God’s gifts in suffering (5) Suffering shows us what we truly fear to lose

Sorry this post has taken a while. Sometimes you’re too close to something to be able to write about it. By God’s grace, here it is. (You can read my previous posts here: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)

flickr: mark sebastian

I’ve been listening to my fears. I’ve been imagining dire possibilities. Every medical article, every story of hardship, every description of suffering, seems a pointer to our future, a list of what-might-be. There are times when I lie face down on the carpet, sick to the gut, held down by a blank, black dread. I knew that I would cry, but fear? It seems a strange accompaniment to sorrow.

I don’t feel safe anymore. I think it works like this: in suffering, one of the things you most feared has come to you. And if it has, there’s no longer any guarantee that such-and-such won’t happen. That so-and-so won’t be taken away. Life has been shaken to its roots, your comfortable expectations scattered like fallen fruit.

There’s a moment I remember clearly. I’m standing at the end of the hallway, holding my baby son, cocooned in wraps and ready for bed. I gaze at his face, soft and crumpled with newness, and suddenly all that he might become, all the glowing possibilities, flash before my eyes. There is a world of potential futures in this tiny bundle.

Chronic illness has stolen so much from us, things most parents take for granted, school days and childhood play and time with friends. It has the potential to take away so much more. Once I lived with the comfortable illusion that my decisions and carefully protected goodness could control the outcome. Now I know how vulnerable we are, how easily the things we hold can be taken away, and I am afraid.

Look closely at your fears, and you’ll see the mirror-image of your idols, what you count as happiness, what you hold most tightly. The things we think we can’t live without: security, success, control, peace, usefulness, happiness. The places we look for them: family, money, health, career, friendship, children, marriage. Suffering threatens and thus reveals the things we trust in. It loosens our grip and invites us to cling to God instead.

My son is now twelve years old. I’m standing on a bridge alone, and hoping to stay that way. People pass, but I keep my back to them, hiding my face. I lean on the rail and my tears drop into the river. They travel downstream with the twigs and the bubbles and the little eddies around the stones. Once again, my dreams for my son’s future flash before my eyes, but this time I take each one, let it fall, and watch it float away until it’s lost to view around the bend.

It feels hard but good, this giving up, this letting go. My dreams belong where all dreams belong, in the hands of God. My fears belong there too (1 Pet 5:6-7). My future – our family’s future – is in his hands. The things I think God owes me were never mine to begin with. The things I thought I could hold on to were never under my control.

I’d like some guarantees: this much, and no more. Instead, what I have is this: the assurance that a sovereign God has ordained every one of our days, that nothing else counts compared to knowing him, that what matters is not our comfort, but his glory. It’s not a convenient knowledge. It’s not easily come by. But I choose to believe that it’s enough.

And as I choose to believe, here in the dark, he opens his heart to me. The one who gave up his Son for us is tender and generous in his love, not capricious or cruel. He rejoices over his people with singing (Zeph 3:17). Our names are written on his hands (Isa 49:16). He shelters us under his wings (Ps 91:4). We are never out of his thoughts.1 I begin to know – I’m just at the beginning of knowing – that, whatever happens, we are safe here with him.

  1. A few books bring this home to me: JI Packer’s Knowing God, particularly this quote; Cs Lewis’ “He’s not safe, but he’s good”, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and Ed Welch’s reminder of “God’s generosity and attention to detail” in Running Scared (p. 109).

One thought on “God’s gifts in suffering (5) Suffering shows us what we truly fear to lose

  1. Jean – i have nothing near as deep to say as you have written. Thanks for bringing to us out here some treasures form the dark places you have been called on to travel into. Our fears are clues to our idols, That fear comes along with suffering as if one is not enough without the other and that we are in Good scarred hands. We will honour him with our trust and all the more in the dark. Like others, will seek to pray for you in your triials and in your ministry

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