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Lessons on Suffering

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It was the Spring of 2013, and I was struggling with the myriad of difficult circumstances our family was facing and attempting to reconcile my spiritual beliefs in light of those circumstances.

Gracen and Katie had been diagnosed with ARSACS, a rare and progressive form of muscular dystrophy a year before. Their prognosis was not encouraging. We saw increasing deterioration in Gracen’s health, which seemed to be moving faster than we’d expected based on the limited amount of information available. Bethany had completed her freshman year of college at the University of Central Arkansas and was growing increasingly cynical toward the faith of her youth. And David’s job was in jeopardy. He is the sole breadwinner for our family and we were unsure if he would qualify for unemployment benefits. Needless to say, I was a tad stressed.

Funny how none of the things above was my personal problem. Each one was a battle for those I love most deeply and as a wife and mother, their suffering became my own. The curse of empathy is the ability to personalize another’s suffering as your own and that’s exactly what I did. Every physical setback Gracen and Katie experienced resulted in grieving the lost abilities for my daughters and for myself. Each time Bethany attacked a biblical truth, I ached and feared for her, for her future, for her eternal safety and for myself knowing her choices might lead me to endure painful consequences alongside her. And I was well aware how a man’s job impacts his self-esteem not to mention the burden of financial insecurity.

One morning I sat out on my back patio with my bible and smartphone and began searching the scriptures for what God’s Word said about suffering. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote about his own trials:

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing, I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”  —  2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (KJV)

When Paul asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh, this was God’s response:

(2 Corinthians 12:9)  “My grace is sufficient for thee . . . “

“My strength is made perfect in weakness . . . “ KJV

Or in another translation

“My power is perfected in weakness . . .” NASB

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Christ praying and sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane

In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul tells the reader the purpose of the thorn in his flesh. I find it interesting that Paul knew and understood why he was suffering, just as Christ did in the Garden of Gethsemane, yet both Paul and Christ asked for their suffering to be taken from them. That tells me that understanding God’s purposes doesn’t make suffering any easier to endure. Knowing why doesn’t make the hurt or the fear go away. The truth is that, in our humanity, we are desperate to escape pain in spite of recognizing God’s greater plan.

In this particular case, the purpose of Paul’s thorn in the flesh was to keep him humble. Paul understood that the normal human response to being singled out by the resurrected Lord—and receiving the sheer abundance of revelation he received—would commonly result in pride; a very destructive character trait.

Paul described the thorn in his flesh two ways:

1)  As a gift; well he doesn’t actually call it a gift.  He simply says it was given to him which implies to me that it was a gift and its purpose implies it was a gift from God (to keep him humble).  Funny how a message from the enemy to buffet a believer could be seen as a gift from God when it serves His purpose. And it was a good thing because it saved Paul from the pain and destruction pride brings. Maybe some of our sufferings are considered good from God’s perspective because it saves us from a fate that is far more detrimental to our overall well-being or damaging to our character.

2)  As a message from Satan to torment him.  It’s as if God allowed Satan to afflict Paul, just like God allowed Satan to afflict Job.  The Bible is riddled with such instances.  Satan intended this thorn in Paul’s flesh to hurt Paul just as Satan, via the conduit of his brothers, intended harm, even death, for Joseph.  Satan was also allowed to bring Christ to the cross, although Jesus laid down his own life in obedience to God.  Satan’s intent was to destroy God’s plan of redemption but again, God thwarted Satan through Christ’s resurrection which defeated the power of sin and death in men’s lives. It appears that two plans are being implemented simultaneously with very different goals. Satan’s goals are destructive but God is well aware that Satan has set out to destroy His children and God uses Satan’s own devices not only to thwart Satan’s plans but to triumph over them. Isn’t that the most satisfying form of serving justice and meting out righteous vengeance—to turn your enemy’s own evil plans against him? It’s pretty much the ultimate slap-down.

Although the message Satan wanted to communicate to Paul isn’t directly outlined, we can extrapolate it ourselves based on what we’ve heard other broken believers express through trials. Here’s a reasonable sampling:

1)  God doesn’t love you or He wouldn’t have allowed this bad thing in the first place

2)  If God really loved you, He would have healed you from this affliction

3)  God isn’t as powerful as He claims because He obviously can’t heal you or He would have

4)  God can’t protect you from me (Satan) – I’m more powerful than God

Just like Job, when Paul didn’t respond to suffering the way Satan expected, Satan added to Paul’s affliction.  2 Corinthians 11:23-27 says that Paul suffered more than any man for the sake of the gospel.  Paul:

1)  Received 39 stripes on five separate occasions at the hand of the Jews

2)  Was beaten with rods three times

3)  Was stoned once

4)  Was shipwrecked three times

5)  Spent a full day and night in the ocean on at least once

Throughout his journeys to spread the gospel, Paul’s life was in danger from robbers, fellow Jews, Gentiles and false Christians wherever he went and however, he got there.  He suffered from cold, exposure, manual labor, sleepless nights, hunger & thirst all while shouldering the concerns of the churches he planted.

Satan uses affliction to:

1)  Discourage and torment believers

2)  Derail efforts to spread the gospel

3)  Cause believers to doubt God’s love, kindness, and power

I recently read a very interesting article about John 10:10, “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” The article examines the Greek words in this verse to aid in gaining a better understanding of the scripture. Click on the following link for an eye-opening read from the Renner Ministries Blog:

The Devil Has a Plan For Your Life!

God uses affliction to:

1)  To prevent us from becoming prideful — 2 Corinthians 12:7 (See above); Or maybe to prevent us from developing some other trait that damages our character or is personally destructive.

2)  To save His chosen people:

“Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.” — Genesis 45:5 & 7

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” — Genesis 50:20

3)  To provide His children with the assurance of their own salvation:

The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” —  Romans 8:16

4)  Conform us into the image of Christ and share in the fellowship of His suffering, His consolation, and His glory:

“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”  — 2 Corinthians 3:18

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30

“And if we are children, then we are heirs: heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ—if indeed we suffer with Him, so that we may also be glorified with Him.” — Romans 8:17

“For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. . . And our hope of you is stedfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation.” — 2 Corinthians 1:5 & 7

“But rejoice that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed at the revelation of His glory.” — 1 Peter 4:13

5) To produce endurance, develop your faith, and lead to increased spiritual maturity:

Be assured that the testing of your faith [through experience] produces endurance [leading to spiritual maturity, and inner peace]. And let endurance have its perfect result and do a thorough work, so that you may be perfect and completely developed [in your faith], lacking in nothing. — James 1:3-4 AMP

6) Enable us to comfort and encourage others who are suffering:

“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

7) To display the works of God:

“His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” — John 9:2-3

crown-and-thorns8)  To earn eternal rewards that will far outweigh the temporal suffering we experience in life:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” — 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

 

Why is it important that we understand God’s purpose in allowing His children to suffer?

I think it’s critical that we realize that God uses affliction for a variety of purposes and each trial a believer encounters may serve a completely different purpose.

One thing I have discovered through child loss is that fellow Christians often try to encourage the grieving by reminding them that their current suffering will allow them to comfort another hurting soul somewhere down the road.  This may or may not be true. Depending upon the circumstances, the level of trauma involved, or the personality of the bereaved, God may never intend that believer’s suffering to be used to minister to another. The experience may be so negative that the individual may not be able to support and encourage another. The pressure to minister may re-victimize the believer or the individual may not be able to talk about their situation without inciting fear in another thereby doing more damage than good.

I have also discovered that those who are called to minister to others generally are not capable of taking on that role until a significant amount of healing has taken place in their own lives. Discernment is definitely required before encouraging anyone to minister to another as a result of their trial and also required for the tested, the survivor, to know if God is really calling them to this type of ministry or to minister to a specific individual. Ministry is about more than shared experience. Personality and approach matter.

Of all the purposes of suffering I uncovered in my research, all but one can generally be confirmed in hindsight. The one that can’t—when God allows suffering in order to prevent something He deems more damaging to His child. There are some things we will never be able to understand or explain.

Suffering almost always leads to the why question. But ultimately, having a definitive answer doesn’t make the suffering less painful or even lead a believer to embrace the pain for the joy that lies before them. Knowing why is less important than the fruit God produces as a result of affliction. Understanding why may come in hindsight, but even if it doesn’t, I believe there’s always a purpose, whether I approve of it or not, and God allows it for our individual, eternal good.

As Ruth, my grief counselor, pointed out to me recently, at creation, God proclaimed everything He created “good” not “perfect”. Why would Adam be made caretaker of all of creation if there were no problems to resolve? Had there been no problems, Adams job would have been superfluous.

Perfect is a life without problems, without suffering. Good is a life that includes problems, inconveniences, and even suffering. It’s a life that matures through time and experience. It’s a life that includes overcoming adversity, recognizing our dependence upon God, helping our fellow man, bringing glory to God and earning eternal rewards. We don’t earn anything unless we work for it. And God’s grace is sufficient to enable us to live a good life in spite of trials, afflictions, and suffering.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2016 in Adversity, Faith, Grief, Muscular Dystrophy

 

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Two Years Later . . .

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Why a glimpse behind the curtain to the deeply personal and hidden grief of a bereaved parent? Not to inspire your pity; of that I can assure you.  Instead to inspire others to look beyond the surface of a grieving friend or family member. To consider how families are affected by loss, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, as well as the unique family dynamics that result; which might help you comfort, support and encourage them. The bereaved desperately want to be understood, to have their feelings validated, to break free of the isolation, to mourn unrushed, to have another share their sorrow (not attempt to fix it). This post was written months ago and is not reflective of my current state of mind.

 

Two Years Later . . . 

This morning, the 2nd anniversary of Bethany & Katie’s deaths, I woke up in my in-laws guest room and told the Lord,

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I miss my babies.  I miss the life I used to live.  I miss the sweet ignorance of not knowing what disease plagued Gracen and Katie’s bodies, the unappreciated bliss of an unknown prognosis.  I miss my failure to understand that You, Lord, promised to walk through this life of trials with me, never once leaving me, but not to protect me from the free will of others and not to make life pain free.

 

I miss waking up with purpose.  Waking to enjoy the the birds singing and the sun shining.

I miss hugs and smiles and laughter — the sounds of life in my home.  I miss making cookies just to hear Katie’s whoop of joy.  Watching David and Bethany laugh over movie lines that cause me to roll my eyes.  Seeing Katie sit at Bethany’s feet joyful that her big sister was home from college.

I miss arguments and bad attitudes and snark and sass.  I miss seeing Katie curled up in David’s lap to watch a movie, David teasing Bethany and listening to him negotiate with Katie for hugs and kisses.

10246606_730773960317860_6144985397676167154_nI miss sibling rivalry and laughter and two ganging up on one.  I miss hearing how Gracen stood up for Katie at school, how Bethany watched out for Gracen and coming home to find all three watching music videos loud enough for the neighbors on either side to enjoy (?) too.

I miss praying for Bethany and Katie.  I miss inviting You, Lord, close instead of desperately clinging to You.  I miss what was and will never be again.  I miss the life I’d planned to have.  I miss ignorance and curse knowledge and I hate the last images of Bethany and Katie seared upon my mind, taunting me with their stillness, eyes once full of life and love vacant and unseeing.

I miss the me I used to be; the me I wish I could be again.  I miss the me who did not live with the ever present ache of loss.  The me who did not have to fortify herself for a simple trip to church, the me who did not have to plan in advance answers to everyday questions to guard my heart, my privacy and to avoid making others uncomfortable.  I miss genuine smiles.  I miss the ease with which I faced a day and the dark of night; of restful sleep, a focused mind, and simple motivation.  I miss anticipation and excitement.

IMG_3507 (2)I miss having all the bar stools at my counter filled. . .  I just miss so much — it all haunts me while I’m simultaneously thankful for Gracen and David.    Joy and sorrow side by side — both aware of all I have and all I’ve lost in every moment of every day.  One word defines my life — bittersweet.

And as I rolled over and curled in upon myself, I asked the Lord to help me get up and get going, to be a good house guest, to ignore the onslaught of sorrow, deep and numbing. To be able to be present instead of withdrawing from everyday conversation in desperate need for time alone — for the distraction fiction provides.

I finally rose at 10:30, hours later than I usually rise when we visit Kansas City.  And when I entered living room Sunny greeted me with a warm, “Good morning sleepyhead”, and Donna quietly went about frying an egg for me, then sat down at the table to visit with me while I ate.  No frustration, just uncomplicated acceptance and the kindness they have always shown me over the last twenty-eight years.  I found my heart full to the brim with both gratitude and sorrow — both of which my wonderful in-laws share with me.  I am not alone in my loss, in my sorrow, and in gratitude for what remains.

Empathy (shared sorrow) is so much more comforting than the fellowship of sorrow and pity. Pity pops in to express sympathy and promptly exits. Pity is love without commitment. It lures and deceives the grief-stricken with a promise of support only to silently slip away. Shared sorrow blesses the grieving by claiming a seat at the table of sorrow and dining on the bitter taste of disappointment and despair; drinking from the cup of agony before pulling out the dessert plates and loading them up with the sweet savor of united hearts and minds.  Shared sorrow is committed love.

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Helping the Bereaved Bear their Burdens

1.  People outside the immediate circle of loss, tend to view the death of a loved one from a broad, general perspective.  The bereaved grieve in fine detail. Acknowledging specific losses, unfinished plans, a lost legacy and the empty seat at the dinner table communicates to the bereaved that you care about the depths of their loss.

e9ee9b4bef3f86fba3571ecd3f0cbe512.  Speak the loved one’s name.  When a baby is stillborn or dies shortly after birth the family is left with a void they are unable to fill with memories of their child.  Using their child’s name, asking about the infant’s birth weight, length and hair color affirm the child’s worth. Avoidance equals isolation.

3.  Speak the loved one’s name-regardless of their age at the time of death.  As time goes on, the name of a loved one is spoken less and less frequently.  The bereaved want their loved ones remembered.  Mentioning their name, telling a family member you thought of their loved one and you miss them is a great blessing.  Speak about their loved one in a positive way, don’t just say how sorry you are for their loss.

4.  Many bereaved parents feel as if others treat them as if they are cursed following the death of a child. Avoiding bereaved parents because you are unsure what to say or do can frequently be perceived in unintended ways.  So, avoidance is not the answer. Call or visit and simply say, “I have no words.” “I don’t know how to help, but I want to be there for you. Tell me what you need to hear from me.”, and if you love the bereaved person keep trying to reach out, but don’t make them responsible for making you feel comfortable in their presence.

5.  Don’t expect the bereaved to step back into ministry roles and other normal activities. Some will return quickly, some will take six months or a year. Some will never return to that specific ministry or activity. Be sensitive. Churches are often in need of members to serve, but be careful not to push.

cdd180cb45e020a4fd5a2efa4c6415dd6.  Never compare the loss of a loved one to the death of a pet (it’s more common than you think). The loss of a child and a spouse are the most devastating losses the bereaved endure. Don’t tell the grief-stricken that you understand how they feel because you lost a uncle, grandparent or parent. The level of intimacy in the severed relationship determines the depth of grief experienced.

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 7.  When a parent loses a child, never say, “Well at least you have two more.” or “Be thankful for the ones you still have.” The death of one child doesn’t negate the parent’s love for the rest of their children. Grief and gratitude can and do co-exist. And the birth of subsequent children do not replace the child that died.

8.  Don’t be offended if the bereaved don’t personally call you to notify you of the death. It is not at all unusual to for the bereaved to be too emotionally overwrought to call even their closest friends and family members. It’s is however, very common to contact one family member and ask them to contact the rest of the family. It’s not a slight. Some are busy at hospitals, others are in shock, and some just can’t speak.

9.  Don’t ask for details especially in the case of suicide, murder, or accidents. Those who need to will share that information with someone they are close to. Others do not want to remember their loved one that way and may have been traumatized by things they’ve seen and experienced. Rehearsing it is retraumatizing and sometimes leaves the bereaved feeling as if you care more about the gory details than you do about them.

10. If you have pictures of the deceased, email copies or get prints made and bring them to the family. Every picture is a coveted treasure.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2016 in Chronic Illness, Faith, Grief, Muscular Dystrophy

 

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Gifts from God’s Hands

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Tuesday, I experienced one of these days. Four ladies, four dear friends, from our church in Kansas City appeared on my doorstep. They brought hugs and encouragement and blessed me as I was fully aware every minute that I was with them that their extravagant love for me (they actually spent six-plus hours on the road that day just to visit me) was also a reflection of Christ’s love for me. Not only are the people God places in my life a gift from Him to me for my good, but they are the literal hands and feet of Christ, inspired by Him to good works. These women and so many others have modeled and taught me so much about my Savior, about standing firm in life’s storms, about loving others, all while sharing laughter and tears and praying each other through life’s trials. Tuesday is a day I will always remember and cherish.

There is an old Contemporary Christian song called “Do They See Jesus in Me?” I can pay no higher compliment to these godly women than to tell them that yes, I see Jesus in you all. Thank you for loving on me and being tools in the Master’s hand for Him to love on me too. Vivian Boren, Wendy Campbell, Sharon Crabtree, and Vicki Phillips.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2015 in Faith

 

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