Suffering

As I lay on the table, feeling every inch of the long needle go through my flesh and move closer to my spine, I quietly cried out to God, “where are you? why is this so painful? I prayed that things would go well…so why aren’t they? why have you left me here in pain? where are you? this is too much for me to bear.”

To say my spinal tap went poorly yesterday would be a massive understatement. It’s a long story why I even had to do it in the first place…something about my neurologist being concerned about elevated spinal fluid pressure. That’s not important. What’s important is that I didn’t respond to anesthetic, leaving me wide open to feel the excruciating pain of not one, but two botched spinal tap attempts. Hands down, one of the worst and most traumatic events of my life. I have no words to describe the pain.

After the surgical draping was removed, iodine washed off and medical staff had left the room, I laid there on that table utterly inconsolable. The tears simply refused to stop. David prayed over me, read verses with me, uttered soothing words to me…but my pain, sadness, anger, disappointment, despair and discouragement would not be assuaged. After all this time. After all I have been through….

I was mad at God. Mad that He left me high and dry. I sought Him for help, comfort and peace. All I got was a hole in my back, horrible pain and the added anxiety of knowing I have to go through this all over again in the near future. I’ve never been so mad at God before. Not when I found out I had to have brain surgery. Not when we lost our only child. Not when David lost his job. Not when I was enduring endometrial biopsies, blood draws, hormone injections and surgeries. Words can’t begin to describe the waves of pain, doubt and anger that washed over me.

This was the final straw. Rock bottom.

Maybe it seems dramatic that a spinal tap could rattle me so much, but it did. I’m not a dramatic person. Truly. But I discovered a new low, a level of discouragement I have not known before. I can only liken it to Paul saying he “despaired even of life.” After all I’ve been through…was it too much to request that I make it through a simple spinal tap without complications or blinding pain? It went back to my constant struggle with Him…why is He able, but not willing? 

God didn’t let me sit at rock bottom for very long. 5 hours, maybe before I read some powerful encouragement last lifted me off the ground last night. And this morning brought with it new perspective, fresh advice from a dear friend and healing through God’s holy Word.

I’ve thought a lot about suffering over the past year. Why some people suffer tragedy after tragedy, while others seem to skate through life without a worry in the world. Why God answers some prayers but not others. Why He heals one person but not the next. What the purpose of hardship is. What God does with suffering and our character. Why my suffering is drastically different than a Christian living in Syria. It’s all been rolling around in my mind like a dryer on Wrinkle-Shield. Every week or so, I’ll have new thoughts, new questions, new ponderings that tumble around about the role of suffering in life.

I think the first step to figure out the purpose of and response to suffering is asking myself, “what is the goal in life for a follower of Christ?” Is it to have a happy little life? Days full of blessings, joy, puppies and rainbows, avoidance of all affliction? The answer here in the West is probably very different from the rest of the world. In America, we view pain and suffering as a stink bug that just landed on our shoulder. Quick! Shake it off, squash it! Don’t let it touch you!  I’m convinced the rest of the world doesn’t think this way about hardships and pain. Surely Jesus didn’t think this way.

Assuming the answer to that question has something to do with living for the glory of God, allowing Him to use us and accomplish things through us to promote the Kingdom of God here on earth, we have to accept suffering will be a part of it. If it was true for Jesus, it will be true for us. One of my favorite authors, John Eldredge said “If God doesn’t use suffering to accomplish maturity, what exactly is He going to use instead? A lack of suffering turns us into little narcissists. We have to loosen our grip on the demand that life work our for us and embrace the fact that suffering allows us to know God in ways that others don’t.

In the last 24 hours, for the first time in my life, I have felt like I can relate to Jesus in a way I never have before. Through suffering. From Gethsemane to Calvary, he suffered. He suffered physically, emotionally. He despaired so deeply, it was as if the life was being crushed out of him in the garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:34). He asked for the cup to pass him by, to be spared. Yet he, the Son of God, was not spared. “God sometimes says no. Sometimes He calls us to suffer and die, even if we want to claim the contrary. Never did a man pray more earnestly than Christ prayed in Gethsemane.” (Surprised by Suffering, R.C. Sproul).

Jesus had his answer. He knew what fate lay ahead of him and he stayed the course. He didn’t flee Jerusalem or stomp his feet in a tantrum about things not working out. He pushed through to the bitter end. And His suffering was ultimately redeemed for His (and our) glory. We are called to participate in Christ’s sufferings. Some of us may participate more than others, but we all experience it. We can’t escape it. I can’t escape it. So I might as well try to take hold of it the way Jesus did.

My beautiful friend Stacy called me this morning and spoke words that I know were inspired by the Holy Spirit. She said “If God were a helicopter-parent, He could have swooped in yesterday and spared you that pain. But instead He chose to allow it, intended for a larger lesson that will last a lifetime.” I don’t quite have the full picture of that larger lesson, but I know her words were true. There is purpose in pain.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, maybe I never will this side of Heaven. I haven’t landed firmly in a place of peace over all this yet, God and I are still wrestling over a few things. But I do know that God is good. That He intends suffering as a way for us to share in His glory, to participate in Christ’s suffering is to participate in His exaltation (2Tim 2:11-12). His comfort flows into our lives just as His sufferings do (2Cor 1:5). I’m trying to rest in this truth, I guess it’s the best place to start.

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