Tag Archives: suffering

When Praying Makes Things… Worse?

Have you ever prayed fervently for a situation to change, only to find matters getting worse? I know I have. I have seen it many times in my years of working with victims of domestic violence. In these situations, things often escalate to unbearable in spite of ardent prayers and abundant effort. It sometimes seems as if God doesn’t see or care about our struggles. After all, if He was on our side, wouldn’t circumstances improve? However, if scripture is to be our guide, we need to look at how He worked with His people there to see if that expectation is valid.

This morning as I was reading in Exodus, I found the story of the Israelites’ plight after Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh to let the people go and worship. According this passage, God had heard the cries of the Israelites, and sent Moses to plead on their behalf. However, instead of helping the situation, it hurt! Pharaoh severely cut the supplies needed for their work. The situation seemed hopeless all around, and even Moses became discouraged.

The Israelite overseers realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, “May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Ex. 5:19-23-emphasis added.)

The story could’ve have ended right there, but Moses took his confusion and complaints to the Lord. Even more significant, he continued to obey God in spite of negative circumstances. Moses was full of doubt about his own abilities, and he was discouraged about the Israelites anger towards him, but he still continued to follow God’s path. We all know the outcome. God used his obedience to bring about a miraculous deliverance—just when things seemed impossible. In the end, terrible oppression made liberation seem even more incredible.

When I think of my own story of escaping abuse, I can see His hand in every painful experience. All I knew to do was cling to Him, because everything else had failed me— from the courts to the church. Even people who loved me and wanted to help had no clue how to do it. In the long run, the overwhelmingly impossible nature of the situation made me desperate for Him. I spent long hours in prayer and scripture, and even came up with a database of passages that were particularly helpful.[1] I made a decision to believe His promises, because nothing else was working. All I could do was hold on to Him for dear life, and He was faithful. Circumstances did not improve in the beginning. In fact, they became worse, but in the end my faith in Him became stronger than it had ever been and He delivered me. I often tell people that even though I would have never chosen to suffer like I did, I am grateful for it, because it drove me to Him. My relationship with Him became my anchor, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

If you think that circumstances are a measure of God’s care, or lack thereof, you are missing a beautiful opportunity to allow Him to redeem your story. God is not a magic genie who snaps His fingers and makes everything suddenly all right. He also will not force anyone to follow His ways, but He will use your pain for good. Please understand, I am not saying you should stay in a harmful situation. Scripture is filled with examples of God’s people fleeing danger. Instead, I am saying, cling to the One who loves you most, and you will not be disappointed. He will use your trials to grow you and your faith. I’ve worked with survivors of domestic abuse for over 20 years, and those who have held onto Him have simply amazed me. I have never met more amazing people than those who have proven Him faithful in the midst of great suffering.

If you think you don’t have what it takes to become an amazing example of His redemption, I encourage you to go to scripture. God specializes in using reluctant and under qualified people for His purposes. He not only wants to redeem your situation, but if you let Him, He will use you to help others who will face the same battles you’ve faced (2 Cor. 1:4). Take your doubts and struggles to Him, and determine to hold on to His promises. Just keep walking in His direction, and don’t let people or circumstances warp your view of Him. He will deliver you in due time, and in the process you will develop faith that is unshakeable.

[1] If you’d like a copy of this scriptural database, please email me at info@calledtopeace.org.

Where is God When I’m Suffering?

No matter what we suffer in this life, God is for us and actively involved. Psalm 56:11 tells us that God collects our tears in his bottle. This always reminds me of the memory books I kept for my children when they were young. I saved a lock of hair from their first haircuts, saved the armbands we wore in the hospital, and even took a picture of one’s first Band-Aid for her baby book. I wasn’t able to shield them from all the insults of life, but I do remember that those bad experiences were often useful in teaching them lessons. If they fell down because they were doing something dangerous, they were more careful the next time. Although God does have the power to shield us from all harm, we live in a fallen world and he does not always do it. I believe that is because there are precious lessons to be learned from suffering. How would we understand or appreciate his goodness if we did not have pain and sorrow? We would take it all for granted. As much as I hate trials and tribulation, I have to say that they have been amazing tutors. I have learned so much about his faithfulness, and so much about my weaknesses. I have learned that no matter what happens, he is with me, just as any loving parent would be. He collects my tears in his bottle, and records my sorrows in his memory book. They are precious to him, as I am. He is for me! Many people see suffering as a sign that God doesn’t care, or that he has abandoned them, but it is quite the opposite. When you seek him, you will find he is closest to the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18). Trouble is not a sign of an uncaring God, but a chance to prove his love.

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book. On the very day I call to you for help, my enemies will retreat. This I know: God is on my side. O God, I praise your word. Yes, LORD, I praise your word. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me? Ps. 56:8-11 NLT

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom. 8:32-39

Lord, thank you for caring so deeply for us. Even when things are difficult, you lovingly hold us and save our tears. I remember hearing that in ancient times, tears were used to make perfume. The maker would add fragrance to the tears to make something beautiful. That’s exactly what you do. You take our pains and sorrows and turn them into something beautiful. Thank you Lord that nothing is wasted in your kingdom, and that you have good intentions even when bad things happen. I appreciate that so much. Thank you for your tender loving care. Amen

Camping in the Wilderness

Sometimes it seems as though my whole life has been a wilderness experience. My mother once told me she had never known anyone who had suffered as much as I had. Her statement was made after I had gone through several years of intense tribulation, and I must admit that God certainly gave me some years of respite soon after that. However, the old adage that in this life you’re either in a trial, coming out of one, or going into one seems to be extremely characteristic of my life. No one is exempt. Jesus assured us that in this world we would have trouble, and even came to earth and experienced it firsthand. Thankfully, he does not leave us as orphans to try and muddle through without assistance.

Scripture has much to say about suffering and God. He is our “very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1), he uses trials to mold our character (Rom. 5:3-4), he comforts us in the midst of tribulation (2 Co. 1:4), and he promises to deliver us from all trouble (Ps. 34:19, 50:15). The good news is that no trial on this earth will last forever. Paul calls the troubles of this life “light and momentary” when viewed in the light of eternity, and claims that they have the ability to work “an eternal weight of glory” in us (2 Co. 4:17). While there are many who espouse a gospel that guarantees a trouble-free life of health and wealth, I cannot find biblical grounds for such doctrine. When I read scripture, I see trouble as inevitable and even useful in God’s agenda for our lives. None of us enjoy it, but when I look back on my life I realize that, undeniably, suffering has been a highly effective tutor in my life.

This past year has been yet another wilderness experience for me. I have to say that after all these years, I’ve grown accustomed to it and have learned to look for the lessons in each trial. Still, nobody enjoys the heat of the wilderness, and I have found myself feeling weary beyond words. I stand before God with a willing spirit, but I am a tired and have told him that many times. This morning as I was reading through Numbers, the above passages stood out.

On the day the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant law, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire… Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp… Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out.   (Nu. 9:15, 17-18, 22)

Apparently, the Spirit led the children of Israel to camp out in the wilderness for long periods of time. Last year, I went to Israel, and was able to visit the wilderness where the children of Israel camped. I visited Timna Valley and the replica of the wilderness tabernacle there. As we stood outside the tabernacle, I found myself feeling very uncomfortable in the desert heat, but as soon as we entered the tent there was immediate relief from the unpleasant temperature. For the Israelites, the presence of God hovered over the tabernacle in the form of a cloud by day that provided even more relief from the hot sun. Nighttime temperatures in the desert are usually pretty chilly, because of the lack of humidity, so the Spirit of God hovered over the tent in a cloud of fire at night. Living in the wilderness had to be uncomfortable for many reasons. Yet, God provided relief in the midst of it, especially for the priests who ministered in the temple.

Those of us who have been grafted into God’s family through Messiah (Rom. 11:17) have also been given the privilege of being part of God’s royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). We can come boldly into God’s presence (Heb. 4:16), and that is where we can find relief from the extremes of wilderness life. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11)—even in the midst of trouble. Just imagine what would happen to those who decided to wander away from the tabernacle. It would be very difficult to survive at all. As far as I could see in Timna, there were very few food and water sources for miles on end. Even so, those of us who try to force our way out of the wilderness before God leads, usually find ourselves much worse off than if we had waited patiently. The answer to victorious life, even in the midst of the wilderness, is to wait and to worship. We cannot force circumstances to change, but we can find joy and rest for our weary souls (Mt. 11:29) when we run to him. Eventually, he will lead us out of the wilderness, and the day is coming when we will be free of all earthly pain and sorrow. Until that day, he alone is enough.

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. (Ps. 27:4-5)

Lord, thank you that I am your child! Thank you that I can live victoriously even in the midst of hardship. You are my provider, my peace, and my shelter. I do not have to look frantically about for a way of escape, but I can wait on you and stand under the cloud of your presence. Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere (Ps. 84:10). Forgive me for becoming so impatient about life in the wilderness. I know you are good, and that you have a good plan for my life. Help me to remember that truth always. You are good, and it is so good to be able to come into your presence. I choose to worship you now. Amen

Letting Bitterness Go

We’ve all met people who are clearly bitter. They usually don’t even realize it, but it spills out like poison in nearly every conversation they have. They have been wronged, and usually have good reason to be upset. The problem is that the anger they harbor ends up destroying them rather than the ones who offended them. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us, but that is so difficult to do! When I was going through my divorce, I rehearsed his offenses in my head like a well-worn record. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became until I was completely miserable. I was so stressed and depressed that my physical health began to decline. I knew I was supposed to forgive, but the offenses continued and it just seemed impossible. In my flesh it certainly would have been, but God was so gentle and kind in dealing with my heart. The bible study group I was in just happened to choose to study Kay Arthur’s book, Lord, Heal my Hurts. As I browsed through the chapters I could see that it dealt with forgiving those who have wronged you. I asked, “Lord, how can I forgive him after all he has done?” As much as I hated the thought of just “letting him off the hook,” I knew that holding onto my bitterness would only prolong my misery. Perhaps the book would provide some wisdom that would make it easier.

As I plunged into Arthur’s study of Jeremiah and Matthew 18, God was so faithful to remind me that he was my healer. My anger had made sick emotionally and physically, and I knew I had to be free. Somehow as I surrendered to his Spirit and the truths in his Word, my heart began to change. When I recognized God’s amazing grace lavished on me, I began to realize that the sins in my heart were far more numerous than the sins that had been committed against me, and yet Jesus had willingly laid his life down for me. By the time I finished that book, the question I asked God was “How can I not forgive him?” It was powerful and completely liberating. It seemed as though the weight of the entire world was lifted off my shoulders, and even the physical ills I had been experiencing cleared up. I was free! I also learned that I really hadn’t “let him off the hook” either. I had merely entrusted him to God, who was much more able to handle it.

When I was angry, I was wishing that somehow he could hurt as much as I hurt. I wanted him to pay the penalty for his offenses, but when I let go of that desire, and began to pray God’s best for him, something very odd happened. God seemed to step in. There had been one situation that seemed completely unfair to me, but one day shortly after I let it all go I received some news. It seemed as if God had repaid my husband for what he had done. He suffered consequences that I never could have caused, and I feel almost completely sure God waited until I let go to allow those consequences to occur. Rather than feeling vindicated or happy about my husband’s loss, I felt a sense of complete awe that my God would go to battle on my behalf. I knew I could continue to trust him for the outcome, and even though things remained difficult for some time, I learned so much from that experience. I learned that my amazing God was for me, and that he hated the things that happened to my children and me as much as I did. He could deal with my husband with perfect love that would include consequences. I realized that he willingly came down and suffered the greatest injustice of all so that he could enter into my suffering. He forgave his offenders at the cross, and asked the Father to forgive them as well.

Knowing we have a God who has experienced the worst of human suffering is a powerful thing. It means we can run to him and find compassion. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He knows betrayal firsthand. He knows abuse, and he knows excruciating pain. He experienced it all, but never harbored bitterness and hatred in his heart. I ran across this passage in my quiet time today, and it reminded me of how Jesus handled persecution. “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:17-18). Jesus loved those who offended him enough to try and “reason frankly” with them. He never sugarcoated his messages to the religious leaders, but he never wished them harm either. Instead he mourned over them (Mt. 23:37), and continued to speak directly to all who would listen.

Think about the difference between his example and what most of us do. When someone hurts us, we tend to only look at ourselves. We fail to consider the loss our offenders are experiencing. Obviously, they have chosen to break their relationship with us, but even worse, they have broken relationship with God. As his children, we should encourage others to be reconciled to God, even as Jesus did. Yet, most of us lash out at those who hurt us. Some of us are more explosive, and others of us just harbor anger in bitterness in our hearts. Rather than following the protocol set forth in Matthew 18:15-17, and talking to the offender, we talk about him or her in the form of gossip or slander. Love can be a messy thing. The most loving action when someone sins against us is confrontation, and perhaps taking it to the church if that person refuses to listen. (Warning, in cases of abuse, this is not always possible. Still, you must choose to give it to God, and seek godly help from someone who understands the dynamics of abuse.)  When we fail to follow God’s protocol, we hurt ourselves by harboring hatred in our hearts. Psalm 37:8 indicates, that only brings harm. I love the quote, “Unforgiveness is like taking poison and hoping that the other person dies.” That is so true.

When I held onto my bitterness, every relationship in my life was affected, including my relationship with God, because underneath it all I was questioning his goodness. I was wondering why he allowed such evil to occur in our lives, and completely disregarded his ability to redeem. Hebrews 12:15 tells us that allowing a root of bitterness to grow defiles many. When I come across bitter people, I can see it all around them—like poison spilling out. Nobody enjoys being around a bitter person, so most of them end up unconsciously alienating themselves from others, and then becoming angrier because people don’t seem to want to help them. Even though the bitter person may just think they are angry with the person who hurt them only, their anger comes out at everyone. They seem angry when things go well for others, and even angrier when trials come their way. Truly it does nothing to “win friends and influence people.” It merely causes most people to feel uncomfortable, especially those who are walking in a season of blessing. Eventually, it becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They carry the attitude that life has been unfair, people have been unfair, and God doesn’t seem to care. And that is where the real problem lies. Yes, life can be sorely unfair, and people can be too, but to apply that rationale to our Lord is to choose faulty thinking. It is to choose to believe a lie rather than the truth, and truth is the only thing that can make us free.

Choosing to believe God’s love and goodness towards us is crucial in overcoming bitterness. We must remember that he promises to work all things together for our good when are committed to him (Rom. 8:28). We must choose to believe he wants to even use our pain for good, and we must release the anger to him, knowing that he is far more able to handle our offender than we are. We must choose to stop “drinking the poison” of bitterness, and instead release our lives and the lives of our offenders to God, knowing that he is for us (Rom. 8:31). He held nothing back in winning our redemption.

I often direct angry people to the story of Joseph in Genesis. If anyone had a right to be bitter he did. Yet, when it was all said and done, God vindicated him, and the brothers who had abused and abandoned him stood before him trembling. He had the power to get revenge as they stood before him pleading for forgiveness and mercy. For most bitter souls that would have been sweet, but somehow in all he had suffered Joseph had refused bitterness. When his brothers pleaded for mercy, Joseph’s response was “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19-20).

Joseph did not become bitter, because he recognized the sovereign hand of God in his difficult circumstances. He could have chosen to dwell on the bad things that had happened to him, and he probably never would have left prison. That’s exactly what happens to those who allow bitterness to rule their hearts. They remain imprisoned in the past, in the “what ifs” and even in the desire to get even. The bottom line is that those who choose bitterness choose to disregard the promises in God’s Word, and follow their feelings instead. Freedom from bitterness comes down to a choice to believe God’s Word over emotions. It basically comes down to our core beliefs. Do we believe his Word or not? If we choose to remain bitter, then apparently our belief in God is merely intellectual assent, because in reality we are living by our own reasoning. Even though we know Romans 8:28, we can’t imagine how the thing we are suffering could be used for good. I think the best answer to that can be found in Romans 8:29. His plan is to “conform us to the image of his son.”

When we choose to focus on God rather than ourselves in the midst of suffering, he will use it to change us and draw us closer to himself. Somewhere in the process our perspective changes, and we begin to recognize just how temporary the painful circumstances are. We realize that everything on this earth will disappoint at one time or another, but he is forever faithful. Suffering is a beautiful opportunity to know him better. The Apostle Paul stated that he had lost everything for the cause of the Gospel, but that he considered it all rubbish in comparison to knowing God (Phil. 3:8). Only those who have learned to release their bitterness to God can know the wonder Paul is describing here. I often tell people I am grateful for the pain and trials I have experienced, because when all I had left was him, I found out just how wonderful he is. I would not trade my relationship with him for anything this world has to offer, and experiencing great loss drove me directly into his loving arms (once I let go of the bitterness). Hallelujah I am blessed!

If you have experienced hurt that has left you angry and bitter, I pray that right now you will be willing to release it to the Lover of your soul. I pray that you will recognize this time as a time of opportunity, even as painful as it might be, and I pray that you will choose to believe God’s truths over your own emotions. I highly recommend Kay Arthur’s book, Lord, Heal My Hurts. It will help adjust your perspective to a more biblical one– if you are willing. And in the end, willingness is the key. God will meet you where you are, and enable you to forgive. I could never have done it on my own. He stands ready and willing to help you when you turn to him. He has a good plan for your life, and knowing him is the greatest treasure of all. Dear friend, I pray you will run to his loving arms right now, and lay all your burdens down before him. He loves you. He sees what has happened, and hates it as much as you do. Yet, he will not let it go to waste– he will redeem it and use it for good. Choose to trust him now.

For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory.  So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Cor. 4:17-18

Holding Nothing Back

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.” Ps. 22:14

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. Is. 53:12

 There are days when I think I have nothing left to give. I become so exhausted by the demands and tugs of world that I nearly shut down. Usually I try to figure out a way to pamper myself so that I can recharge, but when I think about it nothing I have faced has ever required everything I have. Even when I was experiencing the worst abuse, I was holding on to every vestige of control I could muster. When it seemed utterly hopeless, I cried out to God for help, and the comfort I received was that he completely understood what I was experiencing. He assured me that he knew what it was like to be betrayed, abandoned and abused. The thing that struck me in that moment was that he chose it! I certainly would have done anything to avoid it, but in his great love for us, he completely emptied himself (Phil. 2:7) to the point of death. He held nothing back.

In counseling it’s not uncommon to find people who are upset with God. They are angry that he is allowing them to suffer unjustly, or that he didn’t stop the latest affliction in their lives. Many have faced one horrible experience after another to the point I become heartbroken, and find myself joining them in asking God why he allowed so much misery. Yet, we often forget that our God did not merely leave us here to suffer alone. He came and entered into our suffering to the fullest extent possible. Sometimes knowing that is all we need to know, because there is great comfort in the “fellowship of his suffering” (Phil. 3:10). That is why support groups are often so helpful, because we know we are not alone in our pain. We do not have a God who abandons us and watches indifferently from heaven, but a God who loved us enough to sacrifice everything because of his love for us. When he poured himself out in pain, he was simultaneously pouring his great love onto us. Choosing gratitude for his sacrifice during difficult times can help us overcome the urge to question why and see God as unfair.

In this fallen world, there are no easy answers, and I’ve learned that going down the “why” trail can be very dangerous. It will lead us to bitterness and hopelessness. The better question to ask is “What would you have me learn in this Lord, and how would you like to use this situation for good?” We may never understand why some things have happened on this side of eternity, but we can be sure that He has a redemptive purpose. Even as Jesus endured the shame of the cross, because of the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2), we can endure knowing that he will work everything together for good, and that his plans for us are good (Rom. 8:28, Jer. 29:11). We know that we have a God who specializes in redemption. There is no pit so deep that he cannot redeem. There is nothing he cannot use for good.

After Hurricane Katrina, I went down to the Gulf on 2 separate mission trips to help with the clean up efforts. I met people who had been traumatized beyond words. Some had lost family members, and all of their worldly possessions. Their homeowners insurance did not cover their losses, because they did not have flood insurance. I went because my heart had been broken as I watched the sheer anguish of it all on television after the storm. When I arrived, I saw multitudes of children dealing with PTSD and was even more broken. Yet, over the course of that week as God’s people came in by the hundreds, I saw God’s redemption at work. Children who would have grown up in violent, poverty stricken neighborhoods were relocated to better areas. Churches adopted and helped whole families get a fresh start in life. I saw multitudes of volunteers showering traumatized children with healing love, and some of them were eternally changed as a result of that awful storm.

That is the power of our God. He can take the most horrible situations and use them for good, and the ultimate example of that is the cross. His great sacrifice on our behalf reconciled us to God when we were hopelessly alienated. Not only that, as he willingly emptied himself he experienced the worst of human suffering. The penalty for our rebellion was poured on him, and though we continue to live in a fallen world, we do not live without hope. Knowing that our creator would come down, take on vulnerable flesh and then fully pour himself out for us should change our hearts. Our response should be to surrender our all to the One who gave his all for us. It should fill us with gratitude and comfort to know that we are fully loved, and that even though we will suffer in this world, he has overcome it, so that whatever we experience here is only a shadow preparing us for his eternal joy.

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 Cor. 4:17-18)