by Joanie Butman
At a recent luncheon with the Bible Babes someone posed the compulsory question at this time of year, “What are you thankful for?” I slumped in my chair thinking we were going to hear the predictable answers. Not to diminish their worth, but we all tend to be thankful for the same things – family, friends, health, etc. To my surprise and delight, the first responder answered in an unexpected way. She said she wanted to change it up and talk about something bad for which she was grateful. Immediately, I snapped to attention. This was going to be more interesting than I thought.
Appreciating the suffering in our lives is not a conversation in which many people want to engage and probably not uplifting enough for the Thanksgiving table. Amongst these women though were fellow sufferers who had eventually realized the blessings of their pain. My problem was not thinking of one situation, but choosing which one to discuss. Not that I’ve led a particularly difficult life – quite the opposite – but pain and disappointments don’t spare anyone. Mine may pale in comparison to most, but they are the ones I’ve been given. I used to have the misguided idea that the enormity of other people’s suffering somehow diminished my own – until I read the following.
Tragedy and suffering will come to you…..When they come, they will overwhelm you and immobilize you. You will feel for a time like you can’t go on. If you are one kind of person, you will feel like no other human being has ever known the suffering you are going through. If you are another kind, you will feel that your suffering is so small and insignificant compared to the greater sufferings of others that you are being self-indulgent by feeling your own pain.
Don’t be duped by either extreme. A person burned by a match does not feel pain any less because someone else was burned in a fire. Your pain and suffering are real because they are yours. You must embrace them and realize that they, too, are a gift of life because they take you out of yourself and, for a moment, make you one with all others who have known loss or pain or suffering.*
I think most of us land somewhere in the middle of the extremes described. My difficulties have ranged from trivial to life threatening. Oddly enough, in many ways, the less significant ones were often more painful – maybe because many of them were consequences of my own poor choices or maybe because I am what my family describes as “over sensitive,” which I can’t deny. It’s the little things that usually throw me. Perhaps because the big things I just hand over to God but I hesitate to bother Him with the smaller ones, as if there is a finite number of lifelines I can use so I need to save them up for emergencies. More than any other blessing I’ve ever received, adversity strengthened that lifeline and securely fastened me to God’s sovereignty and grace in any circumstance.
So, back to the original question and my thought process as to which hardship brought me the most blessings. Hmmm, they all brought something I needed; that’s a fact, though I would have been hard pressed to admit it at the time. The obvious one, which I’ve talked about ad nauseam, is my cancer diagnosis. By worldly standards, no one would consider that a blessing, but it has changed my life in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without that pain. I've been told that process is called The Gift of Tears. Only in God’s currency can pain be considered an asset.
The Gift of Tears is not something most people recognize in the midst of suffering. Sometimes it takes years or even a lifetime to see or appreciate the role it played in your life. I can think of numerous situations that felt devastating at the time, but in hindsight were blessings in disguise. My divorce is a perfect example. It might have been one of the most painful experiences of my life, yet I would never have met my current husband, had my two children or become the woman I am today had it not happened. The failure of that marriage changed the trajectory of my life for the better. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been rejected by a school, an employer, a friend or a spouse – it’s all consuming at the moment, but humans are remarkably resilient with an incredible instinct for survival. During the difficult year following my divorce I heard a sermon and took note of this line: “When we face what we consider our very worst, that is the beginning of our very best.” I couldn’t agree more.
I’m sure you can all think of situations where your pain seemed insurmountable but eventually led you to people, places or levels of faith you never imagined. If this sounds familiar, then be comforted in the knowledge that you have passed through The Gift of Tears, a journey no one makes without being changed forever. There’s no going back…
Our lives are unalterably changed, and we will never again be the persons we were before. We have been carried into a larger realm where we see what truly is important, and it is our responsibility to carry that knowledge back into our daily lives. It is our chance to think life afresh. How we respond to tragedy and suffering is the measure of our strength…. experience them for what they are, but use them for what they can be.*
There is a spiritual truth that maintains we never grow or mature in our spiritual life until we have passed through The Gift of Tears. That’s what I’d been taught but didn’t truly understand until I experienced it myself. It was only when I had nothing to lean on but my faith that I realized its sustaining power and depth. The Gift of Tears has blessed me with the irrefutable knowledge that I never need to choose to face any situation (big or small) alone and to fully grasp that God is enough regardless of my circumstances. Finally, it allows me to choose an attitude of gratitude toward ALL the ways He works in my life not just on Thanksgiving but everyday.
With all that said, there are instances in life that are just tragic and seemingly senseless. We witness them every day. They defy explanation and comprehension. Trying to find a reason for them is just as senseless. To quote a popular colloquialism, “S#&t Happens.” Sadly, it’s part of life. We live in a broken world where bad things happen all the time: crime, disease, natural disasters. I will leave it to the pundits to address those kinds of situations – way above my pay grade. Personally, those are exactly the times when my faith in God's providence becomes the lifeline I choose to cling to that allows my soul to be comforted by trusting that God is enough - which allows me to be peaceful amidst chaos.
I dedicate this blog post to Erin – the first responder at our luncheon – for choosing to remind us that sometimes our greatest blessings come wrapped in pain.
Laura Story has an excellent reminder as well:
*Letters to My Son, Kent Nerburn, pg. 75.