It’s a joy to have Sarah Walton on the blog this week, reflecting on how we respond to the realities of suffering in our lives. Sarah (left) is the co-author of a brilliant new book, Hope When It Hurts, along with Kristen Wetherell (right). More details on HWIH below.
One way or another, suffering transforms us. Most often, pain will drive us in one of three directions: toward bitterness, or numbness, or a humble dependence upon Christ. Over the last several years, I have been walking through a wilderness experience which has seemed unending. From a young age, our eldest son began displaying behavior that was defiant and destructive, and has caused a decade of confusion and chaos in our home. Alongside that, I have been enduing an ongoing battle with chronic pain, eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease, which tests revealed I had passed on to all four of my children. Battling with these health problems and related financial strains has at its best challenged my family; at its worst it has nearly destroyed my family. I can clearly identify moments when I have responded in bitterness, and others where I have embraced numbness, as well as times when these trials have driven me to a greater love for Jesus. So as we suffer, our challenge is to recognize the moments of choice in how we will respond, and to choose by God’s grace to grow toward him, not away from him.
Option 1: Bitterness
The path toward bitterness often begins with genuine pain and heartache coming from a deep sense of loss, hurt, or confusion. As painful and perplexing circumstances keep coming, and we feel as though we’ve been kicked when we are already down, bitterness knocks on our door masked as justifiable anger over the unfairness of life. We frantically search for something or someone to blame. And since God is in control, he is an easy Someone to pin the blame on—to grow bitter towards as we stew inside, feeling as though we drew the short straw, or rather, that he gave us the short straw.
I remember crying aloud in anger after watching my eldest child cause emotional and physical destruction within our home, bringing me, my husband, and our other children to tears. I saw and felt the fear, anguish, and confusion rise up within each of us. This time, rather than falling to my knees in prayer and desperation, I angrily murmured, “This isn’t fair! What did I do to deserve this?! I don’t want to do this anymore—I want out!” I could feel bitterness taking root within my heart.
The troubling truth is that at the root of bitterness is unbelief and pride. Pride says, “I don’t deserve this.” Unbelief says, “I don’t believe God can be good if this is my lot.” And God says to us, often gently, sometimes firmly, I have given you a better life than this, a better life than you can imagine, and I’m leading you to it. And I want for you what you don’t deserve—eternal life.
We can be, and must be, honest with the Lord about our feelings of bitterness, but then we must go to the truth of who he is and what he has done for us. We can combat an embittered heart by bringing it before the holy, compassionate, and all-satisfying presence of God. As we do that, he takes us by the hand, guides us into truth, and reminds us of the glorious eternity that awaits us.
Friend, if you recognize bitterness growing within you, look to the cross of Jesus Christ. The circumstances that feel unfair, cruel, and pointless will begin to lose their power when we remember that our sinless Savior paid the penalty for our sin on the cross and bore all our griefs and sorrows. While bitterness says, “I don’t deserve this,” the gospel says, “You deserve far worse than this but have been forgiven, freed, and promised a glorious eternity with Christ.”
Option 2: Numbness
Numbness presents itself as a more acceptable form of unbelief and rebellion than bitterness. Numbness temporarily blocks out and dulls the pain in order to avoid it at all costs.
For me, this manifests itself through things like watching too much television, eating more (and unhealthier) food, taking naps rather than getting things done, praying and reading the Bible less, avoiding conversation, not seeking the help I need, or looking for any immediate gratification that would cover the pain for even a moment. But no matter how we try to numb our pain, the act can lead us into bondage and away from the blessings Christ desires to pour out on us through the very pain we are avoiding.
How do we combat numbness? We must first recognize it for what it is. If you are feeling knocked down in a season of suffering, evaluate how you spend your time. Do you find yourself drowning out the pain with something else? More television, over-sleeping, over-working, alcohol, pornography? At the same time, do you find yourself avoiding time in God’s word and prayer?
Here’s what to do:
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4 v 16)
We may fool ourselves and those around us, but Christ already knows the true state of our hearts and still wants us to draw near to him, confidently, even with all our messy, doubting, and faithless emotions.
So in times of brokenness, don’t let the temptation to run away—to numb it all out—win. Come to Jesus in prayer, bring your emotions before him, and ask him for the grace you need to press on through the trials.
Option 3: Depend on Christ
So how do we keep from succumbing to bitterness and numbness when we are struck down by sin and the painful circumstances that enter our lives? We must take all our emotion, pain, confusion, and questions to Jesus Christ, our High Priest, who knows us intimately and can sympathize as One who has endured far more than we ever could imagine. What does this look like?
- Pray. We cannot do any of this on our own. We need the strength of the Spirit to even see our tendency toward bitterness and numbness. We must begin with a simple prayer of dependency: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me!” (Psalm 27 v 7)
- Seek. Make time in the Bible a priority every day. Surround yourself with believers who will encourage you and speak truth into your life. If we do not put guardrails of truth around ourselves in suffering, we will easily be swayed toward either bitterness or numbness. But with the truth of God’s word, we will be strengthened, equipped, and transformed to reflect the image of Christ.
- Wait. Wait with anticipation. God does not waste a moment of our pain, and he will be faithful to provide what we need, give us strength to endure, and ultimately bring us forth as gold. You are a conqueror in Christ and must remind yourself of it constantly! We need not fear or despair, even when everything around us seems bleak and hopeless. We may be struck down, but we will not be destroyed (2 Corinthians 4 v 9).
Together with Kristen Wetherell, Sarah Walton is author of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering, which is available now here from The Good Book Company. You can watch a trailer below: