Illustration: Christina Wong, Thir.st
Have you ever felt a pain so great that it pounds through every fibre of your being?
My mind goes back to one night some years back when I’d gone to see a volunteer counsellor in one of the prayer room sessions held in church. I had just gone through a traumatic patch in life, and I was struggling to find myself again. I was broken through and through, but all my friends ever said to me was, “You should really move on with life, this is taking too long.”
Well, as if I enjoy being stuck in this brokenness.
I felt that I had no one to turn to, no shoulder to lean on and no listening ear to confide in. That night I unloaded all my hurt and pain to the counsellor, an older lady in her late forties.
The next morning, I received a call from one of my leaders in church.
“(The counsellor) gave me a call. Why did you even go to her?”
I was chided for confiding in someone outside of the campus ministry I was under (“people will think that we are not taking care of you”) for a pain that was so personal (“I think you’re grieving too much and for too long; you need to move on”). That it was not okay to be not okay.
But looking back, I beg to differ.
It is okay to be not okay.
A BRUISED REED HE WILL NOT BREAK
There is a significant biblical witness of “lament” as a valid response to troubles and pain. Many of the psalms are called “Psalms of Lament” – poignant cries of distress and grief. Often the psalmist complains about the hurt inflicted by those around him. Sometimes he is troubled by his own thoughts and actions. Other times he expresses his frustrations with God Himself.
The book of Job is filled with cries of lament. So are some of the words of Jeremiah, who likens God to a deceptive river with unreliable water (Jeremiah 15:18). That’s harsh!
But their grief was brought before God in the fullness of emotion, the way we can only do so with someone we trust. They were brutally honest about their feelings.
We should never assume that if we are trusting and walking with God, we wouldn’t ever weep, feel angry or hopeless. We need to be gentle and patient with ourselves, as we would be with people who are in grief and sorrow.
In Isaiah 42:3, it says this of the Chosen Servant, Jesus Christ: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.”
Their grief was brought before God in the fullness of emotion, the way we can only do so with someone we trust.
The bruise that we are talking about here does not mean regular minor injury. It denotes a heavy and deep contusion. The injury might not show on the surface but it is nonetheless potentially fatal.
Jesus will not break the bruised reed or snuff out the dying candle (Matthew 12:20). He cares for the fragile. He loves people who are beaten up, badly battered and painfully bruised. They may not show it on the outside, but inside they are dying. Jesus sees all the way into the deepest parts of our hearts and heals us where we are bleeding (Psalm 147:3).
Suffering and hurting people need to be able to weep, grieve and pour out their hearts instead of being immediately shut down by being told to move on. Nor should we do that to ourselves when we are in pain.
WHAT ABOUT OUR OWN HAPPINESS?
Timothy Keller wrote in his book, Walking with God through Pain & Suffering, that “suffering reveals, communicates and imparts God’s glory as nothing else does”. While His glory cannot be increased because it is already perfect, it can be magnified.
If God is treated like God during our suffering and pain, then it can reveal and present Him in all His greatness and glory.
If we seek God as the non-negotiable good of our lives, we will get happiness thrown into the mix somehow. Yet if our aim is mainly and solely personal happiness, we will end up getting neither.
But how does suffering benefit us? How do we benefit when we’re not even “happy”?
Happiness, in Keller’s words, is a by-product of wanting something more than happiness – to be rightly related to God and our neighbour (Matthew 5:6). If we seek God as the non-negotiable good of our lives, we will get happiness thrown into the mix somehow. Yet if our aim is mainly and solely personal happiness, we will end up getting neither (Matthew 10:39).
It is in the darkest moments that we easily feel we are getting absolutely nothing out of God or out of our relationship with Him. But what if it is during then, when it does not seem to benefit us at all, that we continue to pray, praise, worship and seek God?
If we do that, that is when we finally learn to love God for who He is, and not for His benefits.
REJOICING IN SUFFERING
What does it mean then, to “rejoice in suffering”? Rejoicing cannot simply mean having happy emotions.
We need to acknowledge that suffering creates inner sorrow and makes us weak. To deny our hurt, to tell ourselves that we are fine, means we will likely pay a price later. We will eventually find ourselves blowing up, breaking down and falling apart. Then we will realise we were kidding ourselves. We were hurt more than we thought we did.
To rejoice in God means to dwell on and remind ourselves of who God is, who are we and what He has done for us. If Jesus who was perfect was also a man of sorrows, who are we to not feel any sorrow? Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow.
Rejoicing doesn’t come after the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the weeping. It doesn’t come after the pain. The pain drives us into the joy of our salvation – the joy of knowing God – and enhances our relationship with Him. The joy enables us to actually feel our grief without sinking and drowning us.
It is okay to not be okay. But the key lies in what we do when we are not okay.