I’ve known Jesus most of my life. Growing up in the St. Louis Christian bubble of Christian home•Christian school•Christian church, my life was filled with youth group activities, retreats, trips to youth conferences, and a Christian camp every summer. I even extended the bubble by attending a Christian college.
Fast forward into adulthood, God brought me a wonderful Christian man to be my husband, next steps we married and started a family. Two little boys, Max and Briggs. Here I could insert “and we lived happily ever after”, but my story doesn’t end there.
Funny thing is……as much as I would like to argue with God, He’s in charge and He is not interested in just giving us a happily ever after on this earth. He loves us way too much. Instead, He wants our hearts and He wants to give us His absolute best. And for my story that meant becoming a widow in my mid-30’s, with a three year old and a one year old.
Almost ten years ago, my first husband, Brian, was diagnosed with a very rare, very terminal cancer at the age of 34. A few months following diagnosis, in a St. John’s Emergency room, I said goodbye to him as he entered the gates of Heaven and went Home.
My sweet comfortable life exploded, and I sat faced with almost paralyzing circumstances. I was suddenly alone, without my husband and best friend. Never to talk and be with him again in this life. And I had two beautiful little boys who had just lost their father, one still in diapers and one learning his ABC’s. I cried and argued with God, “Why are you doing this? Don’t you love us? This is too much. Really? Really? No way. What are you doing? Why? I can’t do this.” The whole ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle?’ I wasn’t buying. I was terrified.
I often played Isaiah 41:10 on repeat in my head: “Do not fear for I am with you. Do not fear for I am your God. Surely I will strengthen you. Surely I will uphold you with my right hand of righteousness.” I even had to remind myself to breathe. Death. Loss. Suffering. Grief. These became my normal.
As I’ve traversed life as a widow with my two little boys, God has gently and persistently pressed on my heart the value and importance of suffering in this broken world. Life as a single parent was challenging and uncomfortable. Knowing my children may never have a father to coach soccer or take them camping with the Cub Scouts felt almost unbearable at times. I wept for them, begging and pleading with God to be with these little guys always, to care for them in case something happened to me, fearful they would be ill-equipped to be the men of God I hoped and prayed they would be.
As the weeks turned to months and months into years, evening after evening, in the blaring quietness of my house, knowing that I could never fill the shoes of an earthly father and trusting that God would be there for my boys, for me, for us—here is where I learned something invaluable. It changed my normal.
I learned that to suffer is a gift, a blessing, and brings us an intimate understanding of redemption and the gospel story. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed; always carrying in the body the putting to death of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Thinking of the disciples, those who knew Jesus on earth and walked with him, talked with him, shared meals with him—they gave up everything to follow Him. Most died violent deaths for preaching the Gospel. Several were crucified, others murdered by the spear or stoned to death. These were his best friends.
And Paul, whose letters we study over and over again, he sat in prison writing about the joy of the Lord, and about everything of this life being garbage except for knowing the surpassing greatness of Christ, and so many more through the ages as the Gospel spread, embracing the suffering and persecution for the sake of Christ. In all these testimonies, God was faithful. His presence—all the time, in every detail of every story.
“Do not fear for I am with you. Do not fear for I am your God. Surely I will strengthen you. Surely I will uphold you with my right hand of righteousness.” Isaiah 41:10
From the moment Jesus was born, he suffered more than we can even comprehend. There was no comfort in his arrival to earth. He didn’t fly first class or summon designers for the red carpet or even call a press conference. Instead, He chose hay and smelly animals and some lowly shepherds for his entrance. He never owned a home or a car or many possessions. Yes, there were few palm fronds and a donkey for his entrance into Jerusalem, but definitely no limos and paparazzi. He was rejected, betrayed, beaten. In the Garden, sweating blood, we see his human fragility as he boldly asked if there is another way. Here was the God of the universe, on His knees, feeling the pain–my pain, your pain–suffering because he loved us. And then we see his faithfulness, his great sacrifice: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Ultimately, He faced separation from His Glorious Father, something we will never have to experience–and then He conquered death.
Suffering in this life has changed the way I experience this world, the way I’ve raised my children, the way I look at my house, my possessions, my job, my life pursuits. Experiencing great suffering has given me a glimpse of what He suffered to provide an eternal Home for us.
Brian is already there, transformed and perfect. With so much of our daily life thinking and dealing with this physical, broken and dying world–jobs, errands, schedules—we often forget we are part of an amazing redemptive story with a hero who loved and suffered and died and rose again. Knowing all that Christ went through to redeem humanity and the experience of losing someone I loved so desperately has transformed my pain, my tears, my wounds, making them beautiful. And just as He did in the Garden, God has remained faithful to my little family. To the circle of friends to love on my boys to financial provision when the need was there and to those moments when I felt incredibly alone. God was always there, providing all that we needed and most importantly, walking intimately with us.
For years, my eldest, Max, prayed for a new daddy, and I remember, through my tears, encouraging him that God knew best, in His perfect time and that we were never alone, as He was our father and the father to all the widows and orphans in the world. God redeems oursuffering–it is in the fabric of our universe. And for my family and our story, He did bring us a new daddy, a new best friend for me, one that, as Briggs said on our wedding day, “made us a family of four.” And as Max has mused, “Daddy Brian was my birth dad, and you, Daddy (Todd), are my life dad.”
The great author Barbara Johnson writes: “we are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world. As Christians, we hope in the unseen, in the promised, and in the resurrection. And we have a faithful God who promises us eternity but never promises us an easy, comfortable life on this earth. As much as we might desire that, it isn’t our calling. It isn’t necessarily to have our happily ever after.
Our calling is to love God and to glorify Him forever in all our earthly endeavors. It is to seek Him and know Him at all costs. And He is faithful to love us, to provide for us, and to lead us in this earthly life and, when it’s time, to bring us home to heaven.
Suffering teaches redemption. And understanding redemption, at least how I make sense of it, is believing and living the gospel. I’ve often reflected how can I really know the beauty of the gospel? How can I live gracefully, love compassionately and serve faithfully? How can I engage in the redemption of a broken world if I am comfortable, avoiding suffering of any kind? Though I will never feel nails in my hands nor wear a crown of thorns, I have learned that the more I lose and suffer in this world, the more I gain in understanding the redemption story. His sacrifice on the cross, his pursuit of my heart, his faithfulness in all my earthly sufferings—there I have known grace and redemption and love and compassion.
“I have learned that the more I lose and suffer in this world, the more I gain in understanding the redemption story.”
I encourage you to live by faith, to embrace the challenges and sufferings in your life, knowing that his grace and his plan are specifically designed for you, even when it feels unbearable. He will never leave you nor forsake you. I encourage you to preach the gospel to yourself, to your family, to your friends, to this crazy broken world every day of your life.
We are not home yet–so I encourage you to walk forward, keeping your eyes toward Heaven, taking each step boldly, knowing Christ has it mapped out, not only for your best, but for the greater story that we will one day know in Heaven.
In the hope of Christ,
I am the mother of two tender young warriors (almost high-schoolers), wife to a scientist (high-school/college chemistry teacher), and a child of the gracious, living God. I love to produce visual stories, develop new ideas to transform the learning experience, and inspire creativity to make the world more beautiful.
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