Monday, December 23, 2013

The Journey of Suffering, and the lies we believe.

"I think something's wrong with Shane."  Those were the words that got me up at 4 am on 11/6/2013.  At this point, we were 32 weeks pregnant, Shane's due date being December 28th.  I shot up, asking her what was going on, and she, in tears, explained that she had passed blood.  I was horrified.  I quickly prayed, and then probably did the worst thing you could do in that situation, go online to find answers.  Heather called the hospital, we felt for our unborn son with mild relief to find he was still kicking, so he was alive for the time being. 

In the hospital, we were shocked to find that Heather was 8 cm dialated, which for you folks that no nothing about birth (which I didn't... I planned on watching all the info videos that day), that meant that he was coming.  I got statistics about how he had an 85% survival rate, that he would need assistance breathing, etc.  I didn't care that the 85% was high, the fact that it wasn't 100% was enough to cause panic to me.  I wondered if we had done something wrong, if we had done something to trigger it.  The doctors assured me that we hadn't, but it can be hard to shake that feeling. 

After a quick labor, he was whisked away by helicopter where there were proper resources for him.  I stayed behind to be with Heather as she healed,  and I kept worrying.  How was his breathing?  What if he didn't make it and I couldn't be there with him?  How could I care for Heather?  If nothing else, going through birth of my son made me realize how weak and helpless I really am.  I had to keep reminding myself of 2 Corinthians 12:9, where Paul reiterates his weakness (of course, the context is different), saying that the Lord had said to him, "my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." 

What came next was 3 weeks in the NICU, living with a family (which was a major answer to prayer) that was a 10 minute walk from the hospital.  We went to see Shane for the first time since his birth, and the first thing we found out was he had an isolation room.  It seemed great at first, we had our own private room with him.  However, when they handed us gowns and gloves to go see him, Heather and I both had a sense of dread.  "What... what is so wrong with him that we need this stuff?" We thought.  It turned out he was fine, it was precautionary for an infection that he had on him but wasn't affecting him.  They told us he was doing great, just needed to pack on weight and stay warm, or as my friend Dave had told me, "He just needs to chunk up." 

We had our good days and bad days, the doctors would give us timelines for when he would go home, what he would need to accomplish, etc.  Some days it felt like 3 steps forward, others like 2 steps back.  We shared tears when he would struggle, other times anger and frustration.  And then, the guilt.  Oh how I felt guilty.  Why?  Because of seeing the struggle of others, most of whom were not only hopeless physically but spiritually as well.

The first family I ran into had all ready been there for a month.  Their daughter was born at 24 weeks, and the nurses were preparing her for her 2nd heart surgery.  My heart ached.  Others suffered through similar issues, either with surgeries or pre-maturities, others struggled with being in the hospital not just they and their spouse, but had to uproot their large families to watch over the smallest sibling.  I can't imagine the pain, the sleepless nights, the struggles.  And here I sat, worried about my son who was given every vote of confidence that he would be ok, he just needed to eat and keep warm.  The guilt sank into my heart... how could I be sad when I had so much to be grateful for?  Sure, it sucked being in Danville for 3 weeks, not being able to take him home.  It sucked that life got interrupted.  The emotion and shock of him coming early, and roller-coaster ride of him doing well or not well with eating was draining.  But, it's not like I was going through what these people are going through.  Right?

"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,  so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."  -- I Peter 1:6-7  

A friend's words were similar to this passage from 1 Peter, that God gives us whatever suffering we need so that we may draw nearer to Him.  Notice in the passage it says "various trials."  It's not about experiencing level 10 suffering which helps your faith, but level 2 suffering that our response should be, "Get over it."  It's saying that each trial we are grieved by has a specific purpose, which is to test our faith in Christ, and to refine it so that we praise and glorify Jesus further.

This flies in the face of a dirty, heinous lie that we, or at least I, believe in the midst of suffering, which is I need to compare my sufferings to others.  So, if my suffering isn't that bad but I'm all mopey, I just need to suck it up and stop complaining.  Or if my suffering is worse than others, my response to them is to stop complaining and trust Jesus.  It's heinous, and can result in cruelty when in actuality the suffering that people have been given is hard for them just as mine is for me.

What we should do is walk with people where they are at, remind them of the promises we have rooted in the scriptures, ultimately pointing them to Jesus.  How do we do that? 

Affirm and tangibly walk with those who suffer - This goes for the single woman who struggles with not being married, the young guy who struggles with besetting sins, to the father or mother who loses their child.  Regardless of the "degree" of suffering, affirm that there is suffering.  You don't need to try and fix it, just listen.  Ask questions, offer to pray with them, let them know you're there for them, whether it means a shoulder to cry on, an offer to talk on the phone, or just affirming that it's ok to feel busted up inside about what's going on.  Offer to look at the psalms, with which many of them paint brutally honest pictures of how the author feels both in the midst of circumstances and towards the Lord.  Randomly text, call, or message them to let them know you're thinking about and praying for them.  Pray for them privately.

Don't lose sight of the Lord's purpose in suffering - In other words, God is not absent in the midst of whatever suffering you are in.  Cry out to Him and confess what you're struggling with.  Be honest in how you feel.  But remember the good that He has done.  1 Thessalonians 5 says that we should "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."  That doesn't mean to plaster on a fake smile and say "Praise be to God," to everyone that passes by.  It means that we can thank God that we know, in spite of how much we hate our situation, that He will use it for good.  He has promised that.  "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."  (Romans 8:28)  We can remind each other of God's deep love and grace as we walk through the difficult seasons of life. 

Reach Out - If you're in the midst of suffering, don't go it alone.  Instead, drag yourself into community.  Self-pity, depression, and despair thrive in isolation.  It's easy to think, "no one will understand," or "I just need to be alone right now."  While it's ok to spend some time processing what you're going through, it's actually not helpful to you or to others. Reach out to others for help.  I can't tell you how many times we had people come into our lives, some of which we barely know, and they made us a meal, gave us a gift card, sent us a friendly e-mail or text, or something else very encouraging to our souls.  It has made our time much sweeter.  And, believe it or not, you walking through suffering actually might help encourage others, both in their relationship with God AND in helping them realize it's ok for them to share the suffering they are going through too.

Remember the Lord is your perfect comforter - Everyone is a sinner, so when people attempt to care for you, I guarantee people will mess up.  You will mess up too.  It's ok, we can run into the arms of our perfect comforter in our Heavenly Father, both when our circumstances are hard AND when people don't understand how to care for us in the midst of those circumstances.  He is always available.  He will always listen.  He can always remind you that while we have "momentary" suffering here, Jesus paid the ultimate price of suffering so we might have eternal, everlasting joy. 

In His Grace,
Zack