Okay, so…sometimes I worry a little that those of you out there that are so faithful to read my feeble attempts at blog writing may begin to cringe when you see the titles that have been surfacing over the past few weeks.  It’s really not my fault.  Really.  You see, I had my next blog all planned out in my mind and it was going to be a wonderful theological treatise on prayer (or the lack thereof) in our lives.  But, that will have to wait.  It seems that God and His inspiration had other plans!  I need to write about the happy topic of suffering!

Yesterday I spoke to a very good friend of mine that is in the middle of battling a very difficult, very rare auto-immune disease.  He is in tremendous pain, and the condition is so rare that the doctors are not able to give him a prognosis that can really be counted on.  So, he is moving through each day, some of them better than others, doing what he can.  I said to him, “My friend, I am SO sorry you are having to experience this life of illness.”  His response stunned me.  He said, “Lee Ann, I am a stronger Christian because of this disease.  I am bolder in my faith, and I am much more concerned about people and the condition of their souls.”  For those of you that followed my blog when Keith was sick, that statement probably has a note of familiarity to it, as that was the same sentiment that Keith expressed.

Then, Sunday night I ran into a lady at church that told me that her brother-in law, a pastor in his 40s, has been diagnosed with leukemia and the prognosis is not good.  She shared with great faith about their walk with God and the knowledge that this just meant that he would be arriving in Heaven a little before the rest of us.

Or one of my best friends who is struggling with a child that has overwhelming challenges and problems.  Yet because of her suffering she was given an opportunity to share her story and tell of God’s faithfulness to a conference of 1500 women.

Then there is another precious woman of God who suffers with a disease that causes her chronic pain.  You absolutely would never know it because she has made it her task to lift up all of the rest of us who are going through difficult times.  She is always smiling, always laughing, and believing God that she is exactly where she need to be.

As I thought about suffering, Philippians 3:10 came to mind, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;”

I can remember in the spring before Keith was diagnosed with cancer, he sang the song, “Send the Rain” in our services. As he was speaking about the song, he said, “All of us are either just coming through a storm, right in the middle of one, or have one just around the corner.”  I can remember thinking about those words and thinking, “Not me.  I’m not in any of those categories.”   Boy…I had no idea what was lurking on the horizon!

I think I really thought that I was one of God’s favorites, and he wasn’t going to allow any bad stuff to happen to me.  And certainly not to Keith because, after all, he was a MINISTER.  Ah, but what I am realizing is that because he loves us like he does, he allowed us to join in the fellowship of his suffering.  It is a great paradox that we won’t fully understand in this life, but it really helps me realize that sometimes, as Laura Story sings, “His blessings come through raindrops.”

In closing, I have to share with you again a portion of a letter that Keith and I received from a dear friend about halfway through our journey.  She lost her husband, a pastor, in a car accident.  Her words are inspired and when I posted it before I had numerous requests for copies of it.  I know it will make this blog extremely long, but go pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in.  You will be blessed.

2 Corinthians 1:4 “ He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”

The most obvious thing that will come from your experience is that you will be more attuned to another’s suffering. The apostle Paul was right on when he wrote in 2 Corinthians that we comfort others with the comfort which we ourselves have received. You will understand that every person you meet, whether in Wal-Mart or church, is suffering, has suffered or will suffer on some level.

You will hear more stories of cancer and death, loss and hurt than you ever realized were out there. They have always been there, but you have new ears to hear and understand and a new perspective from which to speak and minister. Speak freely. People want truth. They need to know that cancer sucks, chemo is hell, fear is real, and God is sometimes silent. They will need for you to tell them the good things too: friends matter, prayer helps, family is imperative. Yet in the midst of speaking the truth you will also have to tell them things that we as Christians don’t like to grapple with.

It has been four years since Dana was killed and still there are some deep shadows of hurt in my life-especially at church. For four years, I have heard people give testimonies of miraculous healing, divine intervention, deliverance from dangerous situations and even being snatched from the perils of death.  In those same testimonies, people will praise the Lord for His protection and declare that their experience is proof that the Lord protects His own. When I hear that, something inside of me aches and grieves all over again and a thousand questions dig into my heart. If God protected them, why not Dana? Why did my boys have to suffer such loss? Why did Dana experience an agonizing nine hour death? Why are we still so wounded? Where was God’s protection when death and peril and brokenness attacked us?

But this is what I have discovered. Even though those testimonies are spoken in good faith, they do not rightly represent God. In this life, we are never, not once, promised the protection of God. We are never told to trust in His protection. (Of course we have eternal protection-our salvation is secure. And there is certainly nothing wrong with asking for protection.) We are, however, always promised the presence of God. The Bible says, When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” But if I am trusting primarily in the protection of God, in times of death and sickness and sorrow, my faith will crumble.  Instead, I am to trust in God Himself. I am to trust His wisdom and love and sovereignty- the very nature and character of God. In this, I will not be disappointed. Neither will you.

You will find that in difficult times-even in the aftermath of a difficult journey-some folks will be like Job’s friends. They don’t mean to be ignorant but they always feel a need to say something. Usually it is the wrong thing. Most of the time they want to help explain why you have been through what you have been through and most of the time they assume God had some great thing to teach you through it all.

I sat with a young widow whose husband of 6 months had been killed in a car accident. She said these profound words to me. “People say that God will teach me so much through all of this. But am I so stupid that this is what God had to use to teach me?”  I was speechless. I knew exactly how she felt though I had never verbalized it so plainly.

The Shack is one of my favorite books. I know it has been controversial in some circles, but I think you can never fully appreciate it unless you have wrestled with the issue of a good God allowing really bad circumstances into your life. To me, the most eye-opening part of the book is the conversation Mac has with Wisdom.  Wisdom tells him that God does not cause or allow bad things to happen SO THAT He can teach us. Bad things happen because we live in a fallen world and in the midst of them God reveals Himself to us. So it is not great lessons we are to learn through our pain. It is a great Presence whom we are to experience and trust through our pain. This is true for my young widow friend and for me and for you as well.

You will also find in the years ahead that God redeems the pain. He redeems the pain of feeling rejected by Him. He redeems the pain of loss and sorrow and sickness. Certainly redeem does not mean He makes it all go away. He instead buys it back and refines it into something new. Somehow He makes all the pain coexist with the joy of His presence and His grace. He reshapes the brokenness into His image-and you will shine differently than ever before.

A benefit of difficult circumstances is the way you will live from day to day. You will never leave relationships unresolved or broken. Life is too short and too precious. You will love deeper, grieve harder, laugh louder, hold tighter. The unimportant things of life will become glaringly unimportant.

Finally, be careful around ungrateful people-especially church folks. You will find that you are more impatient and less tolerant of people who whine and complain-you know the type. The kind of person that gripes because the building is too hot or cold; or they didn’t get the solo, or their child was overlooked, or their feelings got hurt, or the sermon was too long and the music too loud. You will want to scream at them, “Try having cancer!” Restrain yourself. They won’t ever get it. At least not until God blesses them with something really worth complaining about.

In the end, you are different. I have cried many times for the privilege of having my life back the way it was before death and suffering invaded. But it won’t ever be the same. Consequently, I now know that anything can happen to anybody. I always knew that in my head but because I had never experienced something so personally horrible, I could not know that truth completely. In light of this knowledge, there is a tendency to always be waiting for the next bad thing to happen to you or to those you love; waiting for the next proverbial shoe to fall.  There will be the tendency to let fear rule.  Don’t let it. It is destructive and will lead you into terrible bondage. I know that from experience. Yes, something terrible might happen again in the future, but the Lord has been with you in the past and will give grace to face whatever comes in the future. Live in His presence one moment at a time.

So, if you are suffering today, please know that you are in great company, including Christ himself.  But above all, keep moving through it, knowing that God is with you every step of the way.

Blessings, my friends!