Wrestling With Suffering
I’m 27, which means that I’ve lived more than half my life now in continually worsening back pain. I was 13 when I hurt myself in semi-finals at state wrestling tournament, found out I had level 5 spondylolisthesis, which led to major back surgery, and a changed life. I fought the reality of my situation and pushed through pain and continued in sports throughout high school. I was angry that I wasn’t as successful as I use to be and knew I could be without back problems—lost strength, mobility and speed. My senior yr it was looking like I had a chance to contend for state title but my back couldn’t make it to the big tournament, so I had to watch people I had easily beaten that same year go on and enjoy success that I felt should have been mine.
It took a couple years to let that bitterness go, which I know is weird, but true. By back is worse now since I’m in the 30% who develop degenerate spinal diseases after the surgery I had. Now, half my back is herniated, degenerated, causing stenosis and lots of nerve pains. I no longer have dreams of being an athlete (as evidenced by how I’ve let myself go). My dreams are simpler now: I think about how nice it would be for just a day without pain, I want to be able to hold my daughter for more than a couple minutes without having to set her down or lean against a wall, I never want her to get too big to jump into my arms when she’s growing up, I want to play football with the youth group kids and not hurt for a week afterwards, I want Tammy to feel like I can take care of her—and I want to feel like I can take care of her. Some days I feel sorry for myself, many days I just get mad and do dumb things like go on a painful 4 mile run just to feel like the pain can’t control me.
The biggest change for me though has been in the past 3 years. Being in ministry reminds me that everyone has stories of suffering—physical or emotional. I notice that suffering gives us a clear look into our hearts if we’ll take the time to look. Most times people struggle off and on with feeling entitled to a better life—that God or life has overlooked them or owes them something…that their situation is not fair. They think that no one else is going through what they are. Those who believe in God spend their years praying for relief and freedom from suffering rather than praying to see how to use it for good; then, when God doesn’t remove it from them they feel like that reflects their faith, God’ love for them, or even causes them to question His goodness. Even as we pray for each other, we are always praying for comfort and good fortune, not God’s will and strength to live for Christ amidst the hardships we are in. If we feel entitled in simple sufferings, how can we not in eternal things? I don’t think it is possible to not feel entitled in eternal things if we feel entitled to relief now. We say things like we are unworthy of God’s gift of eternal life, but that reflects our knowledge not our hearts. In our hearts we can’t fathom how we deserve eternal punishment for sin—and never even really wrestle with that. I mean stop and really think about it: without Jesus does your heart agree that you deserve eternal punishment for sin? Is an eternity separated from God, an eternity in hell, too severe for you? We think God is over the top and harsh, or certainly we must just have to read the Bible differently than it appears to read—because we obviously have issues but we’re not that bad. We mask our entitlement by saying a loving God couldn’t be capable of doing that to anyone. We come to grips with His harshness by Jesus on the cross instead of accepting the severity of our sin—at least He’s given us a way out.
It’s not until we come to grips with the reality and severity of our depravity that we can appreciate the riches of God’s grace. God owes me nothing. He never has. He never will. Everything He gives is a gift, not a reward for something I’ve earned. Suffering has somehow brought this reality from my head to my heart. And if it’s suffering that is needed to bring others to that truth, I wish that grace for them.