The Classroom of Suffering: Authenticity

Particularly when it comes to the issue of suffering, one of the great obstacles of the Christian life is disillusionment; we enter into this life with God with great expectation and excitement, buying into the myth that the Christian life is a life of ease—a “rainbows and puppy dogs” kind of life. So when suffering and hardship comes our way—and it always does—we may just find ourselves surprised by it! I don’t know about you, but the more I read Scripture the more I wonder where in the world we got that picture of the Christian life.

In the last days of His earthly life, Jesus made it a point to assure His disciples that “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Jesus didn’t want to leave His disciples disillusioned about the reality of life in a fallen world; suffering is a given, an inescapable reality. But He also didn’t leave us without hope: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Last fall I had the opportunity to spend nearly the whole semester writing a lengthy research paper on what we can learn about suffering from the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels. One interaction in particular jumps out at me as characteristic of our natural response to pain and suffering. In Mark 8 the whole tone of the book changes, as Jesus begins to speak to His disciples about His own impending death:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. – Mark 8:31-32

While we often scoff at the sheer audacity of Peter to rebuke God incarnate, we must recognize that to his disciples these declarations by Jesus would have felt like having the rug pulled out from under them.

Up to this point Jesus’ words and deeds have been characterized by astonishing authority and power. This first declaration of his imminent suffering and death stands in blunt contrast to, and completely undercuts, the Messianic expectations of Peter and the other disciples. – NIV Study Bible Notes

Having walked with Jesus for years, Peter and the other disciples had developed an idea of how things were going to play out. In fact, just a few verses earlier Peter had made the bold declaration that Jesus was the Messiah; the long expected One who was to deliver Israel. They had in mind a particular picture of victory, and this talk of suffering and death was an unwelcomed intrusion that left them feeling disillusioned and confused. So is it really any wonder that Peter pushed back against this?

Much like the disciples had envisioned a path of victory as they walked with Jesus, so we tend to envision a particular life of victory and ease as Christians. So when we are faced with the unwelcomed intrusion of suffering into our lives, we too may be left feeling disillusioned and confused.

So when we come to the crossroads marked by suffering—when our expectations for the Christian life fails to match up with the reality that we experience—how do we respond? Or perhaps even more challenging, when our experience of the Christian life fails to match up with what we’ve been told it should be, how do we respond? It is an unfortunate reality that our evangelistic measures often leave people with distorted expectations for the Christian life. We expound on the JOYS and BLESSINGS of walking with Christ, and rightly so, for those things are undeniably true! But when we provide a one-dimensional picture of the Christian life, we fail to prepare people to respond well in the face of suffering.

Growing up in the Church, I’ve heard countless personal testimonies of how people met Jesus and the ways that He changed their lives. After listening to enough of them, a template was formed in my mind that went something like this:

  • Here’s how broken and messed up my life was before Jesus.
  • Then I met Jesus.
  • Now here’s how awesome and wonderful my life is.


Last fall, I shared my testimony with my small group, and as I was preparing to do so I realized that this template that I had been following for years didn’t fit. As I was writing out my story and rehearsing it in my mind, I continued to be confronted by some of the hurt and pain that I was currently working through, and there wasn’t a place for that in my template. So I came face to face with the dilemma of wanting to be authentic, while at the same time feeling like I owed it to God to wrap it all up with a nice pretty bow at the end.

As I examined the tension that I was feeling, I realized that somewhere along the way I came to believe—and maybe you have too—that struggling and experiencing pain was somehow an indictment on my walk with God, or that it somehow diminished the work He has done in my life. So I felt like I owed it to God to put on a good face and to live a double life; to struggle silently and only let others see the good, so that God would be glorified through my story.

Around that time, one of our chapel speakers at the seminary that I attend talked about the reality of suffering and pain in the Christian life. He talked about our felt need to “fake it,” to pretend that life is better than it really is, and that we are stronger than we really are—often times “for the sake of the gospel.” But then he said something that pierced right to the heart of the tension I’d been feeling:

When we fake it, all we do is preach a false gospel to everyone else who is weak. – Jeff Mangum

When all that we let others see of our life and our walk with God is the good, the praise reports and the #blessed, we unintentionally add a degree of shame to their story as they experience pain and struggle. We mean well enough, thinking that people will find hope in our stories of prosperity and joy—and those things are GOOD, but not at the expense of being authentic about the reality and inevitability of suffering and pain. When we leave the reality of our struggles out of our stories, all we really do is leave them wondering, “they’ve got it all together, what am I doing wrong?”

We tend to live a polarized life; it’s either good or bad, joy or sadness, victory or struggle. It’s one or the other, and we struggle to comprehend a framework in which both polarities can co-exist. And yet that is the world that we live in, it is full of good times and bad, joy and sadness, victory and struggle… it is complex and messy, nothing like the clear-cut and neatly packaged existence that we long for.

While we might be made uncomfortable by the messiness of the Christian life, God is not. He never promised us a life free of pain and difficulty, nor did He call us to pretend that our lives are something that they’re not. As Christians called to be the light of the world, we must realize that the world is not compelled by our hope when all they see is “the good life,” they are compelled by our hope in the midst of pain and suffering.

That’s not to say that we manufacture pain or go about in sackcloth and ashes every hour of every day; I’m confident that this world has enough pain without us intentionally adding to it. But we must learn to hold the realities of pain and hope concurrently. We must be as honest and authentic about our sorrows as we are about our joy. It is the trials and difficulties of this life that makes our hope so compelling, and it is our hope in the midst of suffering that points to the glory and goodness of our God.


The Classroom of Suffering: The Language of Lament

Some of the most challenging and beautiful moments in my life have been the times when God has allowed me the honor and privilege of sitting with one of His children who walking through a valley season. These moments are beautiful because I believe that when we are invited into the pain and brokenness of a fellow human being, we are invited into a sacred space. But these moments are also challenging, because to sit compassionately with a hurting person is not to simply allow space for them to express their pain, but to enter into their pain with them.

But I think that sitting with those who are suffering—and similarly, dealing with the pain in our own lives—is challenging for another reason. A while back I was sitting with a dear friend who was walking through a difficult and painful season, and as I spoke with her a tension began to build in my spirit. I was struggling to comprehend why God hadn’t intervened, why He hadn’t healed and restored the life of this sweet friend like I know is in His character to do.

It’s in those moments that I am confronted with what has come to be referred to as “the problem of pain,” or, “the problem of evil.” The problem goes something like this: If God is GOOD and LOVING and ALL POWERFUL, then why does He allow pain and evil to wreak havoc on His creation? Read more

The Classroom of Suffering: His Presence in Our Pain

There has been an interesting shift in my understanding of suffering over the course of the past year. It is a shift that is downright offensive to my sensibilities and human nature, and I have fought against it for much of my life. I’ve come to understand that pain and suffering can be a gift; when held in the hands of our good and loving Father, it can be transformed into an invitation into something greater than we could ever imagine. I’m not saying that pain is by any means innately good or that we should seek it out, but I’ve come to believe that our experience of pain can be a catalyst for beauty and joy.

I don’t believe in a God who vindictively afflicts us with pain or causes our suffering—I believe that pain and suffering are natural consequences of life in a fallen and sinful world, and that, as Alister McGrath puts it, “the suffering of the world grieves God.” But I do believe that as a part of His redemptive plan for our lives and the world, God works IN our pain to accomplish truly beautiful and wonderful things. Pain is not “good,” but our God most certainly is; and I’ve come to believe that it’s in the midst of our pain that His goodness shines brightest. Read more

The Classroom of Suffering

In one of my last classes of the year, a professor read from the classic by C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Letters.” If you’re not familiar with the book, Lewis provides insight into the Christian life through the fascinating perspective of a “Senior Demon”—Screwtape—writing to a “Junior Tempter”—Wormwood—about his attempts to draw his “patient”—a new Christian—away from his faith. In the particular letter that my professor read from, Screwtape writes to Wormwood about the “law of undulation,” or the series of peaks and valleys which is characteristic of the Christian journey. While Wormwood is excited about the valley which his patient is currently walking through, Screwtape warns him that such difficulty is instead a natural part of the way “the enemy”—God—works in the lives of “His creatures,” and as such is not in and of itself cause for celebration. In a striking statement, Screwtape warns:

It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it (the Christian) is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be – C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

The Christian life is not a stagnant pool that we step into when we accept Christ as our Savior; it is a flowing river that takes us on a life-long journey as we grow and mature in our faith. It is a journey that will take us through peaks and valleys, along still waters and raging rapids.

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters … Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. – Psalm 23:1-2, 4

During the valley seasons of our lives we may experience God as absent, distant, or disinterested. While our experiences and emotions in these valley seasons may tell us that we’ve “gotten off course” or that God has abandoned us, Psalm 23 reminds us that even in the darkest valley, God is with us. And not only that, but these seasons can be a source of immense growth and blessing. When we view our valley seasons as something to escape or retreat from, we risk missing the work that God wants to do in our hearts and lives through that experience. I believe that there are important lessons to be learned in the valley seasons of our lives, which I have somewhat affectionately come to refer to in my own life as “The Classroom of Suffering.” Read more

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Cry

come2Yesterday, I went for a drive in the mountains. I didn’t have a destination in mind or an agenda to follow, I just wanted to drive. See, my car is a sort of sanctuary for me – it’s not pretty, it makes noises that a car isn’t supposed to make, it’s covered with all sorts of scratches and dents, and it’s even missing a few pieces – but it provides me with a space where I can simply be. My car sees me at my best, and at my worst… it sees me when I’m joyfully singing at the top of my lungs, and when I’m ugly crying so hard I can barely see the road. My car offers me a reprieve from a world in which I often feel that I must “hold it together” and “put on a good face.” It’s the place where I can give voice to the parts of myself that I’ve deemed “unacceptable” or “unfit” to be seen by others. Read more

Hope Changes Everything (WSPD ’16)

hope2The other day, I did a quick search for “news” on Google, and that simple search yielded disheartening results; more controversies regarding candidates for the U.S. presidential election, a failed mission to rescue hostages in Afghanistan, a policeman stabbed in France, and a shooting at a High School in Texas. It seems like the news has been filled with stories like this for far too long, an unrelenting string of tragedy and pain.

But there’s something else that you may be seeing on social media today, regarding another tragedy that affects every city, state, and nation throughout the world. It’s something that isn’t talked about much, in fact many would consider it a “taboo” topic, as it carries a vast amount of stigma and shame. You’re probably hearing about it today more than usual, but it’s no less of a reality any other day of the year. Today is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD).

Read more

Better Days Ahead

Sand and CS LewisAround this time, 7 long years ago, I was packing up my childhood room and counting down the days until I got to move out of my parents’ home and into the college dorms. That day feels like a lifetime ago, but I can still recall the excitement and anticipation that I felt (in fact, for the past week Facebook has been reminding me of how excessively “18-year-old me” used my status updates to count down the days until move-in day). As I sit here now, 7 years later, there are many young adults just beginning to embark on their own college journey. I live just down the street from a University, and this week I have seen an explosion of excited and energetic young people at every local Starbucks and Chipotle… it’s “back to school” season!

As I reflect back on that time in my life, I remember receiving many well-intentioned messages, meant to encourage and inspire me. They were so positive and optimistic, so full of hope and expectation. Maybe you’ve heard them too (or told them to a student heading off to school):

“These will be the best years of your life!”

“The friendships that you will form in college are the ones that will last a lifetime!”

Simple messages that convey the hopes that we have for each of our loved ones as they enter into a new season of life… but what about when those messages that we so eagerly receive don’t turn out to be true? Read more

Created for Community

img_2072About 6 months ago, I showed up to a Life Group launch at my church… just a random Tuesday night in the middle of winter. Leading up to this night, my plan had been to launch my own group at this particular launch, but I felt challenged and convicted by God to join a group instead. So I showed up, looked through the list of available groups, and put a little star next to the ONLY women’s group in my age/location range. With a crazy schedule of school and work, I only had one night available, so I figured that finding a group that worked was going to be a long shot. I walked up to the table corresponding with that ONE group that I had marked on my list and, lo and behold, they met on the ONE night that I had available.

Here’s the thing, I do NOT believe in coincidence or chance… As I elaborated on in one of my recent posts, I believe in a Sovereign God who is often times up to FAR MORE than we know or comprehend.

Let me tell you, this particular group of ladies have been such an incredible blessing in my life, one that could only have been orchestrated by God Himself… and God has worked through this group to teach me so much about community, and through that community, about Himself. Read more

Lessons Learned from a Journey West

It’s July 28th, 2013.

I stuff the last few items into the back of my 1002864_10200272712292265_1516226447_ncar, take a deep breath, and catch one last look at my childhood home in the rearview mirror.

I’ve packed my entire life into my little Hyundai Sonata; anything that doesn’t fit has to stay behind.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve said goodbye to the friends who have walked with me for the past 4 years. I’ve been trying to put on a brave face, all the while choking back tears with each parting hug.

I’ve been dreaming of a grand adventure for years now… but the past few years have taken a toll, and I’m a broken shell of the girl who once dreamed of blazing her own trail in a new land. Read more