elect out of life when things get hard.

In first reading about Maynard’s unorthodox choice, I joined the discussion by posting an article on Facebook railing against death with dignity and Maynard’s views. Then I felt a quiet conviction that perhaps my path as a Christian should not so much be to condemn her actions, but rather, as Ellen Painter Dollar argues in her article “A Christian Response to Brittany Maynard’s Decision to Die,” offer an alternative approach to the complicated issue of suffering.

Maynard’s story certainly raises some questions: Why should we allow ourselves to experience suffering? What good can possibly come out of it? How should we as Christians approach it? And while it’s convincing to believe that we shouldn’t have to go through pain if we choose not to, the Bible offers a few other ideas on the subject.

We are Promised Trouble

Understandably, we are made in God’s image and have this idea of perfection for this life in our mind because God is perfect. When we get diagnosed with a devastating disease and our idea of happily ever after shatters, we feel we should have an immediate rescue from our tribulations, but God never promised us that we would have it easy. We are simply encouraged to “take heart” and know that He has “overcome the world” (John 16:33). God doesn’t tell us we won’t experience trouble, He tells us that as Christians we can expect it.

And while we may not understand all the reasons we have to go through the trials that we do, we have the assurance that our longing for perfection will be fulfilled in heaven.

Suffering Has Purpose

One thing that we can find comfort in is that the only perfect human being to live on this earth, Jesus Christ, suffered. His suffering had a purpose — to provide salvation for all of humanity. Even in His perfection, He still struggled with His own emotions before having to endure the cross. He didn’t want to go through what He did; if He had chosen to avoid the Father’s will, however, we would not have the opportunity for the life we enjoy in Christ. According to Isaiah 53:5, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Clearly, Jesus’ pain was for something — a purpose bigger than himself.

Similarly, our trials are for something — our “light and momentary trials are achieving for us eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Our suffering has a distinct purpose that God uses for His kingdom.

Pain Enlarges Us

If we go through life and never experience hardship and struggle, we would all act pretty superficial. Suffering is what produces in us some of our most enduring qualities and gives us the ability to “comfort others” as we ourselves have been comforted (2 Corinthians 1:4). It is in the fires of affliction that we develop the qualities that make us “iron” believers. In Streams in the Desert, L.B. Cowman offers the following excerpt from George Matheson — where Matheson observes that suffering “enlarges” us:

Someone once said of Joseph that when he was in the dungeon, ‘iron entered his soul.’ And the strength of iron is exactly what he needed, for earlier he had only experienced the glitter of gold. He had been rejoicing in youthful dreams, and dreaming actually hardens the heart. Someone who sheds great tears over a simple romance will not be much help in a real crisis, for true sorrow will be too deep for him. We all need the iron in life to enlarge our character. The gold is simply a passing vision, whereas the iron is the true experience of life. The chain that is the common bond uniting us to others must be one of iron. The common touch of humanity that gives the world true kinship is not joy but sorrow — gold is only partial to a few, but iron is universal.

While our culture may argue that suffering only takes away, Matheson asserts the idea that suffering can actually add to us. We are built up by the very trials we wish to escape from. It is from our very prisons that our character is perfected, and our own difficulties help us connect to others in similar trials.

The Other Side of Suffering

We have, in the midst of our suffering, the promise of “the other side.” As Joyce Meyer notes in her New Day, New You devotional, “Learn to endure whatever you need to, knowing that there is joy on the other side!” Like Psalm 30:5 promises, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” We will get victory in the struggle if we have the right mindset, even if we don’t get the resolution or result we want in this life.

My grandmother, a devout Christian, nonetheless struggled with dark bouts of depression and then dementia and Alzheimer’s in her later years. She was an accomplished pianist and the director of music at her church before she retired. I still have memories of her sitting at her large black Steinway grand piano playing and singing in her clear voice at family gatherings.

The woman who very much struggled with her own mental health was still a light to those around her, and even though she lost her battle to Alzheimer’s some time ago, she now has these words on her headstone: “In His presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). Although she didn’t experience complete healing on this earth, I now have the reassurance that her ills have been healed. She endured to gain what was hers: fullness of joy in the presence of God.

Our world tells us that happiness is based on circumstances — and when those go bad, we should find an immediate out — a deliverance from. However, the Bible tells us that there is a peace that can transcend all circumstances — and a beauty that comes out of some of our most harrowing situations.

Matheson reminds us that God “enlarges” us when we are in “distress” (Psalm 4:1 — KJV), and sometimes we must accept that God’s will isn’t for us to get out — but to go through.

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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3 Keys to Emotional Healing

Three years ago, when I began a path to healing, I did not get a neon sign from heaven or a magic wand waved over me. In fact, I didn’t even know what God was doing or what plans He had for helping me to address my guilt, shame, addictive tendencies, and problems with relationships. He didn’t tell me where He was leading me at all.

It really began with a crisis in my life: a crisis that unfolded when I stopped teaching, birthed another baby, and attempted to float seamlessly into a role as a full-time volunteer on the worship team and other ministry teams in the church.

Absolutely nothing was working for me in that very dark summer after I left teaching — my son was colicky and never slept. My daughter developed insecurities and issues when my attention had to be shared with an infant. Our money ran dry.

And nothing was clicking with music — the new direction I felt I should be going. I was exhausted, depleted, frustrated — and completely worn out. I kept coming up against a wall that I couldn’t get around; and I didn’t even know what I was fighting against, but it was making me crazy.

In the midst of my crisis, I attended a couples’ retreat. Sitting there listening to our senior pastor and his wife talk about the need for honesty in relationships and life, I was so in denial about where I was really at that I sat through the entire presentation feeling pretty good about myself. My internal dialogue went something like this: This must be for someone else. I am pretty honest with people. I don’t have a problem with this.

However, on the way home I started to feel guilty — and all of these things from the past that I hadn’t even thought about in a long time began surfacing. Even though I wanted to repress them and send these memories back to where they had been hiding, they stuck around in a really annoyingly persistent way — so much so that I was having problems concentrating on anything else.

Suddenly I found it really difficult to get through the day — difficult to sing on a Sunday — and difficult to feel relaxed in my Christian walk. I was having an internal crisis of guilt, anxiety, and fear. My past had reared its ugly head, and it wasn’t going away this time.

And then, as if I didn’t feel stressed enough already, I felt the undeniable nudge to do something about these memories from the past. Not just ask Jesus to forgive me for my past sins — but to actually contact some people, write some letters, and initiate some tough conversations.

Some of the first contacts I made were to a school I had taught at apologizing for some ways I could have been more professional in my demeanor and in the handling of student fees; to a manager and a store I had shoplifted from as a teenager; and to a family of a girl I had been way too involved with in high school. (Yep, you got that right. I did just say that — more on codependent relationships in later posts.)

I was paralyzed with irrational fear. What in the heck did any of these things have to do with my desire to go into ministry? Why was I getting an urge to do this so many years later?

I didn’t realize those contacts were just the first few baby steps Jesus used to point me in the direction I would need to go to find some relief from the weight of my inner chains. Those contacts were the first steps in helping me realize that I had an addiction to others’ approval.

And the pathway out would include a whole lot more conversations and letter writing.

3 Keys to Emotional Healing

The journey for everyone might look a little different, but the first place to start in a quest for inner healing is Jesus Christ. Just like the place of denial I was in at the couples’ event, most people are really out of touch with their real problems and are self-diagnosing and looking in the wrong places for help.

Their physical problems may be the result of emotional issues. While I understand the need to take care of our bodies and look after ourselves, some women focus on their health to extent that they have little time for anything else. They may be going to chiropractors several times a week, specialists for specific maladies, and naturopathic doctors for diagnoses.

While I certainly have faith in the medical community and the wisdom of doctors, I believe that the reason that we sometimes don’t get any better is because we consult doctors without really including God in the conversation. And prioritizing emotional or medical ills above God is a big mistake.

Another mistake is pretending there aren’t any problems and existing in total denial — like I did for the longest time.

Start with God

The Bible is clear that we must “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) before we can expect other things to be added to us. What that basically means is that we should start with Jesus and not the problem. I will be the first to admit that my natural inclination is to do things the other way around.

One of the most beneficial things I did when I quit working was join a weekly women’s Bible study. When I began to get serious about digging into the truth of God, many things in my life started to get some painful but good magnification.

In this process of seeking God, honesty is essential — honesty with God and honesty with ourselves. The Bible says that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword — and it pierces, convicts, and helps us get rid of the junk that weighs us down (Hebrews 4:12). We have all sorts of defense mechanisms — pride, excuses, denial, blaming of others — we use to convince ourselves that we are fine and do not need to change. I am the worst offender in this area! Truly!

Once we pursue Jesus, however, He will bring all of our deeds and actions into the light (John 3:20). Once He does this, we will have the choice whether to allow Him to extract some habits weighing us down or continue to walk in darkness.

The truth is that looking at ourselves as we truly are is painful, but we can be encouraged by the fact that we are forgiven and blameless in His sight. However, our sins have consequences and may affect us emotionally or spiritually if unaddressed. Some important keys to freedom that I have been walking through (touched on in Henry W. Wright’s A More Excellent Way: Be in Health) address our relationship with God, others and self.

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Key 1: Our Relationship with God.

The first key to freedom is to understand who we are and what Jesus did for us on the cross. We are fully loved and forgiven — however, His grace does not give us a license to sin, and He must have priority in our life. We must surrender to Him as we learn the truth about what it means to follow Him. If we have had hard things happen to us, we may be angry at God, blaming Him for the bad in our lives.

For me, my greatest revelation in experiencing a release of a major burden was understanding that anger against God is a sin — I needed to forgive Him for the areas I felt He let me down. And say it out loud: God, I was angry when such and such occurred. I felt that you had abandoned me. I forgive you. Help me not hold that against you anymore.

I needed to accept and thank Him for the person He created me to be.

Key 2: Our Relationship with Others.

Once we understand who we are in Christ, this changes how we interact with others. People who are wounded go on to hurt others, however unintentionally.

Becoming free from my chains has meant doing what the Bible says in terms of relationships: forgiving those who have hurt me, seeking peace in relationships, apologizing for past wrongs, and continuing to do this in my relationships now with the full knowledge that I can end up in bondage again if I am not careful.

One surprise I found in this area is that many Christians aren’t following what the Bible says — in fact, they will try to persuade you that it is not really necessary to act in your relationships in these ways because God’s grace covers over all sins.

What they are forgetting is that grace doesn’t exempt us from doing what the Bible says. We are commanded to seek forgiveness and make amends when we do wrong, go to our brother when he has wronged us, and seek harmony if at all possible in our relationships.

Even if I am rejected or my apology is rejected, I am accepted by Christ, and I have the peace of knowing I did the right thing even if the other person did not respond in the way I think he or she should have.

Key 3: Our Relationship with Self.

Another important key to wholeness is our relationship with ourselves. I spent the majority of my life beating up on myself — not realizing that self-rejection can have extremely damaging emotional and physical effects on the body.

A factor for me in my healing has been to understand that I make mistakes, I am not perfect, and I can forgive myself. I had unresolved anger at myself for not being as perfect as I wanted to be. I blamed myself for my relationship failures, for my past mistakes — and I had the misguided idea that I was being humble.

However, I came to realize that a healthy person must have a healthy view of self. Humility is believing that apart from Christ we are nothing — but rejoicing in what He has made us to be and what He has done for us. When I let go of my anger and decided to see myself as Christ does — forgiven, under no condemnation — I could let the guilt and shame go.

Summary:

Giving up bad habits, addictive tendencies, and unhealthy relationships is tough. I wanted an escape hatch out of my crisis when I left teaching, an easy fix; I didn’t want a journey — especially not a journey that I had to go through without first having all the answers.

Writing letters wasn’t an act I had to do to receive forgiveness from God or earn grace — because that had already been given to me. That process was one that helped to illuminate something about myself to me — something I didn’t know. I felt shame for the bad things I had done in my past, but I didn’t know the reasons for my behavior. But God did.

He revealed to me a truth that was very profound somewhere in that process: I was so dependent on others’ approval that many of my bad choices were made to please others.

In the case of the school, I was extremely reliant on the approval of my classes and wanted to be a well-liked even if it meant laughing when I shouldn’t have laughed or cultivating the worship of my students.

In the case of student fees, I got really overwhelmed with paperwork and didn’t want to admit I couldn’t keep up with all the book money and field trip money kids were throwing at me.

In the case of the shoplifting, I got pressured into it by some friends and couldn’t say no even though I knew it was wrong.

In the case of the unhealthy relationship, I wanted acceptance when I couldn’t find it in normal relationships — and compromised myself to get that.

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God knew that — and while the process of admitting my flaws to others was excruciating and is still ongoing in some areas — He had to extract out of me that tendency toward wanting others’ approval more than His approval. While it felt like God really hated me for wanting me to go back to my past, it was because of His kindness that He wanted to help straighten my paths (Hebrews 12:11).

I don’t know where you are in life or what your situation looks like — but start with God. Christ is the answer to all our problems and will lead us to freedom if we will follow Him — no matter how hard or unusual the way.

Getting to that place of freedom means letting Him have access to the dark places we are hiding and trusting Him when the road out is bumpier than we originally anticipated.

Related Bible Verses:

Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

John 3:20: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

Hebrews 12:11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

 

 

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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Christian Service: What Does God Want Me to Do?

When my family and I started the process of helping to launch a new campus of a church, I got involved in everything. I sang on the worship team, greeted newcomers in Guest Services, volunteered in the nursery, involved myself in more than one life group — and helped in other capacities. Hardly a Sunday passed by where I wasn’t called upon to do something.

I felt pretty good about all the help I was giving God, but the truth was I wasn’t really satisfied. I had dreamed of having more time to serve in church ministry, but when I actually quit my job and cleared my schedule to do it, I felt like something was missing.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that God isn’t interested in my random acts of service: He’s only interested in my obedience to the task He has called me to for a particular time or season. Having a fuller schedule or volunteering in every area of my church doesn’t make me a better Christian: it actually makes me a more ineffective one because I am so busy “doing something” for God I have no energy or time left over for the task(s) He has specifically crafted for me to do. I can look really spiritual doing ministry and be completely out of God’s will.

If I wanted to be honest with myself, the thing He had called me to do specifically in that season really wasn’t 18 positions of church work — and so I chose to ignore it for while. It didn’t look or feel like my idea of ministry, and it didn’t fit in to what I really wanted to be doing.

You see, He had called me to a period of reaching out to some people from the past, including some of the families of my former students and discussing with them how I had reached a new turning point in my Christian walk and confessing where I had come up short as a teacher. He called me not to a spotlight where I was the key vocalist on the worship team or the best greeter on a Sunday. He called me to a season of making amends, growing my spiritual character, and supporting others who were in all of those prominent positions I longed to be in myself.

And, if I got even more honest with myself, much of the service I was doing was motivated by what others would think of me — spurred on more by my personal agenda and establishing myself at a new campus then it was about trusting God that His promises about using me in ministry would come true at the proper time.

Consider what author and pastor Steve McVey says in Grace Walk: “Trying to do something for God may sound admirable, but it produces damaging consequences.” And further, “For much of my life I dedicated my abilities and my efforts to God. I tried hard to do something for God. However, the New Testament model of a Christian is not one who dedicates His work to God. Rather it is the story of God Himself doing the work through a person yielded to Him.”

The problem with allowing Him to have His way and work through us the way He wants is that we have to give up control. We have to surrender and trust Him even when the road He takes us down leads us in a way that we don’t think is right or logical. And that is the real sticking point for many of us. I know it was for me.

We’ve adopted the idea somewhere along the way that we are the ones that know how to best run things — and as long as our work looks like good Christian service that we have God’s stamp of approval. We have somewhere determined that we can tack God onto our projects, and He will be pleased that we have accomplished something for Him.

McVey notes that Abraham and Sarah got into quite a bit of trouble after they decided to “do something” about their childless predicament. After many years passed and Sarah did not become pregnant, they came up with an alternate solution to “help” God along with His promise by using Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, to bear a son. As McVey observes:

Abraham did go to Hagar and she did conceive. However, Ishmael was not the son God had promised. The son of promise would come through Sarah, and it would happen on God’s timing. Abraham and Sarah were sincere, but they really made a mess of things. They were trying to do something to help God. One result of their self-sufficiency gives cause for the ongoing conflict between the Arabs and the Jews. All because Abraham and Sarah thought that God would bless their efforts to help Him.

We will not experience fruit from the work we do in our own efforts; in fact, we will experience consequences. If we are to produce fruit for the kingdom of God, we must do what He has instructed us to do. In my experience, I reaped consequences as a result of my actions. I didn’t feel peace or joy until I slowly began to withdraw from Guest Services, the worship team, one of the two life groups, and focus on the only activities He had specifically called me to — which included picking up the phone and calling the people He had put on my heart. I got quite a few answering machines and disconnected phones. I left messages at times and didn’t get calls back. His instructions really didn’t make any sense to me in helping me to fulfill the calling He had put on my life, but I had to accept that that was where He had me for the time being.

McVey records the time he reached his own breaking point with his own efforts to build the church he was pastoring and writes about his own surrender:

In the stillness of early morning, my thoughts turned to a piece of paper that someone had given me a few weeks earlier. I reached up to my computer desk, took a sheet of paper and began to read it. It was a quotation about absolute surrender to God. On one side was a list of rights to give up — things like the right to pleasant circumstances, the right to acceptance, the right to results. I took that paper and began to pray my way down the list. Lord, I’m tired of struggling for victory in my own life and I am tired of striving for success in my ministry. As I continued to pray, I chose to lay aside everything that had brought me a sense of worth: my efforts to have a growing church, my hunger for affirmation in ministry, my education, and my experience … When I left my office that morning, I didn’t want a new program or plan. I wanted only one thing — Him.

Things changed for McVey once he gave up his campaign to “do something” for God and instead let God do something through him. And, just like me, McVey had to acknowledge something very important to get to that place: much of what he was doing was more about boosting how he felt about himself rather than acting in obedience to God.

One thing I’ve discovered about God is that He gives us a vision, but He doesn’t give us a roadmap there. That is where faith comes in. We are given a step to complete and then another and another — and all the while we are making ground toward the destination He has for us.

Ignoring God’s instruction and busying ourselves with churchy work doesn’t propel us past these steps to His promise — it just sends us on a detour until we get back on track and choose to begin where God wanted us in the first place.

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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