Saturday, January 5, 2013

On a 5th Anniversary.

I've wanted to write a little bit about suffering for a long time now, but it's also taken me a long time to find quite the right words- years, in fact. I definitely struggle with expressing myself on the subject. Today my family and I remember the 5th 'anniversary' of the day my amazing Mom left this world and her eternity began. This blog did not exist at that time, but if you'd like to read the rest of the story, it is chronicled on my craft blog in the following posts:

In our Christian culture, it's easy for the American ideal of self-reliance to creep into our doctrine. The "American Dream" tells us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, that hard work will always provide visible results, that we can change our pasts to create a new future, and that the good guy always wins the day. It's easy to see why these are alluring thoughts, and I'm by no means saying that hard work and setting goals for ourselves are bad things. However, these ideals in general do not align with what the Bible teaches us- that we are like grass and flowers that so quickly and easily wilt, so fragile (Isaiah 40) and that God's power is seen perfectly in our weakness and that we should boast not in what we consider our accomplishments, but rather, our weaknesses, disappointments, and even difficulties (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Unfortunately, it's usually in the truly difficult times of life, such as the death of a loved one, that we so desperately want to say something helpful but often end up saying things that while well-meaning are not theologically sound. In the wake of my own Mom's death, as I literally felt like I could drown in grief, many such things were said to us. Things like:
"God just needed another angel."
"She wouldn't want to come back from heaven even if she could."
"She's looking down on you now."
And specifically, "God won't give you more than you can handle."

I think this stems from a misunderstanding/misquotation of part of 1 Corinthians 13:
"And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear."

Firstly, "tempted beyond what you can bear" and "given more than you can handle" are two very different things. I've been a believer for at least 20 years, and my Mom's unexpected and traumatic death was most definitely more than I could handle. My world was shaken, and more importantly, my view of prayer, the bible, and God the Father was shaken to the point of my feeling the need to deeply reconsider the truth or relevance of everything I had ever been taught or believed.

I cried out in prayer so deeply and breathlessly to God to rescue my Momma, I felt like my heart was screaming. Days later, I held her hand as she died and I wondered if God cared or even heard my prayers. I wondered if it mattered whether I prayed at all if God was just going to exact his will on my life either way.

I read the book of Job in the bible, that God gives and takes away in his timing and wondered if the bible wasn't just a very old book that had nothing to do with me, a 23 year old married woman who felt like a little girl without her mommy.

I wondered how God, whom I'd always been taught was a powerful, infinitely wise and infinitely loving Father, could choose to take her from me when he had the power to intervene- how he could allow pain unlike I'd ever experienced into my life.

So yes, I do think God gives us more than we can handle. Sometimes frequently, especially if we are committed believers. A quick read of almost any book of the bible shows us that faith and salvation are rooted in the understanding that we cannot provide for ourselves anything of eternal importance. We believe we are strong, proud, and proficient. The bible tells us our entire lives and physical selves are temporary, fleeting, and gone like the morning dew in the afternoon (James 4:14).

What I've settled on in the past 5 years is that God gave me more than I could handle not only so that my faith could be strengthened in him, but for me to see the ways that he has provided, the ways that he is sovereign, and all with the promise that even though this world is full of inescapable troubles because of sin, that he provides peace that the world cannot and that he will never leave us to try to handle it alone (John 16:33).

We can be strong and courageous against anything we face because the Lord goes with us and will never leave or forsake us. (Deut. 31:6)

I'm not a big proponent of "claiming" a verse for my specific situation because I think it's easy to take the meaning of the verse out of context and create more ideals such as what we've already discussed here, but when my mom first got sick the verse I searched out and then read to her to try to encourage her (and myself) was 1 Peter 4:12-13:

"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed."

It was my attempt to hold strong in believing that God wouldn't let her and us suffer like this for no reason. That he's all knowing and has a plan, even if I don't or can't fully understand it. I knew that if God would heal my mom, we would be overjoyed (of course!) and my entire family would praise God for his miracle in her life.

The verse the Lord gave me- I also hesitate with that idea, because I don't want to get too hyper-spiritual, but I do believe he lead me to it that day as we drove to the hospital, knowing that she would die in a matter of hours- was John 14:27:
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

In the end, it was that verse and the inexplicable knowledge that God had provided it for me in my exact situation, that was the only thing that comforted me. It was the two close friends who called, one from a really far distance, and left voicemails for me while I was at work, just crying with me and barely saying a word. It was the friend who made brownies and sat and cried with me while we ate them. These are the things that meant the most and mattered much more to me than any theologically incorrect Hallmark-ready cliches meant to 'encourage' me.

It was my Dad reading the famililar words of Psalm 23 with us by Mom's bedside:
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me."

The valley of the shadow of death is scary. For all the movies I've watched in my day, I didn't know just how scary. Your mom is the last person who should ever be the first dead body you've ever seen in real life. Death is evil, part of an evil world we live in until God returns, as he's promised, to make all things new and right all the wrongs. And I can find comfort in those promises, and the knowledge that because my mom and I both love God and claim the death and resurrection of his son Jesus for our salvation from the evil of our own and all sin, we can know that we can be very joyfully reunited in heaven.

That's not to say that it's always easy. That five years later I don't still struggle, I don't still cry out, I don't still ask God why because I just don't understand. That doesn't mean that I don't still dream about my mom, still absolutely physically hurt to see her, call her, talk to her, to see her with my children, to live my live with her still in it. The loss of her presence in my life is a wound that, though it has started to heal over and scar with time, will always cause me pain.

But until then, I have these promises and this living testimony- my own true story to tell with firsthand experience of how he was with me, how he was made real in my life, and how he can be found to be real in yours, too.

"I have told you these things so that in me, you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
John 16:33

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