“I am the ground of thy beseeching.” — God, speaking to Julian of Norwich
A friend of mine got laid off last week. He’s got three kids, a mortgage. His wife was about to get this much-needed surgery to stop her chronic pain, but now that’s all on hold because their insurance ended right along with the job.
Another friend just got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He’s hopeful he can beat it.
A third finally brought their newborn home from the hospital after weeks of delicate surgeries and terrifying days where they feared she might not make it. They haven’t slept in weeks, not to mention the hours of work they lost in all this. And the medical bills will start flooding in any day now.
A fourth is finally losing his marriage after years of fighting to keep it afloat. It’s been bitter, and painful for everyone, especially the kids. Nobody knows yet what the next step is.
I could go on. I bet you could, too. You don’t have to look very far to find people who are suffering. They’re all around us. You may even be one of them right now. All of us have been, or will be at some point, in the center of that storm. It’s part of life.
But here’s something else I believe about suffering:
All these struggles we have in life, they are always about Faith in the end—regardless of what they seem to be about on the surface. Dig down deep enough, you’ll find that it’s true. At the bottom of every sorrow, every challenge, every loss, every struggle, there’s always this one question: “What are you going to believe about this?” How you decide to answer that question determines everything about your experience from that moment on.
So much of the pain we suffer comes not from what happens to us but from what we believe about what happens to us. The story we tell ourselves about it. The story we tell ourselves about God in the thick middle of it. We think God isn’t real, or that God isn’t good. Or if He is good, then He isn’t good toward us. We think yes God is love, but we are somehow the one exception to the great love He showers down on everyone else. We think we’re the failure He cannot do anything with. We’re too far gone, beyond His reach. He is a Deliverer, but I won’t be delivered. He is a Lover, but I won’t be loved. He is a Rescuer, but I won’t be rescued.
It’s crazy the mental gymnastics we perform to try to hold onto our belief in God without believing in Him at all.
Real faith, the kind that matters, begins by admitting to yourself, and to God, that right now you don’t believe in Him at all, that you are fully convinced that He has left the building, that He is at best an absentee Father, that He has repeatedly failed to show up in the way you needed, and you don’t think you’ll ever be able to trust Him again.
See, now you’re having a real conversation. And the thing is, that’s the only space where real faith can grow.
You ever wonder why God said that David was a “man after God’s own heart”? This is why. David had a lot of selfish ambition early on. He let his anger get the better of him at times. He killed a lot of people in that anger. He slept with another man’s wife, then had the man killed to cover up his crime. He never learned to be a good father to his kids. But through all of that mess, no matter what, he was always honest with God. You can see it in the Psalms. No matter what he thought or felt or feared or hated or believed or doubted, he brought it to God. He didn’t pretend. He didn’t play mental gymnastics. He told God everything, just the way he saw it, and just the way he felt it. He held nothing back. And he invited God (well, maybe “challenged God” is more accurate) to speak to him about it, to defend Himself, to set David straight.
That’s how you get to real faith. In fact, that’s the only way to get it.
It’s a hard thing, believing. Hard to get it right. Hard to believe in something deep in your bones, like you believe in the Earth, or in the sound of your own breathing. Hard not to fool yourself into thinking you believe when you really don’t, when you’re really pretending to believe because you think you’re supposed to or because you’re terrified of who you might be if you admitted to yourself that you don’t believe at all.
So, how do you know whether you’re really believing, or just make believing?
Well, a few things happen when you believe in God. One thing is, when your belief is real, it produces this deep resonant Joy, bubbling up in you like a wellspring, and pouring out over everything you do or even think about. Why? Because if God is real and loves you like He says He does, then just like that you don’t have a care in the world. You really are going to be fine, no matter what you’re suffering in the moment or what may be happening next. There really is nothing to fear. That’s the Joy of the Lord, because He knows He’s going to be fine, too, and He gives that joy to you, an endless wellspring of it, pouring right down through the channel of your real faith.
Another thing that kind of real faith produces is self control. Discipline. Focus. Pure, full-hearted attention. The supernatural capacity to hold a course, and persevere. You get sort of carried away by it, this overwhelmingly compelling sense of purpose, of intention, of meaning, so deep and so bright it brings tears just to look at it. It comes on you just like Joy does, and opens your eyes to see the Divine intention in everything. It wakes you up to the fact that the work of restoration, of “repairing the world” as my Jewish friends say, is not yet finished, and that God, because of His great love and great joy, has invited you into it. You have work to do, even now, in your suffering. Divine work. Holy work. You have a part to play in the Great Song. It’s not frivolous. It’s not minor. There are no bit parts. It’s deep and vast, like a fractal symphony that keeps on revealing itself in greater and greater wonder the longer you listen to it. When you really believe, you realize intuitively that there’s a part of that song that’s entirely yours to create, and you get to create it, not as a slave, but as a co-creator with God. As God’s lover. As God’s friend.
So don’t waste your pain. Invest it. Take it to God. Hold nothing back. Have a real conversation. Find that honest ground with God from which a deeper, truer faith can grow. Then use the fruit of that honest faith, and of your pain, to help others.
That’s the way we all get to join in the Great Song that is, even now, repairing the world.
“The difference is not in what people suffer; but in the way they suffer. In the same fire, gold glows and straw smokes.” — St. Augustine