I’ll be honest, I hated that school. But looking back, I’m thankful for the things I learned there. Would I choose it? No way.
My heavenly Father loved me enough to allow me to attend its’ dreaded classes. He knew there were things I’d learn there that I couldn’t learn anywhere else.
It seems so backwards; I would think that God’s blessings would be the best teacher, but it’s actually the trials that teach us the most. The suffering can either make us better or bitter. The choice is ours. What’s the long-term trial you’re experiencing? Mine was sickness. Sickness that seemed to go on and on…and on…and on. “I’m still here, God. PLEASE!!!!! Don’t forget me here in this place. Turn your face to me and remember me!” Here are a few of the expensive lessons I learned during those years…
There’s always hope. My husband taught me this one. Every day is different. Today it might feel like you can hardly cope with the pain, but tomorrow may be completely different. There will be ups and downs. Resist the temptation to panic.
Another thing I learned at the school of suffering is that squirming makes the pain worse. We don’t need to yield to the problem itself, but yielding to God’s sovereign plan for our lives reduces the pain. On those days when I’d wrestle and resist God’s plan for my life, the pain skyrocketed. You see, I had other plans for my life, and God just wasn’t following my lead! Imagine that! I wanted to run for God. Spiritually speaking, I had my tennis shoes on, and I was ready to MOVE OUT! Or so I thought. God DOES have plans for you…” “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) The part I missed was that the plans were HIS, not mine. The good news is that His plans are better than mine. It takes patience to see His plan unfold.
The up’s and downs of long-term trials ARE accomplishing something. I remember after I’d been sick for about 6 months. The symptoms subsided, and I mistakenly thought the trial was over. “Hmm, I thought. That was hard, but I don’t feel any different.” Then the symptoms returned. I had to battle through the disappointment and the pain. Another year went by, and by then I knew that I was different. The ups and downs had taught me something. Ironically, they had taught me that God is my protector. My initial, knee-jerk reaction was changing from fear to trust. Before the illness, trust in self was my instant reaction. This transition didn’t come quickly or easily. I felt like a dog on a leash. On days that I felt energy, I’d take off running, determined to catch up on all I was behind on. Then, “wham!” I’d get to the end of the leash and go flying backwards. Over and over, time after time. The repetition was changing me. What is God is teaching you through your suffering? Watch for it…it will emerge eventually.
Another thing suffering taught me was that boundaries are good, isolating isn’t. I needed to learn that there are times when engaging with others was NOT what I needed. There were times when I needed to ignore the phone and get into God’s presence. That was a new one for me. Other’s didn’t always like it. They had to adjust too. I had to learn to lay down what I thought others expected of me. Trials call for new boundaries. Boundaries are not only ok, but they’re a good thing. When your energy is limited, not everyone should get equal access. I found that with some social situations, it was helpful to verbalize start and finish times beforehand so others knew what to expect. Holding social events in neutral places (like a restaurant) can also be helpful in establishing boundaries.
On the other hand, beware of isolating. It’s easy to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed. For me, it was motivated by fear. Fear of judgment, fear of the little energy I had being consumed by others. Build into your week time with life-giving, encouraging friendships. Have margins so that high-priority relationships get your time and energy.
Avoid putting up walls of self-protection during long-term trials. Emotional walls can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who we trust to do the protecting. If we’re trusting in our own ability to to protect ourselves, everyone gets injured. Avoid erecting walls of fear around your heart. Our motives matter. Fear will take us down very different paths than love will. Here’s the deal: our hearts do need protection. We need a safe place, especially during suffering. The good news is that God promises to do that for us. He wants to be our refuge, our shield, our protector. When we simply ask Him to be our wall of protection, He is faithful. His walls of protection don’t damage our relationships the way walls of self-protection do. The walls of God’s refuge allow love to still get through.
The School of suffering also taught me that self-pity has a high price tag; one we couldn’t afford.
To be honest, I had never given self-pity much thought. I remember the first time I read one author’s perspective of it: “Wow, that’s harsh,” This was my initial reaction to Oswald Chambers’ description of self-pity… “No sin is worse than the sin of self-pity, because it obliterates God and puts self-interest upon the throne”…then I realized where self-pity had led in my life…to a place where I found myself despairing, asking God to take my life.
In his book entitled, Wrestling Prayer, Eric Ludy states, “Self-pity has destroyed more men and women than maybe any other vice. Self-pity appears smallish, weak, and almost cute. It appears to be some harmless luxury of the human soul in hard times – but for all its seeming neutrality, self-pity has proven the conqueror of kings, princes, prophets, and mighty men throughout the ages.”
So, what exactly is self-pity? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it this way: “a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes.” The key word here is “dwelling.” There will be times when we need to look at the pain. Momentarily and with with intentionality. The key is that we don’t live there, making self-focus our main focus. If we allow self-focus to become a way of life, we may crush ourselves with ourselves. Self-pity tempts us to make self the center instead of God. It tempts us to focus on lack rather than on provision. If this is what we choose, we’ll veer toward despair. The antidote to self-pity is taking our eyes off of our self, making God the center. This means taking the time to say thank you for all He has blessed us with.
The school of suffering allows us to experience desperation. It acts like a catalyst, launching us where God wants us to go…places we wouldn’t go without it. Often this is into His lap. Desperation launches us into deeper, more intimate relationships with God and others. Relationships where we experience connection, vulnerability and interdependence. Desperation leads us into more honest communication. It causes pretenses to fall.
The school of long-term trials also taught me that physical pain diminishes in God’s presence. Turning my focus off of my symptoms and onto God’s attributes made me feel healthier. Stronger. The same is true of emotional pain; it diminishes when we sing along with worship music. It has been said that worship creates a fire around our soul. I believe this is true. The enemy and the flesh cannot operate for long when we worship.
If you’re in the school of suffering for any length of time, you’ll learn that it drives us to listen to God’s voice above all other voices. When we suffer, people seem to come out of the woodwork with suggestions…try this doctor, or this diet, this counselor. The list is endless, and the suggestions can become overwhelming if we focus on them too much. The voice we need to hear in the midst of our suffering is God’s. His counsel is always right, even when others don’t see it that way. Once we’ve heard from God, we just need to stay the course. God’s ways will prove themselves right in the end.
When we’re in the school of suffering, we also need to learn to ask for what we need. Things are different in a season of suffering, and so are our needs. Others need to be told what we need. They can’t read our minds. I found that when I simply asked for help, expressing exactly what I was asking for, others were more than happy to oblige.
“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you…” (2 Thess. 2:16-17)