“You are so brave. I am proud of you for fighting this cancer battle… I do not suffer well…”
Late into the night, this message lights up my phone screen. In the midst of an infection and Lyme flare just a few weeks following my double mastectomy and lymph node dissection, the words strike me.
Do I suffer well?
Do I can count my trials as suffering? There are numerous great men and women in the Bible who suffered, truly suffered, losing their homes, children, possessions, even their lives. As I read Job’s account, some of Job’s responses to his miserable friends hit close to home, yet I know my problems are nothing.
Unlike Abraham and Sarah, I know little of infertility.
Unlike Joseph, slavery is not a part of my world.
Reading Exodus now, I connect to Moses in his frustration and desperation, asking God to take his life. During my struggles with Lyme, I have felt so entirely hopeless that I begged God to take me. I get this kind of pain.
Still I wonder have I suffered? Do I have the right to claim suffering? It sounds pretentious. In our culture of constant comparison, I automatically measure myself against others, from the Old Testament to Instagram, and I discount my own plight.
A popular phrase sticks in my mind: “There are so many worse off than me.” We see, read or hear about others, and for some reason, we write off our own pain. It goes like this. Sure, I have cancer, but at least it’s not pancreatic cancer. Yes, my adult son is breaking my heart, but at least he’s alive. My problems are nothing compared to ____. It’s these At Leasts that minimize the struggle we are entitled to acknowledge.
My pain doesn’t have to be worse than yours in order for it to be real.
We all do this. In fact, we seem to have two extremes. Either we are unintentionally making caparisons and doing the At Leasts OR we are moaning and complaining so extensively we lose track of our blessings. I’m betting that even just reading my blog, most have done this. My struggle feels overwhelmingly bigger than yours or you read with frustration because you wish your problems were as menial as mine.
Compare and contrast. We do it constantly. Right or wrong, we seem to determine our own level of pain based on where others are, as if we are all making our plots on this desperate line graph of immeasurable trials and tribulations.
So I make a decision. I am allowed to own my journey, to look at my four year battle with Lyme and call it suffering simply because I have suffered. I have screamed out from physical pain, sobbed over my losses, and fought to be here today. If this isn’t suffering, what is?
By every definition, I have suffered. However, I chuckle at my friend’s misconception that I have done all –or any– of this well.
I have not.
There have been blubbering tears and angry outbursts at God. Days where I would not leave my bed. Guilt, frustration, depression. This has not been a journey of grace for me. Mostly I’ve done this kicking and screaming, digging my heals in and refusing to go where God was sending me. I am that stubborn child who must learn lessons the hard way, sometimes repeatedly, rather than just listening to her Father. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, He likely intended for this to be a short trip, not a lifelong journey, but my inability to suffer well extended my stay.
Most of the time, I just wish for my suffering to end so I can live my life well, instead of this half living I’ve been doing. I want to live, not just exist. To run and not stumble. To laugh and not cry.
But as I ponder all this, it occurs to me that I have the choice to live well inside of my terrible suffering. Life will never be easy. As I’ve finally leaned into this pain, I’ve learned that the Bible never indicates that life will be fair. In fact, it clearly and repeatedly states that “in this world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33 ESV). Paul told his followers that it was “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 ESV).
We seem to have this inherent misconception that living a good life, in which we try to make the right choices and live for Jesus, will protect us from bad things. However, our faith doesn’t keep us from suffering; it simply allows us to suffer well, to hold on to hope even when the journey is long and difficult. We won’t be grace-filled all the time. There will be moments when we cry out, “How long, my Lord?” There will be tears and pain and sorrow.
But when we accept this hardship as part of the journey, it all becomes so much easier. A few months ago, when this clicked in my life, it was as if a whole new world opened to me. The bitterness I’d been holding onto dissipated. I had been unfairly angry at God for breaking a promise He’d never extended. Good behavior does not automatically equate to a good life, and by good I mean easy.
There is still plenty of good in this difficult life.
I don’t want to suffer, but if I must, I want to do it well, with grace and surrender.
(P.S. The feature photo was taken by a pilot flying through a rainbow. Stunning, right?)