A week ago I was searching for some medical records when I came across a sealed envelope with my name on it. It was a prayer I had written in the fall of 2012. I had just graduated, moved to a new city with no friends, was wrestling through the loss of a relationship, and felt so frustrated with God and so lost that I had to write out my prayers just to get a complete thought out. So much pain captured on one piece of paper that was hidden and forgotten for five years. But upon rereading it, I realized God had turned that pain into something greater.
C.S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Pain in our lives functions as a wakeup call. Whether it is the sharp, stabbing pain of sudden loss or the less defined, stretching ache of emptiness, pain forces a reaction out of us.
Common reactions include distracting ourselves with busyness or comfort, offloading it onto others (consciously or subconsciously), or channeling it into something we consider “productive” that we think will either make us invulnerable to pain the next time around or speed up our recovery.
My favorite reaction involves Netflix and eating a tub of guacamole for dinner. But I wouldn’t recommend it.
My job description includes walking people through pain. Seasons of loss, questions about identity, doubts about what they believe. You would think this would prepare me for hard things in my own life. But I am an absolute child on the scale of pain tolerance (see Netflix and eating reference above).
Question after question filled the page of the prayer I found. Over and over the questions that surfaced began with “why,” “what,” “when,” and “how”–the questions we ask in suffering.
Why is this happening? Why are You allowing this?
What is going to happen next? What should I do?
When will You answer me? When will I no longer feel this way?
How could You allow this to happen? How do I move past this?
Some of those questions, five years later, have been answered. But for some, God has remained frustratingly silent. But as unsatisfying as it is to not have an answer, I must admit that in the face of pain and suffering–especially that which personally affects us–there is no such thing as a satisfying answer. Christianity is not faith in satisfying answers. It is faith in a Person.
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). [John 1:35-42, emphasis mine]
When the two disciples begin to follow Jesus, he cuts to the chase: “What do you really want?” And they ask him a question. But instead of giving them an answer, he gives them an invitation to his presence. He gives them an invitation to relationship.
I read that and think, there goes Jesus being awesome and witty and subversive. But when I ask him my questions and get a, “Come and see,” I find it much less entertaining. Just give it to me straight, Jesus. Why and what and when and how.
Come and see, he says.
Jesus knows the answers to those questions will never satisfy. Because even if they are answered for now, there will always be more questions. The answers will never satisfy–not if that’s the thing we’re looking for. We want a good answer, but we are only promised a good God. Only God will ever satisfy us, and we may get some answers in the process of looking for Him. But if we look for answers, we may miss Jesus altogether.
It is not the why or the what or the when that will placate us. Jesus doesn’t despise those questions or judge us for asking them. But we are missing out if we allow our faith to be defined by these questions. In the silence at the other end of the line, the nagging question that arises is: Who?
Who is God in the face of my pain?
Who am I when things that once defined me are stripped away?
Who am I becoming through this experience?
Who is God?
Although circumstances change, God does not. This is what I cling to when the past seems confusing and the future feels overwhelming. And who is He?
The God of my pain is “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). He is the God of the resurrection, who promises–as Frederick Buechner so beautifully penned–that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” He is the God who sees (El Roi–Genesis 16), the God who provides (Jehovah-jireh–Genesis 22). The God of all comfort (1 Corinthians 1:3-4), the Father who delights to give good gifts (James 1:17), the definition of love itself (1 John 3:16). He understands what we cannot (Isaiah 55:8-9). He simultaneously rules over nations and authorities and oceans and stars (Psalm 47:7-8) while still caring deeply about every sparrow and every flower He ever created (Matthew 10:29). He is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
And maybe in times of pain or suffering, you read all that and think, yeah right. I don’t know if I believe that anymore, or if I ever did. And that’s okay. One of the worst things we can do in suffering is shame ourselves or shame others for experiencing doubt. In Matthew 14, Jesus walks on water and calls Peter out of the boat to join him. “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus tells him, “Come.” Peter boldly steps out of the boat, only to be overcome by fear of the wind and the waves that surrounded him. He takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink, crying out to Jesus as the waters pull him under. And how does Jesus respond?
“Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”
Jesus’s first response is not to teach Peter a lesson by letting him struggle. His response to Peter’s honest cry was immediate compassion. He gently rebukes Peter and asks him about his doubt–but I believe this is more for Peter’s understanding than anything else. “Why did you doubt? What happened? Who do you think I am, that I would let you drown?” Jesus wants Peter to wrestle with his doubt, not deny it. But his compassion and loving response came first.
It is easy to believe God is good when it’s smooth sailing. But storms have the potential to take our thoughts about God and transform them into an experience of God. And sometimes that requires using our last bit of breath to turn towards Jesus and cry out, “I am drowning”…and wait for a response. The beautiful thing about Jesus is that whatever we may believe about him, however we may feel towards him, he is still there–waiting, keeping watch, and eager to respond in compassion.
Who am I?
I could list all the verses that talk about my identity in Christ, but like our beliefs about God, we don’t know what we truly believe until it comes under attack. Pain has a way of revealing the fragility of all the identities and accolades we’ve spent our lives accumulating. When all is stripped away, the simple fact is this: who I am is not determined by me, but by God. The God I described above? That’s the God who loves me. That’s the God to whom I belong. Regardless of what I do, regardless of how I feel about Him in my suffering, regardless of whether or not I suffer well. The most defining thing about me is I belong to that God. A God who is willing to experience pain, humiliation, and death so I would know nothing can separate me from Him, and nothing can take that identity away from me. Not even my lack of belief.
Who am I becoming?
One thing I love to do with the women I work with is have them write out a vision for their life. Who do you want to be in fifty years? What do you want to be true? What do you want to be remembered for?
The funny thing is I’ve never had someone write things like “I am the hardest worker in my company” or “I am financially secure” or “I have a six-pack you could bounce quarters off of.” Yet these are the things we spend our days striving towards. No, what people want to be remembered for are things like faith, character, courage, and love.
I make them write their life vision in the present tense and in third person, as if it were true right now and as if someone else was describing them. “If this is who you want to be in fifty years, you can start becoming that person right now,” I tell them. “Put it up somewhere you can see it every single day, as a reminder to make your decisions out of who you are rather than what you fear might happen.” And I am trying to take my own advice, to make more decisions out of conviction than fear.
When Peter comes to Jesus, he receives a new identity and a new name. Jesus receives the man that he is and gives him a promise: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). There is a rather large gap between who Peter is in the present and who Jesus is making Him into. But Jesus is committed to filling in the gaps.
I’ve been praying lately, “God, make me the woman I’m supposed to be.” I used to pray this when I first started walking with Jesus in college. But then I think I got lazy, I became more concerned about what I was doing than who I was becoming, and I got swept up in the idea that I could change myself. I believe that discipline and a plucky can-do attitude can get you results, but only God can truly change someone’s heart… a lasting change at the deepest level of who we are–the stuff we want to be remembered for. And He uses the raw material of our lives to do it.
I think I am more of the woman I am supposed to be today because of the pain I had to walk through. Do I wish I could’ve avoided that experience? Of course I do. But as I read the prayer I wrote five years ago, I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude. I am not the same woman I was five years ago. I have changed (hopefully in more good ways than bad ones), God has somehow made my heart softer where there was once bitterness, and I walk through pain differently than I did then. Still not very well, but better.
I don’t know why God allows painful things to happen. I don’t have an answer to how God used every instance of evil or hurt for good. But I do know enough about God’s character to be confident that He doesn’t despise broken things. And when there is more brokenness than you can handle, when the world looks at your circumstances and sees a wreckage, God rolls up His sleeves and holds out His hands and says, “I won’t let this be wasted. Just keep your eyes on me.”
Patreeya is a woman after God’s heart, a daughter of the one true King, the beloved of Christ. She leads a life of joy that is rooted in the wonder of the gospel instead of circumstances. Just as she is filled with the knowledge of God’s character, she knows herself and wields the life, talents, and treasures she has been given to decisively and strategically tip the scales for the Kingdom of God.
She does not make decisions out of fear, but out of faith and confidence in God’s goodness and sovereignty. She praises God for every good gift He has bestowed, instead of dwelling on what she does not have. She savors each moment, season, relationship, and interaction. She is brave, adventurous, fun, and free of shame, condemnation, and self-obsession.
Patreeya dedicates her life to raising up women of God, being a nurturing and safe presence for women (and men) to experience the love of Jesus. She is adept at seeing people through the Lord’s eyes and bringing out the parts of them that uniquely reflect His image. She is committed to sowing love where there is hatred, grace where there is injury, peace where there is discord, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness. People feel loved and free in her presence because she loves them by faith in Christ. She loves the people God has given her to steward fiercely, generously, and without holding back. And, when love calls for it, lets them go. She leaves people better than she found them.