What to Do When Pain Overwhelms You

I’ve had a heavy heart the past week or so. I’ve been blaming gray winter clouds hiding the sun that I need to light me up and the beige walls of my home closing in as winter weather held our family hostage all last week.

And maybe they have something to do with it.

But the Lord brought it to my attention this morning that those things aren’t the true source of my disquieted spirit.

No, my sullen disposition lately is a product of my internalizing a lot of hard news instead of exporting it to the Lord.

I’ve struggled to get the savage murders of the 21 martyrs off my mind. The images of them in orange jumpsuits with knives to their throats are still all over the internet. And today I woke to news that at least 90 more Christians have been kidnapped. We know in our sickened guts which way that’s going to go…

A couple of high school kids drove a rural road two weeks ago and slammed into a tree. Dead. I drive by the gifts laid at the bottom of the giant oak every day. A headlight still hangs on a branch, and part of the bumper lies unclaimed a few feet away. My heart aches for those boys’ moms. My lungs burn when my imagination jumps to “What if my kids…”

Last night a 16 year old in a nearby community took to a highway I’ve driven many times and threw himself off a bridge into oncoming traffic below. Gone. Every overpass I drive under I hurt for his family… his classmates that had to digest the news this morning… his teachers who had to keep it together enough to guide teenagers through tragedy… and the driver who struck the boy as his body fell in darkness…

All of this news is devastating. Although none of it “personally” involves me, I am a person with a soul and emotions and so it goes that I am personally affected by each horrific story.

I think I may have forgotten this.

I took each piece of news as it came. I heard about it, I read about it, I saw images of it, I have tangible reminders of it. But I never processed it with the Lord because I never considered it mine. Sure, I uttered a plea for mercy, “Oh, God,” each time I learned of an event, but I never said, “Lord, this hurts my heart.” I didn’t sit with God and let Him minister to me.

So these pains piled up in my soul. I drove to a ministry this morning where I knew it was highly likely I would face more deadly news. Driving under overpasses and imagining what that boy who jumped must’ve been feeling before he leapt, God connected some dots for me.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about Him as I drove until my heart got so heavy a sentence fell out of my mouth: “I can’t handle this!” The weight of the emotions inside had become too much. And the Lord responded in turn, “You’re not meant to. I will handle this.”

I marveled. Then I tried to decipher what, exactly, He meant. I had meant that I couldn’t handle the hurt in my heart anymore. And He knew what I had meant. So logic tells me what He meant in His response was I am not meant to handle all these emotions that are too big for me; He is supposed to handle them for me.

After giving me time to come to that conclusion, He continued, “Just bring me your heart.”

Ah. That’s all I’m supposed to do during heavy times. And I’ve known God long enough to know His solution would work. If I brought Him my battered heart, He’d tend to it.

To be honest with you, I didn’t have time to let the Lord stitch up my heart at that moment. I was walking into a war zone where Satan tries to do some of his best work by convincing women who have made mistakes that they are unlovable and that having an abortion will somehow solve their problems.

But I did have time for a quick band aid.

The Lord brought to mind a verse I had discussed with my kids a couple days earlier.

Colossians 3:15, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Paul was instructing the Colossians on how to live holy lives with one another. I told my girls we can learn three things from this verse.

  1. There is peace that comes from Christ, and God wants that peace to control us because
  2. God expects Christians to live at peace with one another.
  3. And when we don’t feel peace in our hearts, we can get some if we start giving thanks for things God has already done.

Although, linguistically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that thankfulness causes peace to rule in our hearts, I am certain these ideas were put next to each other for a reason. The ideas are connected in some way. And experience tells me, whether this verse does or not, that cultivating gratitude does lead to peace in my heart.

This mini lesson resurfaced in my mind this morning, and I asked myself, “Okay, am I going to do this and live this thing out or not? I have a choice right now, what’s it going to be?” Most days my heart rolls its eyes and the heaviness wins. But not today.

I started thanking God for what I knew to be true about all these tragedies. “Thank You, Lord, that You are in control of all these situations. Thank You that You are willing and ready to comfort all the hurting right now. Thank You that You care.”

That was it. That was all I had time for before I walked through the doors of my clinic and had five counseling sessions with women who were hurting in their own right. But my short act of giving thanks had birthed enough peace in my heart that I was able to offer some to them. 

Pain and suffering and grief are hard. They are big, ugly problems we can’t handle. But we’re not meant to. It’s His job to handle our hearts. We just have to let Him. 

Who’s Laughing Now?

It’s almost laughable…how life is just one sucker punch after another.

Just when you think you’ve recovered from one crushing situation, just when you’ve gotten back up on your feet and are in a semi-upright position, another seemingly catastrophic circumstance hits you in the gut, and down you go again.

I don’t know why this surprises me. The cynic in me knows this is how life goes. The Bible even says this is how life goes, “In this world you will have trouble,” (John 16:33). But I’m still always unprepared when another bad situation comes my way. I always act shocked.

It’s almost comical, both that the number of ridiculous events seems to grow daily and that I am always taken aback by such a reality each and every time.

I’ve made it a habit for the last 20 years to respond to hard situations with anger and sadness. Those are the default emotions, after all, so I didn’t have to try very hard to develop a pattern of responding to hardship this way. But you know what reacting like that has done for me? It has made my heart hard. It has made me captive to bitterness. It has robbed me of joy.

And so I’m wondering if a new approach would help…

I want to laugh.

The next time I get bad news, I want to laugh, not unlike Tom Hanks in the Money Pit when he starts to lose his marbles.

Go ahead and watch the clip. I’ll wait.

 

I don’t want to laugh in order to suppress any anger or sadness but, rather, as a way of saying, “I see what you’re doing there, Satan (or broken world, or sinful self – whichever the culprit might be). You haven’t caught me off guard this time. I’m not surprised by your ridiculousness. I can laugh that you continue to send your haymakers because the truth is God is not moved by your efforts to wreak havoc. He is unchanged. He is still sitting on His throne. He is still working all things together for the good of those who love Him. He is still in control of every single detail in this world. And because these are facts, I have no need to get angry or sad.”

I can laugh out of pride – boasting in the Lord that He’s going to take care of whatever mishap comes my way – and I can laugh out of joy – rejoicing that the Lord is going to take care of whatever mishap comes my way!

He’s got this. Laugh with me?

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17

Us Versus Them

In any kind of conflict, we humans instinctively feel defensive. Whether it’s a tiff with a spouse, a disagreement with a friend, or an argument with a boss, we immediately adopt an “us versus them” mentality. It’s just how we’re wired.

Which would be fine if that were how God is wired too. But it’s not.

In that passage we all hate, Jesus said we’re to forgive other believers who hurt us 70 times 7 times, by which He was implying as many times as it takes (Matthew 18:21-22). Why? Because Jesus has forgiven us a million times over – there is nothing He hasn’t forgiven us for – and He wants us to offer the same grace to others (Colossians 3:13).

And He doesn’t want us to just forgive them and part ways. He wants us to forgive them and continue in relationship with them (so far as it depends on us – Romans 12:18). (The obvious exception – when abuse is involved.) I know this because that’s what He does with us. And the longer we spend on this earth, the more like Him we should become (Romans 8:29).

He also tells us Christians to love one another as He has loved us… which begs the question – how has He loved us (John 13:34)? Unconditionally. He literally died for us, and He calls us to figuratively give up our lives for one another. 

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul pens a whopper of a passage. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:2-3).

Completely humble?

Every effort?

But what if I’m tired of trying? What if the other party doesn’t care? Worse, what if the other party continues to hurt me or show no regard for my feelings?

How long do I have to bear with them? Surely there is a statute of limitations… As much as my humanity would love to say there is, I don’t see one in scripture… Jesus’ “bearing with me” and all my crap doesn’t have a time limit. And neither should our bearing with one another.

But wouldn’t it be more “peaceful” for two people in seemingly irresolvable conflict to part ways? Let’s call that what it really is – to divide. Shouldn’t two believers who can’t work things out split up in order to “keep the peace”? After all, “keeping the peace” is biblical… (Romans 12:18)

As much I as I wish it did, that just doesn’t seem congruent with “keeping the unity”… Logically, how can that which is divided also be unified, simultaneously? By definition, it can’t.

Might I propose that between two believers, there ought not be such a thing as “irreconcilable differences”? By the power of the Spirit, at least one of the parties ought to be able to extend grace, humility, love, and mercy… as many times as it takes… and since we can only be responsible for our own actions in any given conflict, our choosing to be the party that makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit is all that’s in our control. We can choose to obey scripture, despite our feelings, and despite the other person’s choices.

But if the other person doesn’t seem to care at all about “keeping the unity”, that can make for a pretty crummy situation.

So what then? Are we to just remain in a bunch of miserable relationships – us versus the ridiculous them?

I don’t think so.

After his tall order of how we ought to behave, Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all and through all,” Ephesians 4:4-6.

You see, there is no “us” or “them”. At least there shouldn’t be. Not in the body of believers. We are one.

The people we disagree with – we’re one with them.

The people who hurt our feelings – we’re one with them too.

The believers who outright hurt us time and time again – one.

We must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. The Church depends on it. The Gospel depends on it. We have to forsake the “us versus them” mentality that we reflexively assume when someone crosses us.

We believers are one, whether we feel like it or not. We should be rooting for one another to succeed, spurring each other on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, and encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Lord, by Your power, may everything we do and say contribute to the unity of Your Body, the Church. We are one. May we act like it.

 

 

Isaiah 43:11-13

Isaiah 43:11-13. I read it and smile. Because the Old Testament always points to the New. The Bible isn’t 66 books – it’s one book pointing us to our need for the one God.

“I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.”

God said this to the Israelites some 700 years before Jesus was born.

God gave Himself in Jesus to save a people that could be saved no other way.

God gave Himself in Jesus to save you and me because we can be saved no other way (John 14:6).

“I have revealed and saved and proclaimed… You are my witnesses that I am God.”

God revealed Himself to Israel in a number of ways… burning bushes and separating seas and babies for the barren and on and on.

God reveals Himself to us in the pages of scripture and in the pulse of His Spirit keeping time with ours and in promises proved sure and on and on (2 Timothy 3:16, John 16:13).

God saved His nation from enemy after enemy – Egyptians and Canaanites and Philistines and more.

God saved you and me from the death our sins worked hard to earn us when we accepted the gift only Jesus could afford to give us. And He saves us still from living each day as if we are still hell bound (Romans 6:23, Galatians 5:1).

God proclaimed to Israel over and over – speaking it loud to messenger after messenger – “I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 18:4, Exodus 20:2-3).

God proclaims the same message to us – speaking it loud in book after book – “I am the Lord your God,” (John 17:3, Colossians 1:16).

Israel witnessed God’s displays – grand and subtle – of His Godness. Passover protection and morning manna and lavish land…

Do we see?

Look around at our divinely orchestrated lives within a divinely complicated creation. He still protects and provides and pours out blessings too numerous to count and too good to convey on us.

We are witnesses when we choose to be.

“No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”

Not then. Not now. No one can undo what the Lord does. He has revealed and saved and proclaimed, and there will be no undoing any of it.

We can’t cover up His working. We can’t explain it away with scientific theories or paint over it with another coating of skeptical shellac.

He has revealed what He has revealed.

We can board a ship sailing away from Nineveh – we can try to flee His presence – but He goes with us. We can deny we love Him – deny we know Him – three times before the rooster crows, but He still claims us, holds us, preserves us, redeems us from ourselves.

He has saved whom He has saved.

We can say it’s all untrue – believe lies about ourselves and our God – but He still says what He says in scripture – we are His, we are forgiven, and He has good plans for us (1 John 3:1, Romans 8:1, Romans 8:28).

He proclaims what He proclaims.

Who can reverse it?

Not us.

Not any one.

Amen.

How to Forgive Anyone for Anything

(Yikes. Hope this article can really live up to that title…)

(It’s ok, it’s not the words in this post that inspired that title. Scripture inspired that title. So I can go that big with that claim.)

(I probably shouldn’t start a post with a dialogue between me and myself.)

(It’s ok, my readers have come to expect some crazy.)

Now that I have my attention…

As a parent of more than one child, I spend a lot of my time settling sibling disputes. I try to teach the offending child to recognize her wrongdoing, apologize for it, and ask for forgiveness. I try to teach the offended sister to accept the apology by verbally extending forgiveness.

Image courtesy of adamr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of adamr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

And it goes over about as well as it sounds like it would. Through gritted teeth, they obey me because they have to, not because their hearts feel much empathy.

As an adult in her 4th decade, I don’t do much better handling my own conflicts. A lot of people struggle with forgiving those who have hurt them. We genuinely want to forgive, but we don’t know how to get there. We don’t want to say we forgive and try to force our hearts to feel forgiving because we all know that doesn’t work. We can’t will ourselves to a place of forgiveness.

Yet, we’re commanded to forgive all over the place in the Bible. One example is Colossians 3:13, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

A lot of times we really want to do this… and we feel guilty when we don’t do this. And we feel angry that we seemingly can’t do this. (I can’t help but think this is all part of Satan’s plan (2 Corinthians 2:10-11).)

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, what do we do?

I got to thinking, what if we’re focusing on the wrong thing? What if mustering up forgiveness isn’t really the place we should start if we want to succeed at forgiving someone?

I know it’s a strange thought, but we’ve already proven time and time again that psyching ourselves up to give our best shot at forgiving rarely (never?) works.

So what if we try something different?

If we read the verses surrounding Colossians 3:13 (namely, verse 12), we get some clues as to how we can improve our chances of forgiving as the Lord forgave us.

Colossians 3:12 says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

This verse – immediately preceding the verse commanding us to forgive all people for all things – says (at least) two important things we need to know and do before we will be ready to forgive well.

1. Recognize Whose we are. Every believer is purposefully hand-picked by God, set apart for Him, and cherished by Him. Maybe instead of jumping prematurely to trying to will ourselves to forgive, we ought to meditate on these three truths about ourselves. When we internalize the implications of our identity in Christ, two things happen: the offense committed against us doesn’t seem quite so important, and our hearts, overcome with humility, start to soften toward the offender, who is really just like us – a sinner in need of a Savior. Forgiveness isn’t going to happen inside the cold, hard hearts of people whose self-worth is wrapped up in what others think of them. So let’s start here and get our heads right.

2. Get dressed. Before we can forgive, we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. This is a lot easier to do after we’ve spent some time reflecting on Whose we are. These characteristics seem to start flowing out of us when we are secure and in tune with our Father’s love for us. But trying to forgive without these things going on in our hearts is, as we’ve all experienced, impossible.

After we’ve “completed” verse 12, verse 13 actually becomes attainable! Feeling enveloped in His love, walking in love toward others, we are enabled to, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you,” (Colossians 3:13).

If I can be so bold, we can forgive anybody anything (which is how the Lord forgave us) when we follow these two verses IN ORDER. 

Dare to try it with me?

How to Help Your Husband Be the Leader of the Family

I felt the anger begin to churn in my core. My muscles became concrete, my jaw locked. I tried to stop the emotion, but it kept coming. I diverted my eyes because I knew they would burn a hole right through him if I looked up.

The Bible study I had been in – I had led – 5 days earlier spoke of times like these. What was I supposed to do when I felt like this? I couldn’t remember.

But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. Experience had taught me that much. I needed to talk to the Lord about my anger before even thinking about talking to my husband.

Several hours later, God helped me gain some perspective.

It went something like this:

Sometimes families have to make decisions. And sometimes the grown ups in the family disagree about what to do. So, to prevent stalemates, inaction, and civil war, God said: when the husband and the wife disagree about something, defer to the husband so a decision can be made and we can all get on with our lives.

That’s not a direct quote.

But, more or less, it’s one of the several points of Ephesians 5:22, 24 and Colossians 3:18.

Hierarchies like this are employed all the time in successful businesses and effective governments. There is one ultimate boss who gets the final say so things can progress. If he’s a good boss, he respectfully listens to all sides of the topic, considering carefully his options, and then chooses what he feels is the best course of action.

In the case of the family, God chose the man to be that boss. We can speculate why, but why isn’t all that important. It is what it is.

As the woman in my family, I am not the boss. But I have a CRUCIAL role that equally determines the quality of life my family has.

While my husband may have the final say on decisions, my reaction to his decision determines the emotional temperature of my home and the confidence of my husband moving forward.

One of my biggest earthly responsibilities is to help my husband be the leader of our family. I can do that by supporting him in the decisions he makes. I can’t control what choices he makes for our family, but I can underscore that I believe in him, I trust him, and, even when I disagree, I support him no matter what. I can maintain our team mentality and encourage him to make decisions he feels are best. By doing so, I free him up to embrace his God-given role as leader of our family, not fear the responsibility and the backlash from me if he makes a decision I don’t agree with.

When I do my job well, my husband feels loved, and my kids feel secure. The atmosphere of our home is not icy or tense because the parents are disagreeing. On the contrary, I show my kids how to trust God’s design for our family and His sovereignty over our lives.

God blesses obedience. If my husband ever happens to make a “wrong” decision, God will still bless our family if I have been a supportive wife. What is there to fear?

Want to help your husband be the leader of the family? Whatever choices he makes, be peaceable. 

 

The Point of Pain

A popular argument agnostics and atheists like to use to justify their unbelief in God is that if God existed, there wouldn’t be pain in this world.  If God existed, they say, He’d be powerful enough and good enough to make our lives pain-free.  There would be no tornadoes, no Osama bin Laden’s, no domestic violence, no cancer, no anything unpleasant at all.  In the unbeliever’s mind, the mere existence of suffering proves that God, at least as we Christians define Him (all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good, etc.), does not exist.

But there is a problem with this argument.

Those who argue to this end assume they understand what God’s chief objective is.  They assume that God’s whole point for doing anything is to make us humans happy.  Don’t get me wrong, I would love for that to be the case.  I would love for it to be all about me.  Truth be told, I often act like it is all about me and my contentedness. 

But it’s not.

The end all be all of life is not to have 7 billion happy people running around the planet kumbaya-ing.  That would be nice.  And God wouldn’t mind if we managed to work that out.  But, unlike John Lennon, that simply isn’t God’s main objective for humanity.

God is concerned about more than our happiness.

Notice I did NOT say God is unconcerned with our happiness.  He is very much affected by our pain.  He grieves for and with us in our suffering (John 11:33-35).  He responds with great compassion when we are hurting, which He certainly would not do if He didn’t care about our pain (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

But He is even more concerned with something bigger than our hurt.

His primary concern is having a living, breathing, active, dynamic relationship with each and every person on this planet.  Like a father of multiple children, God longs to spend as much quality time as possible with each of us.  Why?  Just because He loves us.  Oh, and it also happens to be in our best interest.  The more time we spend really connecting with God, the better off we are.  We have more peace, even in the midst of suffering (John 14:27).  We gain wisdom and understanding about all kinds of things (Colossians 2:2-3).  We become more effective at showing unbelievers that a personal relationship with God is not only possible, it is the most rewarding relationship we can pursue (1 John 5:10-11).

More than our earthly happiness, God wants an eternal relationship with us.  And sometimes it takes pain in our lives for us to realize that.

Paul understood that.  And he told the church of Corinth about it in 2 Corinthians 1:8-24.  As Paul talks about hardships he faced in Asia, he said, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).  Paul is talking about extreme suffering and pain.  How many of us can relate on an emotional level?  We find ourselves in circumstances that feel “beyond our ability to endure”, causing us to “despair even of life.”

Why does a good God let us experience such utter misery?

Paul’s explanation is, “this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

What?

God allows us to suffer, even though He could stop it, so we might rely on Him?  You mean He is more concerned about relationship with us than He is about our happiness?

Before you tell me you don’t want a relationship with a sadistically self-centered God like that, let me make one more point.

Our complete happiness can only be found in relationship with God.

We Americans tend to be an either/or society.  Things are black or white, right or wrong, this or that.  Never both.  Never simultaneously.

Yet, this is not an either/or situation.  We are not choosing between happiness or a relationship with God.  We can have both.  In fact, we can’t truly have either independently.  A relationship with God births a capacity for happiness in our lives that does not exist without that relationship being in place (John 15:9-11).  I’m not talking prosperity gospel here, which says, “Accept Jesus and you ‘ll be healthy, wealthy and care-free.”  Believers certainly have their fair share of hurtful situations.  But they also have the ability to find peace, fulfillment, and joy in the midst of pain (James 1:2-4).  Not when it is all over; not when things are wonderful; right smack in the middle of their worst days.

Pain has a point.  Pain is supposed to drive us deeper into relationship with God.  If we aren’t letting pain accomplish that, we are suffering for nothing.

Make your pain count.