When You Go Through Fire and Water -- Thoughts on Suffering

Joni Earekson Tada has been a quadriplegic in a wheelchair for more than 40 years. And if paralysis isn’t enough, she’s battled breast cancer. And is currently struggling with unrelenting, excruciating pain from a bone fracture. 

Yet she writes in her most recent book, A Place of Healing, “My affliction has stretched my hope, made me know Christ better, helped me long for the truth, led me to repentance of sin, goaded me to give thanks in times of sorrow, increased my faith, and strengthened my character. Being in this wheelchair has meant knowing Him better, feeling His pleasure every day.” 

In comparison, Joni’s fiery trials make mine look small. I don’t live in constant pain, where every breath is an effort. I get myself out of bed each morning, dress myself, and drive wherever I want to go. I seldom struggle to accomplish the basic tasks of existence. But I, too, have walked through the fire. 

Some days I still cry when I think about the days leading up to my younger sister’s death in 2010 at age 44. Or the fearful years of parenting a prodigal. Or the paralyzing times of praying for a loved one teetering on the brink of destruction. 

These trials have pressed me into the arms of Jesus because, as Peter so eloquently declared in John 6:68, there was nowhere else to go. In Jesus’ arms, like Joni, I found hope and strength. I discovered aspects of God’s nature that comforted me and bolstered my struggling faith. 

I’ll never forget walking into a worship service one Sunday morning so broken I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. I was afraid if I did, someone would see my devastated soul, and I would burst into tears and never stop crying. 

In God’s sovereignty, the first song the worship team sang that day was Matt Redman’s "10,000 Reasons." It reminded me of the greatness of God’s name and the kindness of his heart. Almost imperceptibly, my upended world began to tilt back toward the center, and hope flickered in my soul. 

King David wrote, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” The author of Psalm 66 took it one step further: “We went through fire and through water, but you brought us out to rich fulfillment” (v. 12b). 

This is truth. Like Joni’s paralysis pointed her to what truly mattered, my temporary losses paved the way for God’s eternal gifts. Without the sting of fear, I’d never fully appreciate security. Without the ache of loss, I’d never understand the permanence of the life to come. Without the heartache of a prodigal, I would have taken for granted the joy of restored relationships. 

Without times in my life when all I had was God, I would have never discovered that God is all I need. 

It is appropriate to conclude with the Phillips translation of 2 Corinthians 4:7-10. May we take it to heart as both encouragement and our calling: 

“This priceless treasure we hold, so to speak, in common earthenware—to show that the splendid power of it belongs to God and not to us. We are hard-pressed on all sides, but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled, but never in despair. We are persecuted, but are never deserted; we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out! Every day we experience something of the death of Jesus, so that we may also show the power of the life of Jesus in these bodies of ours.” 

If you’re going through “fire and through water” today, may God grant you spiritual eyes to see by faith the “rich fulfillment” that awaits you. 

For additional encouragement, please enjoy Matt Redman’s "10,000 Reasons." If you’re reading by email, click here to view "10,000 Reasons."

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When God Doesn't Live Up to Our Expectations

I find it easy to judge the Pharisees. Until the same finger I point at them comes pointing back at me. 

Consider the scene at the pool of Bethesda. Rumor had it that an angel would occasionally visit, stirring the water with his healing touch. The first sick person to jump into the pool after the angel stirred it would be healed. Even though the hope was built on a rumor, and the chance of healing was slim, a multitude of lame, injured, and ill people congregated around the pool. After all, a slim chance was better than no chance at all. 

Then Jesus entered the scene. And made a beeline for the most hopeless case of them all—a man who’d been paralyzed for 38 years. Think about that for a moment. Thirty-eight years. 

Jesus didn’t mince words. “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:7). 

"’Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ 

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’" 

Unfortunately, Jesus chose an inopportune time to do a miracle—the Sabbath. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, let along do miracles on the Sabbath. And not only did Jesus work a miracle, but he asked the crippled man to pick up his mat. Two Sabbath infractions with the same miracle? Shameful. John 5:16 tells us this is one reason why Jews persecuted him. 

Stories like this make me want to throttle someone. Shouldn’t the Jews, who had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come, have been dancing in the streets? This man, Jesus, was performing miracles only God could do. The lame were walking, the blind were seeing, and the dead were being raised to life. And the Jews, instead of celebrating and worshiping, were conniving and complaining. 

I felt quite self-righteous in my faith, until I peeled back a layer of the story that exposed the golden nugget of truth—the Jews rejected Jesus because he didn’t act the way they thought he should. He didn’t measure up to their expectations. He didn’t play by their rules. “If Jesus was the Messiah,” they said, “he’d be following the commands (meaning their commands). He’d honor the Sabbath the way we think he should. He’d deliver Israel the way we think best. He’d respond to our commands, not the other way around.” 

Even the lame man had expectations. What did he say when Jesus asked him if he wanted to get well? “I’ve tried and tried to follow the rules to get well, but it’s not working.” 

Then Jesus pulled a surprise on him. “I don’t need a rippling pool to cure you. I have a different plan. Have faith. Trust me.” 

I, too, have expectations for how God should act. I pray with definite, specific answers in mind. Heal my friend fighting cancer. Make my marriage easier. Help my children always make the best decisions. Sometimes I pray, “But not my will, but yours be done,” but most of the time I know how God should act, and I feel no need to invite God to act differently. 

Sometimes he answers my prayers the way I ask. Other times he disappoints me. 

When I’m disappointed, I have three choices—the same three choices the Jews faced—attack, abandon, or accept. 

The Jews chose to attack. They ridiculed him, undermined his teaching, discredited his miracles, and, ultimately, turned him over to the Romans for crucifixion. As John 1:11 says, “He (Jesus) came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” 

Some disciples abandoned Jesus. When he called them to a life of sacrifice, they bolted. When he warned them that they’d have to come on his terms, not theirs, they turned back (John 6:66). When he cracked the curtain and allowed them a glimpse of the suffering they’d endure for his sake, they rescinded their allegiance and joined the murderous mob. 

The crippled man, however, accepted Jesus. On Jesus’ terms. He recognized he was hopeless and helpless, without a leg to stand on. Although he had imagined how God might answer his prayers, he trusted Jesus enough to act upon his faith, even when it played out differently than how he expected. He turned his back on the pool and took up his bed and walked. By doing so, he received immeasurably more than he ever imagined. 

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). 

I’ve prayed a lot of prayers since my decision to follow Christ at age 18. God has answered some exactly as I’ve prayed. He’s answered others quite differently, sometimes seemingly giving me the polar opposite of what I asked. To others God has said, “Not yet.” 

Sometimes I accept his answers in faith, knowing that his wisdom far exceeds mine. I choose to trust him even when his actions make no sense to my limited perspective. Other times I’ve attacked God, accusing him of cruelty and heartlessness. Sometimes I’ve even been tempted to turn my back on him, wondering if the faith life is worth the effort. 

In those dark moments the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit whispers truth into my doubting heart, “Don't be afraid; just believe" (Mark 5:36). 

For now, we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But there’s coming a day when we shall see “face to face,” without the hindrances of our limited understanding. 

Until then, when the temptation to attack or abandon strikes, we must choose instead to accept, to trust the God who loved us so much that he sacrificed his only Son on our behalf (Rom. 8:32). 

How can we doubt a love like that?

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Two Misunderstood Reasons Why Life Is Hard

I’ve watched a set of house finches build three nests in the corner gable of my front porch. 

The morning after the first day of construction, I walked out onto the porch to find the nest destroyed. Straw, grass, and fluff lay strewn all over the porch. 

Over the next few days, the industrious little birds rebuilt their nest bigger and better. But I again found it demolished, only this time, amidst the rubble, I saw two tiny blue eggs—smashed, their yolks making shiny yellow puddles on the wooden floor. I’m not sure if the finches keep destroying their nest or if a predator is attacking them. 

Today my little finch couple is at it again, and I watch their efforts with mixed emotions. One part of me is rooting for their success—the perfect nest in which to deposit their eggs, hatch their young, and raise their family. Another part of me, fearful that their third attempt will also end in futility, hopes they’ll quit and spare us all the sorrow. 

I see myself in this little bird pair. This is why I can’t take my eyes from the drama playing itself out on my front porch. 

If my feathered friends keep destroying their nest because it isn’t quite right, I applaud them for their high standards and perseverance. Keep at it, little fellows. Don’t stop until you have a nest you can be proud of. One that will accomplish everything you hope for and dream of. 

Colossians 3:23 comes to mind: 

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” 

If an enemy keeps destroying their nest, I want to cheer them on all the more. Don’t let some slimy, thieving, good-for-nothing threaten your home, disrupt your family, and steal your dreams. Keep building little guys. I’m rooting for you. 

I think of 1 Peter 5:8: 

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith . . .” 

There are days, like the ones unfolding in my little corner of the porch, when it’s hard to know if life is difficult because we’re going about it wrong or because the enemy is attacking us. Satan uses setbacks to defeat us. God uses setbacks to redirect us.  

When I had to resign from teaching a beloved Sunday School class because my husband had accepted a ministry position at another church, it looked to me like a setback. Instead God used the loss to redirect me. 

Without a teaching outlet, I began to blog. Blogging led to a book, then a position as the editor of a Christian magazine, and then a second book. In God’s perfect timing, he again opened up teaching and speaking opportunities, but not until my husband’s ministry was well established. 

Other times, our nests come crashing down because an enemy has dealt us a crushing blow. Infidelity, immorality, financial loss, or precarious health threaten to destroy and defeat us. In the space between building and rebuilding, we sometimes contemplate quitting. 

We aren’t alone. John 6 records that many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 

“’You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.

“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (v. 66-68). 

So when our nests come crashing down, we gather the pieces, take a deep breath, and pray for God’s sustaining grace. “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it,” Paul promises us in Philippians 1:6. It is only by his mercy that we get up and try again. And again. And again. 

I don’t know where you are today.

If you’re rebuilding because of a redirection, take courage. “"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). God will do exceedingly, abundantly, above all you could ever ask or imagine as you yield your will to his in faith and trust.

If you’re rebuilding after an attack, take courage. The promises of Psalm 121 are for you:

I lift up my eyes to the hills-- where does my help come from? 
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. 
He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 
The LORD watches over you-- the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. 
The LORD will keep you from all harm-- he will watch over your life; 
the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. 

As of this writing, my feathered friends’ nest still stands. Perhaps third time’s a charm. Regardless, God sees my birds, just like he sees you and me. He doesn’t just observe our struggles, however, like a passive watcher. Instead he is intimately acquainted with all our ways and actively involved in our attempts at the faith life. 

I find much comfort in this. I hope you do, too. 

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Mat. 10:29-32). 

Are you redirecting or rebuilding? If you’ll leave your first name in the comment box, I’d consider it a privilege to pray for you.

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What Justice Taught Me about Mercy

I really like my friend Jean’s dog, Justice. A Golden Retriever, he’s handsome, loving, and loyal. I look forward to going to Jean’s home, not just because I enjoy her company, but because I get to pet Justice. 

The last time I visited, Justice came bounding around the corner of the house as soon as I pulled into the driveway. Noticing that he’d stopped about 20 yards away, I called to him. 

“Hey, Justice. C’mere buddy, I want to pet you.” 

Justice’s tail wagged. His tongue hung out the side of his mouth in a happy, slobbery grin. But he didn’t budge from his spot. 

“What’s wrong with Justice?” I asked. 

“Oh, he won’t come,” Jean said. “We have an invisible fence. . . Of course, he isn’t wearing his collar, but it doesn’t matter. He won’t cross the line.” 

Justice and I have a lot in common. 

Some days I romp in the fields of freedom, loving and being loved. I share my faith with joy and step into opportunities God gives me with bold abandon. 

Other days I wear the collar of past sins, failures, and insecurities. I allow myself to become entangled in the yoke of legalistic bondage I could never satisfy. I hesitate to share my faith because the choke chain of imperfection silences the mercy truth on my lips. I second-guess God-given opportunities because of the suffocating noose of fear. I'm afraid to cross boundaries of my own making.

But in God’s kingdom, there are no collars or invisible fences. 

"Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free,” the apostle Paul proclaimed, “and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” (Gal. 5:1). 

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1). 

“And he that sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new!”” (Rev. 21:5). 

What collar is keeping you from walking into God’s plan for your life? If Jesus is your Savior, you don’t have to wear it any more. 

What invisible fence is holding you back? If Christ is Lord of your life, it no longer has the power to limit you. Take the collar off. Step over the invisible fence. Walk into the purpose for which God created you. 

“So if the Son sets you free,” Jesus promised, “you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

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How My Mom Went from Out-of-Touch to the Wisest Woman on the Planet -- A Mothers Day Tribute

L-R My sister, Dad, Mom, and me :)
I’m not sure how my mother went from being out-of-touch to being the wisest woman on the planet, but I remember my dawning awareness of her greatness. 

 The first inkling of her buried wisdom came on the day my husband and I moved into our first home. Mom came to help me unpack, and I eagerly showed her the living room curtains I’d picked out. And the decorative rods. And the mini-blinds. 

Then it dawned on me—I didn’t have a clue how to hang them. Those were the days before YouTube videos and tutorials, and I had no life experience from which to draw. Prepared to suspend my decorating until my husband got home, I turned to her and said, “I have no idea how to hang this stuff.” 

“Oh, that’s easy,” she said. She took the hardware out of my hands, grabbed a screwdriver, and went to work. In no time at all, my blinds were up, and my curtains were hanging beautifully. 

I’d forgotten that she and dad had built our little house in Rhode Island from the outer walls in. Working in an unheated shell in the middle of winter with only a kerosene heater for warmth, they installed plumbing and electricity, hung sheet rock, and laid flooring. Compared to building a house, curtain rods and mini-blinds were kindergarten exercises.

My first few years of married life provided additional glimpses of my mom’s intelligence. I re-discovered that she knew how to make jam. And give permanents (Remember Farah Fawcett hair?). And paint. 

I knew she could do all these things when I was a child, but when I entered adolescence, I think she lost those abilities. Or perhaps I didn’t value them. 

But I’ll never forget the day she moved from clueless to genius in my eyes. We'd brought brought our first daughter home from the hospital five days earlier. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, aching from a C-section, and clueless about how to care for a baby, I opened the door to her smiling face. She’d offered to spend the week with us, helping us acclimate. 

That week was when my mother’s genius shone. When she diapered the baby, my daughter’s runny explosions stayed in rather than leaking all over my lap. When she cried inconsolably, my mom soothed her with a pat/bob/sway maneuver that rivaled the most graceful dancer. When it was time for her first bath, she showed me how to wash my slippery, floppy baby without drowning her. And in between, she fixed meals, washed laundry, and drank leisurely cups of coffee. I was convinced. She was brilliant. 

The subsequent 27 years have only served to reinforce my belief that my mom is one smart cookie.

I don't know where you are in your mothering journey. Maybe your toddlers consider you a rock star and think you're the smartest mommy on the planet. Or maybe you're in the out-of-touch stage, and your teenagers are discounting most of what you say. Perhaps you're getting smarter, and your young adult kids occasionally see sparks of genius. Or maybe you're receiving the reward of your parenting--your children are arising and calling you "blessed." 

Whichever stage you find yourself, rest assured. God sees the sacrifices you're making on behalf of your children. He hears the prayers you pray for them. And he will reward you. Even if our children never speak words of commendation and honor, God will. 

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. :9).

This Sunday is Mother's Day. Whether you are a mother, have a mother, or have been blessed by someone who isn't your mother, take a moment to speak words of thanks and affirmation to the women who have helped make you who you are. You'll be blessed and so will they. 

Happy Mother's Day. 

*Portions of this post appeared in the Editor's Letter of Reach Out, Columbia magazine, May 2017.

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