Suffering as Gift

I recently read a science fiction book called Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.
It was an interesting book in a lot of ways, but one of the concepts (almost a side-note, actually) that stuck with me was the idea that without suffering there can be no great art.
An age of peace and prosperity for all had arrived on earth, and a side effect of this was that there was no longer any great music being composed, great literature being written, great art being created.
The end of suffering meant the end of greatness.
The author, by the way, was an atheist.
An atheist was more able than many Christians to see that there is good in suffering.
This seems backwards.
We Jesus-followers in our time and place spend so much time pursuing comfort. Difficulties are viewed as a threat to one’s well-being, suffering or even mere unhappiness is seen as intolerable oppression. Do you disagree with someone at the church you attend? Leave it and find another. Do your kids annoy you? Send them off to daycare or school.
I also recently read Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher. The whole book is a fascinating look at Christians who survived the totalitarian governments in the Soviet Union and warnings they want to give us in the West today.
Dreher gives an entire chapter to the idea of suffering as a gift.
He interviewed person after person who were persecuted, jailed, even tortured for being a follower of Jesus, and every single one spoke of their gratitude for the suffering they endured.
suffering as a gift
“Suffering is a part of every human’s life. We don’t know why we suffer, but your suffering is like a seal. If you put that seal on your actions, interestingly enough, people start to wonder about your truth – that maybe you are right about God. In one sense, it’s a mystery, because the Evil One wants to persuade us that there is a life without suffering. First you have to live through it, and then you try to pass on the value of suffering, because suffering has a value.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, as such. What is fear? Someone who is afraid is going to be made to do the most evil things. If someone is not afraid to say no, if your soul is free, there is nothing they can do to you. In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous.”
“And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison! … Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!'”
“Taking up your cross and carrying it is always going to be uncomfortable. We can say clearly that this current ideology of comfort is anti-Christian in its very essence. But we should point out the fact that the church, not once, ever called its followers to look for suffering, and even made it clear that they are warned not to do that. But if a person finds himself in a situation where he’s suffering, then he should bear it with courage.”
Even though doing so means to “declare oneself a kind of savage in today’s culture – even within the culture of the church,” I will say this clearly: there is great value in suffering.
To refuse to see suffering as a means of sanctification is to give way to, in Aldous Huxley’s words, “Christianity without tears.”
Again, in the words of one of the religious dissidents under the communist regime:
“Christians must embrace suffering because that’s what Jesus did, and because they have the promise, on faith, that to share in his suffering will bring glory in the next life. But sometimes, we can see results in this life.”
God does not, let me be clear, will evil to happen. He can, however, as he showed in his own Passion, permit suffering for some greater good.
No one has the power to avoid suffering – it is part of the human condition.
We cannot control whether we will encounter suffering. What we can control is how we react to it. Will we run from it and betray our Lord?
Or will we let it change us, serving as the refiner’s fire and purifying our love for God and others?

allowing a change

The End Is Not the End

Sometimes you hit the end.
the end
You have prayed and begged and pleaded with God for things to change.
You have worked and fought and wrestled to change them.
I don’t know what that is for you, but we all have or will hit an end.
An end we can’t quite understand.
Can’t quite fathom why.
Can’t quite see any good in.
It is simply the end.
the end
In the days following the crucifixion, Jesus’s followers felt the same way.
They couldn’t understand how Jesus could be dead. They couldn’t fathom why he had to die and they definitely couldn’t see any good in his death.
After Jesus was buried, the disciples left the tomb and went home.
Why not? It was the end.
They all left except one.
Only Mary Magdalene came back.
She came back on Sunday morning, saw the stone rolled away from the tomb entrance, and ran to get the other disciples.
Peter and John came running, saw the empty tomb, and …
left again.
Back to their homes.
Back to wherever you go when you hit the end.
Except, once again, Mary.
Mary stayed. wait
Again and again, she came back and waited. She couldn’t help but stay and wait.
Wait for what? She probably didn’t even know. But she stayed. And waited.
And finally, finally,
it wasn’t the end anymore.
She heard Jesus say her name.
Jesus who was definitely not dead anymore.
It wasn’t what anyone expected.
The disciples were certain that Jesus would defeat the Romans and establish a physical kingdom here on earth.
It was even better than what they expected.
So when you hit the end, stay. Wait.
this is not the end
Wait on God.
He is coming. He will make everything right again.
It may not be in the way you expect. It may not be in the timing you hope for.
But it will be much, much more perfect, much, much more beautiful than anything you could have imagined.
To quote the great John Lennon (because truth is truth no matter where you find it), “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
Art credit: statue is by Gutzon Borglum and can be found in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D. C. (photos by Sarah Stierch)

Jesus Will Solve Your Problems and Make You Happy

There is something troublesome that comes across in many modern, Western churches, something that offers up Jesus as a commodity that will solve all of your troubles, heal all of your woes, and make you happy.
Trinity Lutheran
Pastors exalt the benefits of following Jesus, telling tales of miracles and answered prayers, with little to no talk of the cost of discipleship.
Much of our Western church downplays the theology of suffering and the brokenness of our world and chooses instead to emphasize the “benefits” of Christianity. While most churches wouldn’t say outright that they follow a prosperity-gospel sort of theology, many of them teach as though they deeply believe a version of it.
Cathedral inside
Even the songs we sing in church or on Christian radio can lean hard into the happy feelings rather than lamenting the pain that we all experience in this broken world of ours.
DSC_0092 copy
Compare, for example, the lyrics of some modern praise songs:
You’re a good, good Father
It’s who You are
You’ve never failed me yet
to an old hymn, Faith of Our Fathers:
Faith of our fathers, living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword;
Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to Thee till death!
Yes, I deliberately chose a few extreme examples, but when was the last time you heard anything in church, from a pastor or a song, encouraging you to remain true to God through all things, even death? When was the last time you heard about the discipline of lament, or the idea that some things in this world will never be okay until you see Jesus face to face and He is with you through it all.
Too many people have heard this “Jesus will solve your problems and make you happy” rhetoric and given a predictable “What kind of fool do you take me for?” answer.
Part of the trouble, of course, part of the reason why this notion has taken hold in so many churches is that it is true.
Not the fixing – all – your – problems part, but the way in which his presence takes root and spreads, producing peace and joy no matter what life’s circumstances. ~ Frederica Mathewes – Green in At the Corner of East and Now
There’s no great way of saying that, though. Life is full of pain. How can we say that Jesus makes everything fine without sounding schmaltzy or foolish?
It’s not something that we can really explain in words. It’s something that people must see for themselves. You have to give it a try for a while before you understand, because the pain doesn’t always go away. The cancer doesn’t always get healed, the loneliness doesn’t always vanish, the marriage doesn’t always get saved.
It doesn’t mean that you get everything you want; rather, that gradually you get to want only Jesus. ‘He will give you the desires of your heart.’ (Ps. 37.4) turns out to mean that God gives the desires themselves; our impulsive and conflicting hungers are transformed, tuned, and ordered to receive what God intends to give. ~ Mathewes-Green
In the end, we are given Jesus himself, and it turns out that Jesus is what we really wanted all along.

This Frivolous Beauty

We in the West live in a world still immersed in the Enlightenment. We still believe that Truth is only what can be observed, tested, measured.
Wendell Berry calls this, the idea that the touchable world of science and matter is all there really is, our modern superstition. ” … we moderns dismiss this (idea that the world tells us about God’s love) as fancy and view the world with disenchanted eyes as a collection of atoms and dust – something to measure but not something that means.”
This, of course, has left us dissatisfied. When the only thing that exists is that which is measurable, when we are told that nothing around us has any deeper meaning, we are left discontent and searching for meaning and contentment in all the wrong places.
And when the unthinkable happens, when our world crumbles and leaves us drowning in grief and pain, we have been trained by our culture and even our churches to look to facts and information to make life easier. If we can only gather enough theological information, we believe, we can solve the problem of grief and pain.
Facts are a cold comfort, though, when we are stumbling through the darkness of suffering. It is good and necessary for us to know facts about the character of God, but we will never know the presence of the Father in data.
Our culture and even many of our churches have trained us to dismiss art, music, joy in nature, as frivolous and trivial.
The truth? These beauties are small glories offered to us as communion with our Creator.
All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” ~ Alexander Schmemann
Art, music, the beauty of nature, all of these are God’s gift to us, one way that he enters our world of suffering and transforms it into a space where we can know his unfailing love.
Suffering cannot be transformed by theological data. There is not much that will be made new in this life. Yet while we wait for the sure renewal of all things, it is through the “triviality” of beauty, through art and music and joy in nature, that we are able to catch a glimpse of the deeper truth that is Emmanuel, God with us.
All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God.

many of the ideas in this post are from This Beautiful Truth by Sarah Clarkson

Art credits: Wind Mountain by James Madison Alden; The Water-Lily Pond by Claude Monet; photograph of mountain stream by Kirk Sewell; all other photographs are my own

The Way God Comes to Us

God is easy to miss.
Every once in a great while he comes in the earthquake, the fire, the lightning flash of glory.
Which is, is it not, the way we most often pray for him to show up? We pray for him to reveal his presence in a miraculous, unmistakable way.
We plead for the glory of a healing, not the glory of a sunrise.
The miraculous presence is not usually what any of us receive, and when he does not show up in the way we hope desperately for, we feel abandoned.
Sarah Clarkson writes of this feeling of abandonment in her struggles with mental illness:
But he never arrived in the shattering display of strength that I thought was the only way he could answer my prayer. So I felt betrayed. … I assumed God was absent because he didn’t come in the way I thought he would. I didn’t yet have an imagination that was healed enough to picture a power that could cherish and heal me as I was — not discarding what was broken in me, but making of it something precious and new.
Jesus is God enfleshed, the perfect image of the invisible God, and when I read the stories of Jesus after the resurrection to find out how God comes to us, I most often see him coming into life in its real and inescapably common places.
I see Mary at the empty tomb desperately pleading with a gardener.
I see two men meeting a stranger while walking down the road.
I see Jesus making breakfast on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing.
Jesus doesn’t approach from on high, but always in the midst of people, of real life. He approaches in the midst of the questions that come out of real life.
The sacred moments, the moments that pull back the veil and reveal God with us, are often the everyday moments.
God most often comes to us not on high, but in the fragile and often hidden beauty of our everyday moments.
It is these very everyday moments which,
if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only … the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination — if we live our lives not from vacation to vacation, from escape to escape, but from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next — what we may see is Jesus himself. ~ Frederick Buechner
This is my prayer for you as you read this: that in the glimpses of beauty that come to you in your darkness, you will be able to see the kindness of God who does not often zap away the bad pieces of your life but who instead died to bind them all up in his love.

Our Beloved Enemy

There have been times when my hurt and grief overwhelmed me and turned my face away from God.
Times when sorrow turned my inmost thoughts to darkness and I “blamed God for it with fierce, hot breath and yet ached for his touch at the same time.”
Wrestling with God
We all wrestle with God at times, shoving against him in the darkness of our pain and doubt.
We wrestle like Jacob by the river. We wrestle, hurling our accusations while at the same time refusing to let go until he blesses us.
And isn’t this what most often happens? We fight against God without being able to let go of him.
I strike at him with my pain while being unable to rid myself of my anguished desire for his love.
He was the cause of my grief, the opponent, and the peace I craved all in one enigmatic, awful Beloved. I could no more walk away from his existence than I could walk away from my own desire for breath. ~ Sarah Clarkson in This Beautiful Truth
Wrestling with God
Do you know the story?
Jacob, deceiver, heir to God’s covenant promises, is heading home after twenty years in exile. Home to the land God promised him.
He sends his family and servants across the river Jabbok, but stays behind to spend the night on the shore alone. We don’t know why.
Suddenly, out of the darkness, a stranger leaps at Jacob and they fall to the ground, wrestling through the darkness. All night they struggle until just before dawn when Jacob realizes who it is that he has been grappling with.
God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. ~ Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat
In the realization that it is God who is wrestling with him, Jacob refuses to release his grip, just as he has refused to release his grip all night, but in his pleading for a blessing, his grip of violence becomes a grip of desperate need.
Wrestling with God
God is our beloved enemy because he promises us everything, but before he gives us everything, he demands of us everything. “Before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure …” Buechner
Will we give them, you and I? I do not know.
Only remember Jacob, limping home against the growing light of dawn, a shadow of one to come.
Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God. ~ Buechner

Art credits: Jacob Wrestling by Gustave Doré; Jacob Wrestles by Gerard Hoet; Jacob Wrestled by Charles Foster

Hope Changes Nothing

Today I needed this post from several years ago. Maybe you need it too. Peace be upon you all.


It changes nothing.  It changes everything.
How do you endure?  When everything around you is falling apart, when all that you love on this earth fails you, how do you keep going?
It happens to all of us.  At some point in our lives, whether early in life or late, we sit in stunned silence while our world crumbles.
What do we do?  What do we do when we or one we love is living in the middle of unimaginable pain?  What is it that keeps us going, that lets us persevere?
It changes nothing.  It changes everything.
Hope doesn’t heal the sick or take away the pain.  It doesn’t fill the stomach or bring your loved one back.
Focused on Death
It changes nothing.
Hope gives you a glory-full vision of the end of your story.  It gives you a glimpse of the beauty, the joy, the perfection that is promised.
Focused on Hope
It changes everything.
When you know the end of the story, when you know that Christ wins and that we will be with Him forever, it gives us the power to bear anything.  Anything.  When you can see the end of fear, the end of despair, the end of pain, when you can see the adventure, the rest, the wholeness that waits for you, you are sustained in the now because you know that this, too, shall pass.
So hope.  Hope in what is promised.  Hope in what God has promised through the power of the resurrected Christ.
For you who have just received that 3 a.m. phone call, you who walk dazed from your doctor’s office, you who saw your child drift away, you who wish desperately for a child, you who sit weeping in a corner, who think that you will always be alone and unloved, for all of you who live in darkness and doubt…
there is hope.  Beautiful, glorious, resurrection hope.  So breathe deep of this hope.  Let it fill you up with peace and joy so that you are able to endure all things.  For He who is our hope is coming.
It is promised.  It shall be so.

Art credit: last photograph by R.K. Sewell Photography (

Suffering Gladly for the Sake of Something Greater

suffering gladly
suffering gladly
My first inclination is to avoid suffering at any cost.
I cringe a little when I read Scripture passages about embracing suffering in order to reach a desired end:
we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance …
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory …
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ … to also suffer for his sake …
Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
One earthly shadow that has recently helped me to better understand this truth is childbirth.
I suffered labor pains willingly, even gladly, for the sake of birthing my babies. Even when it came time for the fourth baby, even when I knew what lay ahead of me, I suffered gladly for the sake of something much greater.
I have a suspicion that if I only knew what eternal glory was waiting for me I would bear my sufferings much more gladly.
 I claim I trust God’s love for me, trust that his end purpose for me is good and beautiful, beyond anything I could have asked or imagined, yet when it comes to his methods, I push back and fight, unwilling to be still and trust.
The fruit we are given is not always what we expect or want; it may even be bitter, but we are secure in knowing that it is given to us out of love. ~ Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me
It is easy for me to be attracted to the idea of becoming like Jesus, to the idea of the grace of God bringing me into eternal glory.
It is much harder for me to recognize that grace when it appears in my life as suffering.
In the depths of our confusion and anger, we ask: ‘How can this be God’s love? Where is God in this disaster?’ For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us to places we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ~ Kathleen Norris
My deep desire is to be able to trust in the reality of God’s providence and love enough that I will suffer willingly, even gladly, in order to gain the purpose for which God created me.

Do Not Despair in the Darkness

Sometimes I cannot see a way out.
Sometimes the darkness is simply too great; I cannot fathom that there could be any way through to the light.
I, or ones I love, have been enveloped in this kind of murkiness before. Some of those I love feel lost in it right now.
I would venture to suppose that you could say the same.
It is tempting to despair when faced with this kind of desperateness.
It is tempting to believe there is no way out.
It is tempting to decide there is no rescue coming.
The earliest Mothers and Fathers of our faith have taught that this is, indeed, a temptation.
The early monks recognized in despair
“the most vicious and self-defeating temptation of all, that of losing trust in God’s providence and love.” ~ Katherine Norris
When we are in the middle of the deepest darkness, Satan is right there with us, whispering in our ears, “There is no hope. God is not here. He does not care. There is no rescue to be had.”
I have heard the whisper.
I have been tempted to believe it.
Hold on to hope, dear one, even if you can only manage the tiniest shred of it.
Your diminished imagination cannot begin to comprehend the vastness of possibilities God has at His fingertips.
“I must never, at any moment, presume to say that there is no way out for God because I cannot see any. For it is despair and presumption to confuse one’s pittance of imagination with the possibility over which God disposes.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard
God’s way through the darkness will most likely not be the one you imagine.
His way will most likely not be the easiest, the most comfortable, the most pleasant.
It will, however, be the best.
His way through will be the best for you, for those you love, for those around you.
He promised.
So do not despair. Do not give in to the temptation to give up your trust in God’s providence and love.
He loves you. He is working.
He will bring you through the darkness, He will give you glimpses of the light along the way, and the light will be that much more beautiful for having once been hidden from your view.
The Light is, after all, only hidden. Never absent. Never that.
He is with you always, to the very end of the age.

Art Credits: statue is Grief by Daniel Kornbau; all other photos are my own

New Life in the Darkness

This has been a particularly hard few weeks, so I hope you will enjoy this post from the archives as I take a short break from writing in this space. Peace to you.

There is darkness outside at three in the morning and there is darkness inside of ourselves from which we cannot escape.
There is darkness in the middle of a storm and there is darkness in the destructive aftermath when the sun is shining.
There is danger in the dark and there is fear, but is it the darkness that we fear or is it whatever lies within the darkness that we cannot see?
We light candles and we plug in nightlights and we busy ourselves to do whatever is necessary to hold the darkness at bay.
Lighting Candles
What are we really afraid of? Are we afraid that God is not there in the dark? Are we afraid that God is only in the light and if we enter into the darkness, whether it be the darkness of loss or of sin or of depression or even of death, we will lose the glory of His presence?
Yet in the darkness was where the glory of His presence was found, within the dark cloud over Mt Sinai when He made His covenant with His people Israel.
Yes, there is death in darkness.
There is new life in the dark.
New life
In fact, life can only begin in the dark. A seed sprouts underground and a baby grows in the womb and even Jesus was raised into His new life in the dark.
In the darkness of a cave.
We see the afterwards of the resurrection, the earthquake and the angel and the glorious, blinding light.
But the resurrection itself?
It happened in the dark.
It happened in the dark, in the silence, with the smell of damp earth and the roughness of rock all around.
And if new life can only happen in the dark, well then,
instead of doing all we can to avoid it, perhaps we should lean in to the darkness, lean in to our fear.
Perhaps if we do, we will discover a new life that could not have been found otherwise.

All photographs are my own, copyright 2021 Made Sacred