Sunday, February 1, 2015

Reflections on Suffering

Two months ago, I had December and January all planned out. December would be a string of twinkling, festive outings with the people I love, punctuated by large piles of grading and invigorating runs in the brisk winter air. It would be full of family excursions, reunions with old friends, and last minute Christmas shopping. I'd welcome 2015 on the dance floor with my friends, and then spend the rest of the month tutoring my high school students, writing thousands upon thousands of words for my Ph.D. application, and checking off little boxes on stacks of color-coded lists. I had grand plans to be PRODUCTIVE and SPONTANEOUS and AWESOME which would make me HAPPY. 

But I have not been productive, spontaneous, or awesome like I'd hoped I would be, and it has been very, very hard.

If you've followed my blog for long, then you know I spent several years struggling with chronic illness and its accompanying limitations, and you know that this fall I experienced what felt like total healing. For three glorious months I felt normal and did normal things and it was word-defying wonderful.

My body is full of surprises though, and I've spent the better part of last two months in bed. I don't know if this is connected to the virus that affected me for so many years, but whatever is happening is causing a host of hard symptoms, including incapacitating fatigue and dizziness. 

The fatigue has made simple tasks like standing to make breakfast really difficult, and the dizziness makes me disoriented and off balance. If I were a cow and you were into cow tipping, I'd probably be your cow of choice. This is one of the few things about which I can boast this month, and I have learned that when you're chronically ill you take every victory you can get, so I am so claiming this. (Moooooo).

Back in the fall, when I was feeling miraculously healthy, a friend noted I'd have to start thinking like a healthy person again.When you're sick, you have to think like a sick person. It's a survival technique. Don't exert yourself, don't make plans for tomorrow, don't eat that, don't do that, don't don't don't. But when you're healthy? You just live, without all that cautionary thinking. I liked saying goodbye to the cautionary thinking last fall.

So it has been deeply discouraging and bitterly disappointing to be back in this place of mysterious sickness and cautionary thinking. I'm tired of bed; I'm tired of doctors visits; I'm tired of medical bills; I'm tired of being cooped up alone; and I am tired of feeling like rot. The hardest part of all this, though, is the punctured hope.

When you think like a sick person you realize that dreaming about the future is unhelpful. So you tell yourself not to dream anymore. Don't dream about the possibility of working full-time, or going to school, or traveling, or getting married, or having kids. Just work on pulling yourself up out of bed, feeding yourself and maybe, if you're really feeling full of energy, showering. The dreams are replaced by really small, moment-by-moment goals.

It takes a long time to suffocate dreams you've spent years nurturing, but it's possible. I think, though, that if you get a second chance at dreaming — if you get to revive your dreams — they grow twice as fast and strong. And as is true of all dreams, with time, they begin to feel like living, breathing parts of you. And when you have to watch them unexpectedly die again it feels like some part of you has died. 

Watching treasured, sparkling parts of me die all over again has been a fresh grief. And losing these parts of me has made my soul feel very naked. Because without these ambitious and exciting hopes for the future, I don't have anything to prop me up, cover me up, or make my life meaningful. It's just me, God, a half-eaten avocado on the counter top, and a bunch of empty water bottles on the table.

There’s a truth I cling to when I feel naked like this: it’s when the best parts of us are stripped away that we discover who we really are. It's when we lose the life we love and long for that we begin to learn our identity in Christ. It's an identity that isn't propped up by filmy figments of the imagination or masked by adventurous ambitions and grand accomplishments. Because when our souls are stripped bare in the presence of God, we discover that even our naked selves evoke his adoration: I accept you, love you, protect you, and sing over you; and you are WORTH DYING FOR.

And then God sets to work using the flames of suffering to refine our souls, removing the dross and making them more beautiful, good, and loving, like his.

This is the glorious paradox of the Gospel for all Christians: when we lose our selves, we discover who we really are: naked souls, loved by a God who clothes us in his righteousness. 

Paradox is like a coin with two sides. Weakness, loss and death are etched onto one side of the coin; and strength, gain and life are engraved on the other. We're all well acquainted with the side of the coin depicting weakness, loss and death. We see it everyday. Sometimes, though, it can take years before we clearly see the sparkling side of the coin boasting unimaginable gain. Sometimes we don’t see it at all this side of heaven. In the meantime, it's hard to trust the things we cannot see. So what do we do while we're waiting for the unseen to become seen? 

It's the question I've been whispering into the silence lately as the days slowly tick by and my body feels progressively worse. What do I do when the paradoxical promises of the Gospels seem far-off?

Today my body let me go for a slow walk in the sunshine. It was a treat after this bed-ridden, horrible week, but it didn't feel like one. I was dizzy and imbalanced and veered all over the road, fighting back tears every fifty feet. A few times, I practiced the discipline of noticing things the way I'd learned to when I first got sick. I noticed the smell of blooming jasmine and I smiled when I walked past a trampoline full of giggling girls singing Taylor Swift's "Shake if Off.” I thanked God for the moments of grace, but it did not make my life seem like a gift or my future seem more hopeful. It did not cultivate perseverance.

Abraham knew what it was like to await the fulfillment of God’s promises without ever seeing them. So did Sarah, Jacob, Noah, David, and a host of other ancients listed in Hebrews 11. I think they must have often whispered into the silence, “How do I wait patiently for the things I cannot see?”

The writer of Hebrews tells us: they remembered they weren't citizens of this world and they set their sights on their permanent Heaven Home. 

I’ve been trying to imagine my Heaven Home this week. I imagine streets of gold, mansions, and the crown of life. I imagine racing up waterfalls, dancing across the Milky Way, and swimming through the sunset. I imagine sitting down at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb and savoring a juicy steak with garlic potatoes, crème brule, and bacon — obviously. But these images aren’t helping me much with the present suffering. Not this week, anyway.

I think this is because the best part of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb will not be the steak or the crème brule. It will be Jesus, sitting at that table with me, looking into my eyes while he tells me how he laughed fit to kill that time my siblings and I put on an impromptu puppet show for my mom when we were kids. Swimming through the sunset and racing up waterfalls will only make all this hardship on earth worth it because Jesus will be doing it with me.

Jesus is the Christian’s reward for our earthly endurance. Without him, there’s no point in persevering through hardship. Perseverance won’t matter jacksquat if the rewards of the afterlife are rivers of wine, virgins, or another shot at life on earth, as some religions boast. The only prize that absolutely, positively rewards a life of faith in hardship is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

There are lots of reasons I’m a Christian. One of them is that Jesus assures us we don’t have to wait until heaven to get God, our greatest reward. He gives himself to us now, in every circumstance if we ask. If the smell of jasmine, the sound of singing neighbor girls, and even a health body add any meaning to life, it is only because they are tastes of the goodness of God. They are like morsels of food from the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. The best part about them, is we can enjoy them with God. They are not our happiness; Christ is. And he's the kind of God that wraps his arm around a dizzy daughter and pulls her close as she veers down the road, stopping to smile with her as she breathes in that jasmine.

So here's the prayer I’ve been speaking into the silence today, alongside my confused and desperate questions about suffering: God give me more of you right now. Give me enough of an awareness of your presence that I can endure this mess in this moment. Reveal the protection of the Father, the compassion of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

As I pray, I remember the story of Job, a righteous man who loved God. I remember how God gave Satan permission to destroy Job’s family, wealth and health. I remember how Job wept in the aftermath, scraping his boils with the shard of a pot while his prideful friends offered their pompous advice to Job about the reason for his suffering.

And then, after chapters of the friends’ pontificating, God appears and he reminds Job of his holiness— his otherness, his set apartness from humanity and his tendency to do things differently than we do. And when God has finished talking, Job speaks: "I've heard rumors about you, God, but now I've seen you with my own eyes, and I repent for ever having lived according to the rumors."

It doesn’t matter that God didn’t explain the reasons for Job’s suffering. He could have said, “Hey Job, Satan wanted to prove that you’d turn away from me but I knew you wouldn’t so I let him test you. And oh yeah, billions of people are going to read your story in the Bible one day, and it will encourage them to remain faithful to me." But he didn't. Job did not get the answers to his questions about the reasons for his suffering, but he did see God’s face, and that was enough. God's face was the answer to all of his questions.

I don’t know how to make sense of all the suffering in the world this side of heaven. I just don’t. But I do know that when we see God face-to-face it’s not going to matter anymore. And in the meantime, while we wait to see the fulfillment of his paradoxical promises, he gives us glimpses of his face and assurances of his love. So I’m pressing into him in prayer, my hands cupped open and my eyes peeled wide as I wait for the reward he's promised he'll give us in this moment: more of his good and glorious self, oceans of his unending love. I’m praying the same for you today.

I covet your prayers as I try to get healthy, my friends. Please let me know how I can pray for you by posting a comment or emailing me.

In Christ,

Sarah J.


  1. This hits home. <3 Our symptoms are different but the struggle, the same. I crave truth and vulnerability. Thank you for that. Be well. LF

    1. Lindsay, bowing my head to pray for you and your body right now.

      In Him,


  2. Sorry to hear about your current challenge, Sarah. I am praying now that through it all, you will experience His great and wonderful love. And I am reminded of this worship song "Through It All". May the song lyrics bless you. You can enjoy the song in Youtube

    Through It All

    You are forever in my life
    You see me through the seasons
    Cover me with Your hand
    And lead me in Your righteousness
    And I look to You
    And I wait on You

    * I'll sing to You, Lord, a hymn of love
    For Your Faithfulness to me
    And I'm carried in everlasting arms
    You'll never let me go through it all

    God bless,
    Eileen Cheng

    1. Eileen,

      Thank you for the recommendation. I'm listening to the song right now. What lovely and encouraging lyrics. I'll be bookmarking this one. :(

      In Him,