No Pain, No Gain?

When we were told that our youngest daughter would have birth defects, possibly severe ones, did I need that situation to develop a sense of ruthless trust in God?

Would I have ever made Jesus the Lord and center of my life if I didn’t have a breakdown full of darkness, depression, and frustration?

Did I need to be cut from my high school basketball team to know that God can still value me despite personal disappointment and failure?

Did I need to be a lonely college student to take advantage of long stretches at a lake setting with just me and God?

Did my Dad have to die and my friend drink himself to death for me to learn to love God even when I don’t agree with how he has allowed things to happen?

Is pain and struggle a prerequisite for growth?

adult alone anxious black and white

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

Job, in the Bible, needed one catastrophe after another in order to finally make this statement about God, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job’s struggles awakened his spiritual senses to truly appreciate and savor God.

Paul begged for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” but God didn’t. Instead, God told him this, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul would then come to this realization, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul needed hardship and difficulties and weakness for God to be his strongest. I don’t know if I can say that I delight in struggles and disappointment just yet but if that is what it takes for God to be the strongest in my life then I will sacrifice my comfort and ease along the way.

For I have seen too much growth, too much of God’s presence, too much of God’s provision, and too much of a change in myself to think otherwise.

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Running The Race: Suffering Laboratory

On Dec. 4 I will run in the White Rock Marathon in Dallas. Once a week, I will provide my observations on the connection between the spiritual life and training to run a marathon. Please visit my White Rock fundraising page to honor my daughter and contribute to a great cause.

Training for any serious athletic endeavor is like entering into a laboratory for suffering. Each day is another opportunity to test physical suffering and determine what I am able to manage and overcome, as well as finding my suffering limitations. Some days, suffering is a welcomed ingredient to the training, met with respect and a healthy acknowledgement while other days, suffering seems the most important thing in the world to avoid. But any serious runner will tell you that you cannot avoid suffering and still reach your goals. You don’t complete a marathon on the back of an avoidance of suffering. You have to meet suffering face to face if you want to make progress in your training.

My marathon training has taught me about embracing suffering and difficulty. It has become a daily challenge to find the one moment when I tell myself I can do one more squat or one more sprint interval or tackle this hill one more time. And what do I discover through this suffering? Maybe nothing in the moment but the things I regularly do in today’s training, I thought were impossible two weeks ago. Suffering is necessary to move to the next stage in my training.

The biggest myth among Christians is that their faith will remove emotional and physical suffering from their life.  But this is counter to what Jesus said. He said that in this world you will have trouble (John 16:33) and that whoever wants to follow him must take up their cross (Mark 8:34) and those who want to be first must be last (Matt. 20: 16). Modern western Christians seem to want to try to avoid suffering at all costs but suffering is apparently an important aspect of your spiritual growth. Peter includes perseverance in his great list of add-ons to the faith (2 Peter 1:6). Growth and progress in the Christian life benefits from mountain top experiences and moments of spiritual highs but it excels when it has to work through suffering and endure through an experience where God’s presence isn’t just welcomed but a necessity.

As hard as the pain you are experiencing in your life may be, God is using that experience to refine you and mold you into the person he intends for you to be. We have to work through the pain just like a marathoner has to work through the discomfort and strain of training. There are rewards at the end of  both of these journeys. You just have to endure.

What I Have Learned From Having Cleft-Affected Child

Our youngest daughter just completed her third surgery on her cleft palate this Thursday. The surgeon has tried twice to completely close up her palate but the two previous times a fistula (opening) has developed. Because of this, there are certain verbal sounds that she cannot make, there are certain foods that become problematic to eat and thus cause potential infection or discomfort and pain. My wife and I have been working through the weight of our daughter’s problems since before she was born three years ago. I think I have learned a few things along the way about myself, my God, and my spiritual life. Here are a few of those things that I have learned:

1. Prayer works – along this entire journey we have had countless prayers answered. For example, before she was born, her situation looked bleaker than a correctable cleft lip and palate. Conditions such as Down’s Syndrome, spina bifida, and kidney malfunction were thrown around by her Perinatal Specialist. We immediately began praying and had our church pray and many of the worst possible scenarios did not come to pass.

2. I can pray with intensity – there is nothing like desperate circumstances to get you on your knees with a sense of urgency. I cried, I pounded my fist in anger, and I pleaded with God to heal her and keep her from harm. I never knew that I could pray so vigorously.

3. Sometimes prayers end with resignation – After I have prayed in all of the urgency and intensity as I knew how, I often was just left with one prayer. “Lord, I place my daughter in your hands. I have done everything that I know to do and I am going to trust you with her care.”

4. A marriage can grow closer – I often hear about marriages that struggle when their children are suffering through intense medical situations. I can see where these things can zap the energy and effort needed to keep a marriage relationship going well. My wife and I have had our moments where we have let the magnitude of things overwhelm some of the commitments that we have made to each other but we also quickly learned that we needed each other because no one else on earth knows exactly what we are going through.

5. People mean well but say silly things – I don’t begin to pretend that our daughter’s health concerns are worse than other children with deformities or illness but when people passively dismissed her ailments as “just” this or “just” that or “that can be fixed,” I kind of cringed inside. I know that these people were thankful that her condition was not worse than it was but their comments didn’t accurately reflect what we will be going through over the next 15 years. My wife and I realized that expecting others to understand what we are going through is not realistic. We have to rely on God for comfort and strength and on each other for understanding and encouragement.

6. There is no quota on medical issues – In the first year of her life, we thought that each tough situation that we surpassed meant that we got a break for a while. That did not turn out to be true. Surgeries, pneumonia, scoliosis, hernia, and eye procedures all have marked our daughter’s life over the last three years. I have learned to quit keeping track and just move to the next thing. God is here now, God was there then, and he will be there in the next thing.

7. A church family is important – Visits to the hospital, picking up our older daughters at school, meals when we just get back from the hospital, and prayers have marked how our church has supported, assisted, and encouraged us. I couldn’t imagine going through all of this without the support of friends, family, and church.

8. God’s blessings come in the darkest time – I can remember nights when my daughter was in so much pain that she couldn’t sleep and I would just pray and pray for her comfort and rest. When my prayer would be answered there would just be a complete outpouring of peace and comfort from God. I almost felt like I was wrapped up in it. I couldn’t experience that if I didn’t first experience the pain and trouble of the dark times.