Encouragement for Those Who Struggle
16 Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me,
For I am desolate and afflicted.
17 The troubles of my heart have enlarged;
Bring me out of my distresses!
18 Look on my affliction and my pain,
And forgive all my sins.
- Psalm 25:16-18
All my life, I’ve known struggle.
Oh, I’ve not had the hardest life by any stretch, and I know there are plenty of people in this world who have suffered much worse than I have in my 39 years of existence. Yet, the thing about this human experience is that it is subjective, and that in turn makes each person’s struggle relative to their own experience.
As a young man in nursing school, we were taught that we should never assume to know the severity of another person’s pain. I’ve since taken that admonishment to heart as a reminder that every person’s struggle is unique, so I try to have compassion for others and the struggles they go through, no matter how they seemingly compare to my own.
Most recently, I’ve had the humbling and at times humiliating experience of being brought low by a chronic illness. I now intimately understand why my nursing instructors were so adamant about having compassion for those in pain.
There’s really no way to relate to another human what it is like to live every moment of every day in some sort of chronic pain. And, while it is possible to paint on a brave face most days, inevitably there will come those times when you are broken and beaten down, and must impose upon the patience of those around you to grant you a little grace while you recede into yourself until you can keep it together again.
When you’re going through something like this, where every day is a continual struggle to make it through the next hour, the next minute, the next few seconds; in these times, it is inevitable that you will begin to question the point of it all.
“Why God? Why me? Why here? Why now? Why this thing that you’ve cast upon me?” You pray for relief, you look for a sign, you ask for a healing miracle…
And the days go by, and weeks, and months, then years – and you begin to doubt your faith. Moreover, you begin to despair. You doubt there’s ever going to be any positive resolution to your condition, and it all seems so pointless to have to suffer day in and day out in such a meaningless way.
And you ask yourself, “Where is God in all of this?” Your heart breaks, and God’s comfort and love seem so, so far away that you feel as though they never really existed in your life at all.
At least, that’s how I have felt, many, many times over these last few years.
Right now, I’m reading Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. Since I read Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality a few years ago, I’ve been a fan of Don’s work, and in this most recent book he returns to true form, sharing simple and provoking insights about living a Christian walk in the middle of this mess, this constant and unrelenting state of brokenness that is our human condition.
The entire book is a sort of self-deprecating essay examining the art of creating fiction as a metaphor for the greater undertaking of writing the story of our own lives. In yet a broader application of the same metaphor, Donald relates how he has observed that we are constantly trying to live comfortable, unremarkable, and utterly meaningless stories, and how God is continually whispering a greater, grander, more beautiful and endearing story to our hearts and souls. If we would only listen, we’d hear the story written for us by the greatest Author ever known; a story written just for us, an epic that allows us to play the great role we were intended for since time began.
At some point early on in the book, Donald attends an intense three-day seminar on story creation given by Robert McKee, who turns out to be a somewhat curmudgeonly yet entirely earnest and brilliant teacher on the topic. McKee tells his students, “You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.”
Over the course of the book, Miller comes to realize the truth of what our flesh and spirit struggle with; that is, we are by our nature in the flesh complacent, lazy, and drawn toward familiar comforts. We utterly fear and despise change, never mind discomfort or pain. It is only through the shock of intense and often painful experience that we become who and what we are meant to be.
As I started writing this, I was listening to my infant son crying at the top of his lungs, because I’d put him down for his afternoon nap and he wanted to sit in daddy’s lap instead. What his five-month-old mind does not realize and cannot comprehend is that he needs something that he doesn’t want at this time.
It’s more fun to be up with daddy, gumming his toys, listening to classical music and hearing the “tap-tap-tap” of the laptop keys across the room. But his daddy knows when it’s best to make him lay down, make him be still, and get him to switch gears for a while. He doesn’t like it at the time, but later he’ll be fine with it after he realizes the actual benefits of his nap.
I believe in many ways we are much like infants to our heavenly Father. Our cries must be like infant cries to Him, breaking His heart just as it breaks my heart each time I hear my son cry. Yet, our God wants us to live a better story, the one He has written for us. In this regard, He also knows that sometimes we must be allowed to experience a little suffering in order for us to change.
If you are suffering right now and at the end of your rope, I know this may be of little comfort to you. I can tell you in my own experience that there is nothing more trite than being told in the midst of intense sorrow and pain that “it’s all for the best”. That feels like a slap in the face in the midst of your trial, and I know it is absolutely no comfort at all.
So, the best thing I can do for you (and often it’s the only really helpful thing any of us can do for a friend who is suffering besides just being there for them) is to pray what Peter prayed for some two millenia ago:
“But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.”
- 1 Peter 5:10 (emphasis mine)