October 20, 2017

Another Look: Dining In The Valley

Editor’s note: We are reading thru Tullian Tchividjian’s book on suffering this week. I thought it good to revisit an essay written by one who knows pain and suffering. Read this essay by Joe Spann slowly and prayerfully. It was written in the midst of pain for those who are in the midst of pain. 

“Son of Adam,” said Aslan. “Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very first day of its birth?”

“Well, I don’t see what I can do,” said Digory. “You see, the Queen ran away and …”

“I asked, are you ready?” said the Lion.

“Yes,” said Digory.  He had had for a second some wild idea of saying “I’ll try to help you if you’ll promise to help my Mother,” but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with.   But when he had said “Yes,” he thought of his Mother and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:

“But please, please, won’t you, can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great.  Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.” (From The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis)

When I read this passage to my two oldest daughters about two years ago I had a hard time not breaking down right in the middle of my reading.  It had only been a few short days since my oldest daughter, who was five at the time, had been diagnosed with type I diabetes.  That is the genetic type where you are immediately insulin dependent, immediately faced with a complete change in life.  At the ripe old age of five she was faced with being chronically ill.  The idea of her own mortality and the mortality of everyone she loved came crashing in on her, at five.  I also own a business.  My business was entering a dry period.  Making payrolls became difficult and paying myself became even harder.  At a time when my family needed me more than ever, my business needed me too.  And both needed more money than they had ever needed before.  This season was the beginning of what has proven to be the hardest two years of my life, and the most magnificent.

Before I continue, let me acknowledge the fact that there are plenty of people out there who have suffered much more than I have.  You may have lost a loved one, a spouse, a job, or be fighting a losing battle with a terminal illness.  Let me say something incredibly insensitive: It doesn’t matter.  Whatever you are suffering, someone has suffered worse than you.  And if you are suffering you know that the thought of someone else suffering more than you is of no use whatsoever.  It only complicates your own pain by adding guilt.  So let’s all agree to leave the whole “people are starving on the other side of the world” argument out of this discussion for now.

Let me also say that I am venturing on to well-trodden ground here. There are books-a-plenty about the theology of suffering.  In fact, many of you may notice that I leave out some of the most oft used quotes regarding megaphones and whatnot (inside joke for C.S. Lewis junkies).  I am not attempting to write a complete theology of suffering here.  This is just my journey, a piece of my testimony.  I tell it here now because, well, what good is a testimony without the telling?

I believe in the power of Christ to heal disease, to raise the dead, and even that he bestowed that authority on his followers as well.  Jesus has done all that is necessary for the redemption of sin and the setting all of creation right again.  Yet, pain abounds.  Suffering is everywhere, even in the lives of believers.  There is obviously a part of the story that isn’t complete yet, our part.

Suffering is bad.  It sucks.  It isn’t to be sought out. Satan wants us to suffer; God does not. However, God gave us free will.  Free will is more dangerous than every weapon of mass destruction combined because with it comes the necessary possibility of suffering.  Buddha taught that suffering is the essence of existence. In one sense this is an astute observation. The world we know cannot exist without suffering. If Christ removed all suffering for those classified as believers, it would unravel our free will and we would find ourselves slaves by compulsion.  End of story.

Buddha also teaches that the path of enlightenment is ultimately an avoidance of all suffering.  Yes, suffering is bad, but should we really mark our path by its presence or avoidance?How many of us as Christians are taught a gospel of pain avoidance?

When suffering comes, we haul out our token scriptures to “build our faith.” We shout at the devil and “believe for” miracles.  There is this sense that if we only our faith muscle were big enough, we could flex and pronounce this suffering bit to be over.  I am not even going to get into arguments against asking for healing, or the fervent belief that miraculous healing can and does occur.  When the Infinite One splits time and interrupts our lives, the supernatural happens.  I plan to ask fervently and continually for my daughter’s healing from diabetes.

But I think that a single-minded focus on our own deliverance blinds us to the richness of fellowship that is available to us in the midst of trouble. We use our Jedi faith tricks to fend off bouts of brokenness when sometimes the brokenness is our deliverance from a much more heinous enemy than suffering.  It is in the brokenness that death truly loses its sting and our victory is truly complete (Philippians 3:10-11).

In God’s miraculous deliverance from bad circumstances we sense his goodness, but in the pain that precedes we sense his nearness. The nearness of God IS my good (Psalm 73:28).  If we are still following Christ for the simple promise of utopia, then we are not disciples.  Our redemption is not in pain anymore than it is in the avoidance of pain; it lies in Christ and Christ alone.  But if there is fellowship with Christ to be had in suffering, then let’s not just endure, but rejoice at its coming.

The 23rd Psalm has the green pastures and still waters, but it also has the valley of the shadow of death.  It is here in the presence of David’s enemies that God prepares a table for him.  A couple of years ago, when I had finally stopped quoting scripture long enough to break down and look for comfort from Christ, I turned here to the 23rd Psalm.  The Holy Spirit gave me a somewhat humorous vision of the imagery in the Psalm. In my meditation, I was in the valley of the shadow of death, and Christ was with me.  I was filled with urgency and the need to be gone from the place.  This was the leg of the journey that I was ready to be done with.  What do you say we move on to some higher ground Lord? The Lord looked around us and saw where we were. He saw the enemies surrounding our position. He saw death looming and he saw my fear.  It was as if he had the audacity to smile and say, “Let’s eat!”  Surely you don’t mean here God?   Let’s move on and we can enjoy a nice celebration meal on the other side of the valley. But Christ said to me, “I want to be with you NOW and HERE.”  That was all I needed. His nearness was good enough.  Actually his nearness was better than healing, better than riches, better than life itself.  He wanted me to do more than endure the hardship, he wanted me to partake in the brokenness, like tasting a wine.  It is intentional and to be sure it is an acquired taste.  But finding the brokenness in the pain is how we train our spirit to thrive only on the nearness of Christ, then riches or poverty no longer matter.  It isn’t that suffering is preferable to ease but that the nearness of Christ makes short shrift of both.

Christ came to give our suffering a point.  He joined and still joins in our suffering so that he might lead the way in undoing the curse.  According to Revelation 12:11 there are two parts to overcoming the evil one at the end of time: (1) the blood of the Lamb and (2) the word of OUR testimony.  Christ did his part.  Now we do ours. You cannot believe yourself out of suffering.  You can surrender into the faith that he is working in you.  You can humble yourself so that he may exalt you in the proper time (1 Peter 5:6).  Your job is being broken; his job is to deliver you. It is this fellowship of suffering and his redemption of our pain that becomes our testimony.  In this way, our pain goes the way of the cross, which does indeed lead to the grave, but does not end there.

When we sense our journey leading us into the valley of the shadow of death many of us pine for Eden and wonder when Christ will finally take us home.  What we should realize is that the way home leads through Jerusalem (read Luke 9:51-62), through the valley of the shadow, through the cross.  Some part of us should smile because we know inevitably whom we will meet there.  While the enemy hopes to sow doubt and despair we can laugh at the foolishness of the devil’s plan. Jesus’ nearness is evident at the worst moments and his nearness is my good. So literally EVERYTHING works together for the good of me because I believe.

When we come out the other side of the grave, much deeper is our journey with Christ if we have been willing participants.  Then instead of simply thanking Christ for his deliverance and carrying on without him so long as we are in the green pastures, we journey with him. We hear his footsteps beside us in every single detail of our charmed lives. It is no longer where the journey takes us that matters, but that it continues to be with Christ.

That is faith to me. Not some hyped up thought process that yields miracles for the strongest “believer.”  It is looking up at the Lion’s face and seeing his tears. It is tasting and seeing that he is good right in the midst of the darkness.  It is laughing at the table with my savior while we are still in the worst part of the journey.

Could this be what Christ means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  I have seen poor people and rich people alike who are obsessed with the state of their relative wealth.  The poor man is embittered by his need, and the rich man is scared to death of ever feeling the need in the first place.  But those that allow themselves to simply be broken by need, those are the poor in spirit.

My daughter’s diagnosis brought a crisis for her that has produced faith and intimacy with Christ the likes of which I had never seen before.  I remember one night I was in the kitchen making drinks for dinner, my wife was in the back of the house doing something, and the girls were all waiting at the dinner table.  My oldest tested her own blood sugar, adjusted her insulin pump accordingly, and then proceeded to lead her two younger sisters in the most sincere prayer of thanksgiving for dinner.  I overheard them in the kitchen and the Holy Spirit instantly said to me, “You hear that?  That’s the sound of giants falling.”  Victory had come, not in the miraculous healing I had been hoping for, but in the simple prayer of thanksgiving from a five year old little girl.  In the deep and sincere gratitude for the meal set before her in the presence of her enemies.

In that moment, diabetes had no sting.  In that moment, she was participating in the redemption of mankind.  In that moment, the enemy was overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of her testimony.  His nearness, his coming is our redemption.  If you are in pain or lacking anything, rejoice in his nearness!  Journey well, friends.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    so . . . beautifully . . . written,

    it took my breath away. . .

    thank you for this

  2. …it is no longer where the journey takes us that matters, but that the journey is WITH Christ….

    *breathtaking

    *deeply truthful

    *this may be the VERYessence of being a Christian

    Thank you, I needed this today.

  3. “Christ came to give our suffering a point.”

    Wow, that is so succinct! Wonderful essay by Joe Spann. Thanks, Joe.

  4. Another Mary says:

    Thanks! I so appreciate this food for the journey. For so many years I have just sort of accepted the valleys and ‘hunkered down’ until it was over. I did enjoy some bright spots of Christ’s comfort but mostly it was an endurance ride. I accepted suffering as our share in the the sufferings of Christ and ‘part of the deal’ of maturing in Him. What you are describing is so much more.

  5. Mary Anne Dutton says:

    Yes, I concur with the previous comments and so much appreciate the subtle nuanced difference in Buddhist thinking – this is essential and fine teaching that we need for understanding, facilitates choice and gratitude. It also goes along with a previous post a good while ago, the bottom line of which was ‘don’ t avoid the difficult and hard stuff, for it is by it and only by ti that one is attenuated and improved for the good. Beautiful instruction!

  6. Three and half years ago I was diagnosed with sleep apnea after I was having a tendency to want to fall asleep while driving.
    Three and a half years ago I also started working on a “flip” house that went wrong.
    Nearly three years ago I had a stomach bug that attacked my pancreas and I became type 1 diabetic. I was misdiagnosed for 6 months because it was assumed that as I was over 40 and overweight, I must be a type 2 diabetic. (By the way I am finally starting the process for a pump and should have one early in the new year.)
    Just over two years ago we started to struggle with a mental health issue in our family which came very close to tearing our family apart.
    22 months ago I was laid off from my job.

    For a period of 18 months our family went through hell. (This is why I stopped writing for Internet Monk)

    We have finally emerged from the other side. We still have financial issues, and mental health issues, and type 1 diabetes, and sleep apnea. But things are at a manageable state now.

    Through it all we did become better parents. I developed a compassion for others in similar situations that I did not have before. We were also grateful for the support of friends and family and church without whom we never would have made it through. We could also see God working, providing help, both financial and personal, at the times when we needed it most.

    I really don’t have any deep theological truths to communicate here, but do want to say keep watch for those around you who need your help. Be a servant of Christ for them.

    • Appreciate your sharing. It has been a tough couple of years in my house, also……so cyberhugs from someone else who has been rung out lately!

  7. Just what I needed today. Tears. Thank you!

  8. Very interesting essay….

    I have to say that when I was in Fairfax INOVA Hospital dealing with my sepsis and bacterial infection on my leg…something happened that I never thought would happen. I encountered love and grace. From co-workers, to friends from other churches to people from Interent Monk and other blogs. I was amazed and in awe by the love that was shown. Sometimes it was crazy…with several people wanting to visit me at once. In the nightime or when it was silent I used to stare at the wall or the ceiling and wonder…”Is this what grace is?” If so…Christianity has quite a weapon.

    A number of you guys here sent me cards and the love and concern you had for me really touched my heart. I read all those cards sitting at my kitchen table while I still had an IV in my arm. And one by one reading about love that some had shown me left me on the verge of tears. So through my own ordeal of suffering I leanred to be thankful. I have a really stressful job but I tell people that a bad day at work is better than a good day in the ICU. And I leanred that….

    I leanred how vulnerable and mortal life is. And I also leanred that love is powerful. If only Christians could really show love all the Richard Dawkins in the world would be disarmed. They would be speechless.

    Man I love you guys! 🙂

  9. Scooter's Mom says:

    I ……..am…….speechless. Ditto what Rebekah Grace said.

  10. What’s really transformed my understand of suffering is the realization that Jesus went through it all. We know about the sufferings he underwent through his ministry, but what about before that? He probably watched his father die some years before that; and likely, he saw brothers or sisters die as well (remember the crushing infant mortality rate in pre-modern times.)

    Perhaps Jesus loved a girl, but knew that he could never be with her because of his calling; maybe he was engaged or betrothed by his family, only for it to be broken off by external circumstances. There is tremendous comfort to be found in the realization that Jesus himself underwent the same suffering that I go through. Sometimes what you need the most is someone who understands your pain: and nobody understands it better than Jesus.