Beautiful Between

living fully in the now & not yet

If suffering won’t leave, this is what you need to know

We who wrestle with the dark know too well that suffering often lingers longer than we would choose. That’s why my heart leapt when I heard K.J. Ramsey’s new book, This Too Shall Last, is about exactly that and I knew you needed to hear about it. 

K.J. was a healthy, happy college student when she found herself stricken with a mysterious autoimmune disease. Since then, she’s been discovering the grace and goodness of God in the midst of daily pain. I love this story because it mirrors my own struggle with the pain of depression in so many ways. 

What if, as K.J. writes in her book, the God we meet in our suffering isn’t actually unkind, but “more gracious than you or I tend to imagine”? It’s an utter delight to share K.J.’s beautiful words with you today. 

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Suffering is coming to the edge of ourselves, to the place where we viscerally feel the truth that being human is being limited. This is primarily why suffering scares us, because it makes us feel like we are becoming less than human. If suffering lingers, if this pandemic and its cruel, grasping fingers stretch into the rest of the year instead of lasting for a few weeks or months, we fear we will lose our very selves.

Pain threatens personhood.

All pain triggers a reminder, deeper than thought, buzzing through blood and bone, that we are fragile and finite. Suffering whispers, shouts, and screams the story no one wants to remember: we are not in control, and we are all going to die.

Suffering places our bodies and stories in tension with the story we’ve been soaking up our entire lives. The drumbeat of Western culture is that effort produces success. With enough foresight and determination, we think we each can create a life with minimal pain and maximum pleasure. We are proprietors of possibility, the doorkeepers of our own bright futures. Our bodies are vehicles of productivity, a currency that purchases success or an inconvenience that impedes it. With hands over our hearts, we pledge allegiance to the red, white, and blue ideal of an autonomous, uninhibited life of safety and ease. If we try hard enough, we will triumph.

The unspoken story of Western culture is that suffering is a problem we can avoid or annihilate if we work hard enough. When suffering lingers, we feel we have failed to reach the allegedly reachable American Dream. Held in the invisible grip of this story, lives including sorrow are problems to fix. So we march our bodies to the beat of progress, resolved to fight back the darkness that’s keeping us from the achievement and enjoyment we feel is rightfully ours. We’re God’s children, after all. Doesn’t he want us to be well? Doesn’t he want us to show the world the resurrection is real?

Living in a story where suffering lingers makes us aware of the clash between the false music filling and forming our lives and the tune of the God who says he is good. The slowing of our days, the threat of pandemic, the looming losses of jobs and savings and a bright future all change the way we hear the background music that has been permeating our existence. 

All our lives, we have marched to the cadence of a culture that tells us we can avoid suffering through hard work.

But hard work couldn’t shield us from this suffering.

With a soul crushed by loss or a bank account close to nothing, we start to feel like flat notes played a beat behind in a song whose tempo no longer feels achievable. Living with long-term suffering in American culture feels like being off-key. Suffering quiets and slows, but our culture prefers a crescendo.

When the notes of your life are in a minor key of somber limitation, you come to hear the sounds of shame screeching and scraping in all our lives under the pulsing beat of progress. Most of the time we silence our shame reflexively with busyness. If every moment of the day is full of the sounds of cars, drive-through lines, and paper pushing, we won’t have to hear the echo chamber of our worst fears.We usually hide in hurry, working hard to align our lives with the pulsating pace we sense everyone else is living at. But right now, alone in our homes, hearing the pounding of our heavy hearts and the distant drone of the TV telling us all the ways our world is weeping, we can’t hide in hurry anymore.

When we don’t get the pain-free, protected lives we want, it hurts. 

It haunts. It opens our eyes and hearts to the truth: we aren’t God, and trying to be won’t give us what we thought we wanted.

When suffering first took up residence in my life in the form of an autoimmune disease, I was asked about unrepentant sin. Surely, some secret attitude, behavior, or pattern was causing my suffering. I racked my brain for answers. If I could find the hidden sin and repent, then maybe the suffering would cease. What lesson was God trying to teach me? If I could learn it, maybe I would stop hurting.

When we’ve been trained to think suffering means we’ve done something wrong, we don’t know what to do with a whole world shaking in sorrow, let alone ourselves. Contrary to how many Christians approach hard things, suffering is often not an indication of hidden sin or evidence of a lack of faith. What if the real sin is to witness suffering and immediately judge the sufferer as bad? What if the real sin is to see our sorrow and judge ourselves and others for being affected by it? Sin is letting our pernicious anxiety make us blame someone for the suffering we see. Sin is seeing weakness and assuming its bearer lacks faith. Sin is expecting ourselves and others to be miniature self-saviors who can rise above our broken bodies and broken stories and eliminate suffering by the power of our own determined truth-telling.

Sin is calling a failure what is actually the fall. It’s forgetting our origin story, the sin of self-sufficiency, and the outcome of living beyond the boundaries of what God has given. It’s forgetting that every part of creation cries out because of the curse. It’s forgetting that broken bodies, broken stories, and broken relationships are the result of ancient sin. It’s personalizing what are often bigger consequences of a massive story. Disease, disorders, weakness, poverty, and grief are the losing legacy of humanity, the shards of sin shattering us, from the smallest cell to the largest cultural system.

The Savior came and is coming again, but our healing is in his hands, not our own.

If our Savior chose to enter the human story in a human body, then we should encounter one another’s stories of suffering remembering we carry and extend the presence of Christ.

Sin is any Christian’s response to pain, poverty, and weakness that assumes they are individual problems to solve rather than places to patiently embody the solidarity of Jesus. When we reduce pain to an individual problem, we don’t know what to do with ourselves and our stories. 

Without a bigger story, the weight of the weeping world will crush us. In an increasingly individualistic society, where the space between self, tradition, and our embodied connection to each other feels wide, suffering can be a massive assault to our sense of self and our ability to hope. We become lost in a chasm of overspiritualized sorrow and undervalued physicality, not knowing where our lives fit alongside a Christianity glittering with the veneer of abundance. 

Exhausted by grief, we sink under the weight of existing as an aberration of the abundant life the American Dream fused with the risen Christ taught us to expect and project. Defeated and distant from our friends and loved ones, many of us subconsciously attempt to detach from the grief in our bodies, excising it from our minds to feel some semblance of success. We push grief away with grit, pretending to be okay. But pretending starts to look like drowning after a while. We fear, if we were honest about how sad or sick or hopeless we really feel, would we ever feel hopeful again?

There is a widening gap between expressing our faith individually and rooting that faith in community, a gap that leaves us with inadequate shared language to draw from to describe the turmoil of prolonged suffering. And in this season of social distancing, this gap is where the groans of grief become gaping holes in our hope. A poverty of shared language leads to poverty of hope. We don’t have space to grieve, because we’re too busy judging grief or seeking its relief to speak its truth aloud. It is time the church recovers language and liturgies of lament.

We feel ashamed of our suffering and confused about its role in our lives because the story we’ve been handed disowns grief and minimizes weakness. We struggle to accept and cope with suffering because our culture tells us to deny or hide it. Our silence and pretending is the inheritance of Christians who have so swallowed the American Dream we have lost sight of our suffering Lord.

What if we’ve been desperately, unconsciously seeking a story that isn’t even good?

What if self-sufficiency was always a bankrupt lie, and suffering simply demonstrates its poverty?

What if suffering isn’t ruining our selves but re-creating them?

We need a story bigger than success. We need incarnation. We need embodiment. We need exposure and sight and light that touches darkness in actual bodies, with real histories, in the places where we most want rescue, relief, and retribution.

Suffering is an invitation to live and tell the story truer and more satisfying than pain-free ease. It is an invitation to know and be known by the God who entered the human story intent on transforming death into life. The presence of prolonged suffering begs us to remember our true story and its suffering Lord.

Ours is a story where pain propels communion. It’s the most surprising, curious, and true story of all, where the Author—God himself—not only tells the story but enters it and changes everything, not by winning but by suffering.

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Adapted from This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers by K.J. Ramsey (chapter 1, edited for clarity and relevance) from Zondervan (May 2020).

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About Sarah

Hi, I'm Sarah. I love coffee, pancakes and street tacos. I'm a learner, a traveler and a creative mess. I've got a thing for redemption and seeing broken people living beautiful lives. That's the story I've lived, and the one I want for you. Let's be friends!

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