When I was in labour, I remember the midwife advising me not to fight the contractions but to try to let them happen to me. She said each contraction was doing something good – every time I had one I was a step closer to giving birth, and that relaxing into them would help with the pain. I realised I had been tensing and resisting every time I felt a contraction start and it was becoming unbearable. I was sceptical, but I took a deep breath and tried to relax my body completely as the next contraction began. It gripped me and took my breath away but I kept my body relaxed and suddenly it felt much more bearable. As they continued, I needed constant encouragement from the midwife and my husband to relax and let them happen as I fought the urge to panic and bail, but this advice transformed my experience.
When life becomes difficult and we experience pain, it’s so easy to feel that there’s been some kind of mistake. We feel the urge to resist, panic or bail. Things change, we suffer loss, or perhaps it’s the fresh pain of an old difficulty. We tense up and resist, and it feels unbearable. Doesn’t God realize this is too much for me? Can’t he see he needs to change things for me? Doesn’t he understand it would be so much better if…? We become consumed with wishing things were different, looking back to an easier time or longing for the future when things might be better. We stop praying and grumble instead. We stop thanking and covet instead. We stop living – no longer present, our minds stuck mourning the past or longing for the future.
But eventually, I learn that tensing and resisting just makes my struggles unbearable. I find myself at a dead end, and as usual, it is only then that my heart begins to bend back towards God. What patience our God has, to wait so long for us each time to place our hand in His as we experience difficulty! I can’t resist anymore, insisting things change immediately. I need to face my situation, sit down in it, be in it. God has put me here. Instead of viewing my struggle as an interruption, I must understand it as part of the plan. In this moment, this is His best for me. Let them happen.
But it is only through reading God’s Word that we are really able to do this in the midst of our struggles. And there are two important truths in His Word that we must remember. First, that God is completely sovereign – in control of everything. ‘For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?’ (Isaiah 14:27) Second, that he is good. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.’ (Psalm 34:8) What a profound comfort, that the one who ordains all things and is completely in control of our lives is good. And how can I believe this and anchor myself in these truths when difficulties arise? By reading his Word often and allowing the power of his Spirit to teach my heart. Paul writes in Romans 15 that it’s ‘through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.’ Essentially I’m saying we must read the Bible regularly, and remember two basic truths about God’s character. It doesn’t sound very ground breaking. But sadly I have to continually learn and re-learn the importance of reading scripture. A feast of wisdom and comfort sits waiting to be devoured in those pages and yet too often my Bible sits unopened. In frustration, Spurgeon writes, ‘the fruit hangs upon the tree, but they will not pluck it; the water flows at their feet, but they will not stoop to drink it. From such folly deliver us, O Lord’. At times it might be all we can do to mutter a verse or scrawl a psalm down in the midst of difficulty but there is great power in doing this. As his Word reminds me of his good and sovereign character, I can rest in the knowledge that right where I am is God’s best for me.
Just as each contraction in labour is the body making progress towards giving birth, so our struggles, although they can seem insufferable at times, are doing something good. Paul writes in Romans eight, ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ Throwing this verse around can seem a little trite when someone is facing a brutal trial or a life changing tragedy, and its vital that we first grieve and mourn with those who are suffering. But what a promise! That our struggles are meaningful. That ultimately what we are going through will bring about good because God is outworking his perfect purposes for us through our circumstances. But I must look for it, for Him. What is he exposing in my heart? What has he saved me from that I may only see in hindsight? What part of my character is he shaping and growing? Perhaps we will never see exactly what good He was working but that it drew us closer to and more dependent on Him. Tim Keller writes, in Walking with God through pain and suffering, ‘some suffering has no purpose other than to lead a person to love God more ardently for himself alone and so discover the ultimate peace and freedom.’ And that’s enough. That’s the good.
The trouble is good doesn’t mean easy, so His best for me often hurts. But I’ve learnt, particularly from watching others suffer, that there is great joy to be found in the midst of difficulty. We are driven into His presence, His love, His promises. Keller writes, ‘the joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the uncontrollable weeping. The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you.’ I often find after a low day that has driven me into God’s arms, I experience pockets of pure joy as he reveals something more about His love for me, or His wonderful character. And it’s better, richer than any joy I find in anything else. It propels me through the next hard day and into seeking God again. But I find it’s an uphill walk – I can’t simply arrive at joy and put down my walking sticks. Rather, as we press on up the sometimes steep and rocky path, we can turn and snatch a glimpse of an increasingly spectacular view. Our struggles also drive us to see little blessings we wouldn’t otherwise notice. The kindness of a friend, the beauty of creation or a hilarious moment shared with a loved one. And for these we can momentarily escape our pain and give thanks. But we must be present to do this. Ann Voskamp, in One thousand Gifts, describes what her sister urged her to do: ‘When I get angsty and knotted about tomorrow, when I sorrow for what is gone, her words [are] always tugging me to stay right here – “Wherever you are, be all there.” I have lived the runner, panting ahead in worry, pounding back in regrets, terrified to live in the present, because here-time asks me to do the hardest of all: just open wide and receive.’ I don’t want to miss God’s gifts of grace that whisper of His love for me, because I’m too preoccupied with the climb.
Finally, there is also glorious future joy that awaits us, and we can, to some extent, enjoy it here and now. ‘Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.’ (Keller) Although there are no short-cuts – the mountain has a summit, and if we look up we can see it. Jesus tells us, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.’ (John 16 21-22) Just like labour, our pain is eased when we see the goal – a glorious and eternal future lived in the presence of our precious Saviour. Perhaps then, through tasting the joy to come, I can sit sometimes, through the power and strength of His Spirit and know that this is God’s best for me.
It is difficult to conclude this neatly, although perhaps there is no neat conclusion to be reached when we wrestle with the mysteries of God’s sovereign purposes in our lives. And I am aware that I have little experience of difficulty as others have. But whatever it is you are walking, I believe God’s Word and his Spirit are always sufficient, and he is carving your soul into a masterpiece. I often feel it’s a shame that it takes hardship for me to really seek God and enjoy him more deeply. I wish I sought him like this when things were easier. But maybe that’s the most beautiful thing of all – that He redeems our pain, and uses it to transform us and show us more of Himself. Right here – this is His best for me.