Kenton sent me a great email asking a question I think we can all struggle with from time to time. He wrote:
I know that â€œin the end God will work out everything for the best”. I hear that all the time from pastors, parents, and friends. And, really, I think I believe it, too. I really do . . . Yet, Iâ€™ve been wondering lately about something. Why would God give people (give me) so many years of hard times just to work it all out in the end? I do not doubt that He works things out for good, but why does it take so long? It’s like we have to struggle through 10 years of bad times and tough times so that we can have one year of “everything working out”? . . . It’s like a movie where the characters struggle for the whole first two and a half hours with problems and situations, but then everything makes sense in the endâ€”for the last two minutes. What about the first two and a half hours?
Great question Kenton. I, too, have wrestled with this one. I think that if weâ€™re authentic in our faith, we all ask some form of this question from time to time. In walking out my faith, there have been long seasons that Iâ€™ve felt the ache of life more prominently than the good times.
Too long, I put my head in the sand as a way of trying to cope with the painful reality of living east of Eden. For me I tried and convince myself that if I was a Christian than life was suppose to be happy. (Either that or I turned to some kind of counterfeit fulfillment to numb the pain for a whileâ€”sex, work, and alcohol were my favorites). Then one day in the middle of a long season of despair, I was struck with a question that emerged from deep with in me,
â€œWhat if Jesus didnâ€™t come so that I didnâ€™t have to be in pain, but what if he came so that I didnâ€™t have to be in pain alone?â€
As I pondered this question over and over, I began to experience my faith in ways that I never knew was possible. To say it was exciting would be a lieâ€”in fact it was pretty despairing. But what I began to come to know as I embraced my sadness and anger was that it was only in my pain that I could know Christ.
Paulâ€™s letter to the Romans says it this way,
â€œNot only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.â€
This passage comes just before the often quoted â€œAll things work together for good for who love Christ.â€ Itâ€™s like Paul is saying you canâ€™t get to good part until you walk through the groaning.
In my roles as a counselor and as a pastor, Iâ€™ve witnessed many different types of pain. A broken family; sexual abuse; the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling or child; the betrayal of someone trusted, a really bad job situation, or some shaming memory from childhood.
Heartache is not terribly diverse, but itâ€™s for sure widespread. Everyone loses their innocence at some pointâ€”some of us gradually, some of us more suddenly.
When a personâ€™s heart has been wounded the results are significant: self-protection, distrust of others, suspicion of God, and a fervent reliance on themselves.
Weâ€™ve learned from an early age how to squash our hearts and hide who we really are. We desperately want to be known. The trouble comes in that weâ€™re all also scared to reveal our hearts to those who might judge us or reject us.
Erwin McManus articulates this well in his book Soul Cravings;
Weâ€™re all struggling to figure ourselves out. Weâ€™re afraid to expose our souls to those who might judge us, and at the same time, we desperately need help to guide us on this journey. If weâ€™re not careful, we might find ourselves with everything this world has to offer and later find we have lost ourselves in the clutter.
In the face of pain, I got really good at working toward competency (or numbness) as a way of escaping lifeâ€™s hard knocks and compensating for my shortcomings.
As wounded people, our facades come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and combinations. They can be tough, cold, or calculating; childish, whimsical, or charming; powerful, aggressive, or assertive; pious, intellectual, or contemplative; conservative, radical, or compassionate. You get the idea? We fake it.
Here is the hard truth: Life is tragic, and God is faithful. Learning how to hold the two of these at the same time is the work of maturity in the faith. While we all can experience moments of happiness, life in this world is mostly defined by loss, difficulty, and struggle. No matter our skill set, intellect, creativity, personality, or faithfulness, we cannot escape the heartache that comes with living in a wrecked world that is groaning to be repaired.
Thereâ€™s a myth that much of contemporary Christianity has bought into.
If you do it right, think about it right, pray about it right, and try hard enough, then your life will be successful: you will be â€œblessed.â€
The problem with this way of thinking is that it is contrary to the reality of life and the cornerstone of Christianity.
As believers, its easy and damn attractive to adopt an attitude that says if we focus enough on our families and keep the right promises then we too can win at work and home. We love a quick fix. Weâ€™re all about finding a definitive solution. We hide from mystery.
Too often, in response to our own heartache, self-doubt, and/or mistrust, we buy into a philosophy that teaches us we can escape pain, incompetence, and the loneliness that is so common to life.
Full living comes when we begin to recognize our powerlessness to lifeâ€™s pain and surrender to God. This is the threshold of freedom and the beginning of authenticity.
Christian spirituality offers us a way out of the traps of numbness, ability, and accomplishment. Whether we are goofballs or sages, screw-ups or tycoons, bums or nare-do-wells. Whether we clear the bar or not, our value is determined by the content of our hearts, not the plaques on the wall, the size of our wallets, or even the goodness of our families. Authentic Christianity is about living from the heart with integrity, passion, and intimacy.
Probably most anyone who has stayed awake ten minutes in church could tell you this. There is a big difference in knowing in your head and having an experience in your heart that changes who you are.
Being an authentic Christian has nothing to do with building a successful career, having a nice family, and mastering the mechanics of daily life. Maturity has far more to do with courageously tackling the deep questions of the heart, struggling with ourselves and with God, and finding out who we are really made to be.
Kenton, youâ€™re asking a truly faithful question. Itâ€™s a question that will clarify you and set you apart. Itâ€™s the same question that Jesus asked in the garden, â€œFather, is their not another way.â€ The more willing you are to:
1. Feel your feelings,
2. Tell the truth about them to yourself, others, and God,
3. And give yourself over to the process of groaning and surrendering
the more you will begin to know Christ and he you.
The same is true for all of us.