When things are going well, and the problems in our lives seem like nothing more than little bumps on the road, our faith can feel something like a warm blanket. In the evening, nestled next to a fire, we ponder, with effortlessness, how blessed we are. God loves us. God is watching over us. God has a wonderful plan for our lives. And this is obvious because, by any measure, our lives look like they’ve been blessed.
But when suffering comes, when our idyllic life comes crashing down on us, and all the good things we mistakenly thought were gifts from God turn out to actually be idols that He violently and, without mercy, strips from our lives, we have a choice. We can cling as best we can to our idea of the “good life” or the “good family” or the “good job” or the “good marriage”, even while they are being ripped away from us, or we can cling to our faith, and all those beautiful promises God gives us about how He loves us and cares about us, with greater tenacity and vigor. We can let go of our faith, or cling to it like a mountain climber holding on to the cliff for dear life.
Because that, in all honesty, is what our faith transforms into when trials hit us. God’s promises stop being the warm blanket that anesthetized us and lulled us into a quiet, peaceful sleep, and they start becoming more like armor we wear in the midst of the battle of life – the shield we hold up on our darkest days to keep back the depression, hopelessness, and guilt that try to tear at us, bit by bit, and sink us into a kind of Hell on earth.
I know I’m speaking in somewhat vague terms, but I think anybody who’s had their dreams or hopes ripped out from their hands knows exactly what I mean: a mother who loses her child, dealing with a chronic mental or physical illness, the death of your dearest friend…. all those things that radically change your life forever and that you never really completely heal from.
I haven’t gotten to the point of turning my back on God because of suffering. I’ve gotten angry. I’ve lost hope at times. I’ve gotten burnt out, that’s for sure. I’ve had quite a few arguments with God. But I’ve also had those promises. I’ve had that faith that’s been like a protective shield around me – that has helped me see beyond my own pain and has, I think perhaps, even saved my life. And these particular promises – just three of them – are what I want to share in this post:
1. Nothing God asks of us is too much to ask.
Ok, so not so much a promise as a simple fact. This is for those days when I want to wallow in self-pity. It’s not a pick-me-up like, “Hey, just look on the bright side of life!” or “Count your blessings!” It’s more like a shock to the system: “Remember, kid, you have no clue what suffering really means.” I look up at the Crucifix each Sunday and see Jesus depicted there, having been brutally whipped, punched, and nailed to two pieces of wood so that I could spend eternity with God in Heaven. And when I am tempted to get frustrated with how my life is, it’s as though He looks down from there and asks, “Have you suffered this much for me yet, Jonathan?” And my answer is always a sheepish “no.”
We tend to think that because God is God, He is so far above the fray and so in control that nothing bothers Him and He couldn’t possibly understand the anxiety and fear we have in life. But I think it’s the opposite. I think because He is God, He knows the unpredictability of life only too well. He knows it will all be ok in the end just like we do if we have faith, but He sees and feels all the suffering we are all going to have to go through to get there – let alone all that Christ has gone through already for us on the Cross. And if this is how far He has come – even to death – for us, is there really too much He could ask us to bear for His sake?
2. Everything God asks of us is for our good.
In the Catholic way of seeing things, our suffering is doing an indispensable work – not just in our lives, but in the world as well. There’s this catch-phrase in Catholic culture we use when we see a friend dealing with suffering. We say “offer it up.” And what we mean by that is one of the most beautiful and profound truths of the faith: when we unite our suffering with Christ, when we give it to Him, He uses it to make us and the world a better place. It may be an easing of time in purgatory for us or someone else. It may be for the healing of a person either physically or emotionally or spiritually. Sometimes, when I fast (as every Catholic is called to do at different times during the year), I do it united with prayer for my children. I offer up the fast for them. Our suffering, in whatever form, whether it be publicly taking a bullet for a fellow soldier or living out the twilight of our lives, struggling with sickness and old age in a nursing home, when lifted up and united with Christ, is used by God to make the world, and ourselves, fit for Heaven. The tears we shed are the seeds of the richest spiritual fruit.
3. Whatever God asks of us, He will give us the grace to get through.
But I should be upfront about this: I don’t mean He’ll get us through alive or without permanent scars (either physical or emotional). Jesus didn’t get out of pain. He didn’t get out of what looked like a failed ministry by the time of the crucifixion. He didn’t get out of death. He wasn’t like Job who, after a time of intense trial, got everything he lost back to him in this life – and much more so. Mother Teresa herself confessed that she went through decades of what felt like spiritual deadness.
But at the same time, what God offers us is something far, far greater than even the whole world. He offers us Himself. He offers us Heaven. It’s so easy for me to forgot what the common Christian phrase “carry your cross” really means. It means hang on to the bloody end. When I say “He will give us grace to get through”, I mean that for however long you have to bear whatever suffering you’re going through, He’ll give you what you need to not through in the towel – to not grow hopeless and lost, to not abandon your faith. He will give you the grace to cling to these promises until the storm passes and you can see the light again.
Remember that the Christian life here is not meant to be Disneyland. It’s the Battle of Agincourt. And every day we wake up with our many fears and temptations trying to stare us down. But as Henry V says in Shakespeare’s famous speech before the fateful battle, when we stand before Christ we will hold our lives cheap if we don’t stand faithful here and now.
And if we do stand? We will, with beaming faces, and in the flowing cup of communion, look on our scars not as reminders of painful memories and our sense of abandonment, but as reminders of the great feats we accomplished and the battles we won.
Close your eyes and see in your mind Heaven opened up. See the saints waiting there for you to take your seat. See the freshly poured communion cup, passed around for everyone to drink. And see Christ, at the head of the table, seeing you and welcoming you to the party.