I write and speak primarily about suffering. I didn’t choose this topic- if it were up to me, I’d be an expert on effective parenting, or gourmet cooking, or physical fitness. Or wealth management. I’d even settle for waste management. Life would be easier and more fun if my experiences centered on something less bruising. My mom agrees. Years ago, after hearing me speak about the death of my son, she offered a suggestion: “I love hearing you talk about suffering. But I think you’ve spoken enough about it because God keeps giving you more material. Your next topic needs to be joy. Tell God that you don’t have enough first-hand experience with joy so He needs to give you more!”
My mom, one of my favorite people in the world, has a great sense of humor. We have laughed about that statement many times, though I know she was only partially joking. She’s weary of watching me suffer. She wants me to have joy.
In the ensuing years since that talk, my life has gotten increasingly difficult. I have cried more, screamed at God more, and felt more miserable than I care to admit. But at the same time, I have experienced a deeper joy than I could ever have imagined. For the first half of my life, my joy seemed dependent on my circumstances. When my life was going well, and things were easy, I felt happy. I felt that God was blessing me, though I couldn’t find much time for God. I was too busy enjoying the good life.
But when life unravelled and the days felt unbearable, God's presence was unmistakable. Even when my major accomplishment for the day was making it through without a breakdown, there was something extraordinary about my time with God. I desperately needed Him. To give me strength. To revive me. To help me hang on. It was the only way to survive.
And through those excruciating days, God spoke to me. He comforted me through His Word. He whispered to me in the darkness, as I lay awake on my tear-stained pillow. He sang songs over me of His love.
I wouldn’t want to go through those days again, though I wouldn’t trade what I learned for anything. On the worst days, I just wanted the pain to go away. I didn’t rejoice in the moment. I didn’t rejoice at all. But I clung to God and His promises knowing He would bring me through. Joy did not come easy. I had glimpses of delight, but mostly joy was slow and incremental. I had to fight for it.
But as the days went by, I realized I had a joy that I couldn’t explain. It was completely independent of circumstances. Actually, it was almost inversely proportionate to my circumstances. The harder things got, the more joy God poured into me. The joy was in knowing that God could be trusted. In seeing His faithfulness through unimaginable pain.
Though I’m referring to a time of great suffering in my life, what I’m writing about isn’t limited to earthshaking pain. Significant trials have forged my faith, but I live, as we all do, in the mundane suffering. Feeling misunderstood or rejected by a friend or family member. Feeling lonely or depressed. Dealing with the same parenting issues over and over again. Being overwhelmed by responsibilities. Having everything in the house break down at once. Feeling physically ill- with a cold, a backache, a headache. Those things are universal. We all face them.
But just like the monumental struggles, we wish they were different. That they’d go away or get resolved so that we can get on with our days- the real things we’re called to. We fantasize that if they were different, we could be happier, more joyful, more faithful.
But what if we looked at those trials as the very things that God has ordained for our joy. To mold our character. To teach us to trust. To give us Himself. When we run to God with our pain, instead of running away, our perspective changes. We find a joy that can never be taken away. If we could only see all our disappointments through this lens, we would discover that suffering is often the gateway to joy.
We don’t get joy from having a winning lottery ticket. That may buy us some happiness- but that happiness is fleeting at best and months later leaves us emptier than before, looking for the next big thrill. But the joy we get from enduring suffering gets richer over time. Our circumstances cannot diminish it. It produces lasting fruit like endurance, character and hope. It draws us to God in breathtaking ways. It achieves a weight of glory that is beyond all comparison.
I am convinced that our capacity for God, and for true joy, is carved out of our suffering. Suffering chisels deep into our soul, often making us feel empty, misunderstood, alone. And yet it is out of that chasm, that emptiness, that God alone can fill us. With Himself. With His joy.
I so appreciate my precious mother, who prays unceasingly for my joy. Her prayers have been answered, not in the way she expected, but in the way God intended. For I understand in a more profound way than ever, when I’m speaking about suffering, I’m really speaking about joy.