As a kid, I experienced growing pains. As near as I could tell back then, this was my mother’s label for any pain she couldn’t immediately attribute to my clumsy kid mishaps or an (unprovoked, naturally) attack by one of my older brothers. But she was right: we really do have growing pains, and it hurts when our bones are busy getting big enough to carry us around the rest of our lives.
Emotional growing pains hurt too. More, probably, than their skeletal equivalent. We learn to cope with disappointment by experiencing it. We learn to go on after loss by losing. We learn to lean on God because of the absence of anything else to grasp. We learn to forgive by getting hurt in ways from which it’s hard to rebound.
We learn to seek good by recognizing its absence. We learn to seek God by recognizing the pain of separation from him.
Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. … For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things. (Psalm 107: 4-6, 9)
Some recent disappointments have my brain working overtime lately, slicing myself to ribbons with self-blame and inadequacy — because those are my go-to explanation for why I keep getting hurt, why I fail.
Inevitably, it all spins out from there. Why do bad things happen? To good people, to bad people, to anyone? Why does everyone seem either to hate religion or to be the reason religion is so hated? Where is God in a broken world, a broken community, a broken life? Why do babies die? Why do the bad guys win? Why cancer? Why heartbreak? Why broken promises? Why? Why? Why?
I want to have these answers. I want to fall asleep at night with my cheek nestled in their safety and confidence. I want to understand. I want to wrap them in bows and give them to the heartbroken, the lost, the unloved.
But I don’t have those answers. I just have broken feelings.
God’s servant Job didn’t have answers for what was happening to him either, though I think he and I might be in the same league on the self-pity and loathing scale. Job was tested through country-song calamity (the loss of his home, his family, his health, possibly a dog and his mama) until he reached his breaking point and finally demanded that God explain himself.
God didn’t see fit to give Job the answers he sought, though he did give him a pretty decent tongue-lashing about which one of them was God and which of them … well, wasn’t.
And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (Job 40:1-2)
I’m not God either. Maybe that means I can stop blaming myself for everything. Huh.
I am as devastated as the next person when the thing I’ve so long hoped for and pursued is snatched utterly out of reach. Forever. I crumble. I retreat. I curl up alone, bolstered by extra pillows and a heating pad, until my broken heart heals enough to nudge me out of bed. And even then, it’s sometimes weeks before I talk to anyone. Really talk … about the things that hurt. About my fear that it’s really all my fault, because I’m not enough. Each time, it gets a little harder and I wonder how many more times I’m going to be able to do it, whose strength I’m going to rely upon because everyone is
Just. So. Selfish.
That how could they ever even see what I need? And I am
Just. So. Selfish.
That I can’t see past my own need to anyone else’s pain.
Depression, doctors have explained to me, slows down every part of me… sucks the bounce from my step, the quick from my wit, hides all the solutions and leaves only problems. Anxiety cloaks me in soft, heavy fear like a favorite, toxic blanket.
Love, despair is such a heavy fog.
Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. (Psalm 69:20)
It was through this fog I dragged myself to my front door after a week-long business trip, suitcase clacking on the steps as I dragged it in with me. The work trip had gone well, but — like what seems like the story of my whole life — I was having trouble managing the parts of life that aren’t work. I felt angry, hurt, disappointed, and somehow afraid it was all going to be my fault. I abandoned the suitcase somewhere between the front door and my study, where I curled up in my window seat and finally opened the Bible I’d failed to make much time for lately.
I missed God. His Word soothed me like balm on burned skin.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. (Psalm 46:1)
Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isaiah 46:4)
But nothing really changed about my circumstances.
My hurt still hurt.
Yet the words brought me back to the constant of God’s will, wisdom and purpose for me. It lifted the fog a little. Reminded me that all those feelings of worthlessness, failure are the enemy. God made me. And I’m not perfect, but I’m saved by a grace I don’t deserve, and humbly accept anyway. Because I need it.
Lately, I keep hearing this term, “prosperity gospel.” Near as I can tell, it’s a catch-all philosophy that suggests in exchange for our undying love, positivity and compliance … and timely donations … Jesus will make our lives perfect.
Perfect doesn’t happen in this life, though. As long as sin remains in the world, bad things will happen to good people. As long as none of us is perfect, we will need testing and trials, as difficult as they are, to grow.
God’s growing pains.
We’re told that we should be thankful for those tests, because they bring about perseverance in us (James 1:2-3) — the same way tough workouts build strength and endurance. If we never face anything difficult, we’ll never get any stronger.
I’m learning — the hard way — that the lesson behind the test isn’t always what I think it is, and I’m never as strong as I think I am.
Sometimes God presents us with a choice, not so we will make it but so that we will seek his guidance. God opens a door so that we can choose him instead of the wrong thing. He removes our support so that we learn to lean on him. He knocks every crutch out from under us so that we learn to walk without them. He gives us small problems to prepare us for bigger challenges he knows we’ll face down the road.
He gives us problems we can’t solve by ourselves so we learn to seek him and ask for his help. We all need to ask for help, to seek the right guidance at the right time. My husband puts it this way: “Sometimes I get so comfortable with the idea that God has my back that I forget to give him my front.”
“Ah, stubborn child,” declares the Lord, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin …. In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, and you said “No!” (Isaiah 30:1, 15-16)
Or he gives us hip dysplasia, tendinitis and ankle sprains so we can’t use exercise to distract us from learning how to stop eating our feelings.
Sometimes he even puts someone in our life who echoes out loud the damaging refrain of our inner monologue, so we can finally hear how wrong and cruel it is to treat someone — even yourself — like they’re worthless.
He shows us the truth by dragging our lies into the light.
But it’s not just the big tests and trials — you’ll never finish the marathon without months and months of short, medium and long runs to prepare you.
Likewise, if we hope to stand in the face of trials, we have to practice obedience in every action, every day. Choices build muscle memory, good or bad. For every step of obedience, the next comes more easily. Among other things, for me, that means making time with God a priority every day … not just when my schedule allows.
Obedience builds strength. Testing builds endurance. Humility builds trust, and thus confidence in God’s lead. This is what God is building in each of us, when we let Him. So that, ultimately, as Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.”
The blessing and the curse in all this is that we get tested over and over and over again until we eventually get it right, until we’re right where God wants us. He doesn’t give up on us.
Even when other people do.
But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:6-8a)
God, please show me how to pass this test. Give me strength. Patience. Your wisdom. Get me out of my own way … again. Please keep your promises. And bring me through this fire and these rushing waters. I will trust in you.
I will trust in you.