A nineteenth century pastor and writer, Charles Spurgeon, once stated that “To be cast down is often the best thing that could happen to us.”
Who wants to be cast down? Raise your hand. Who wants to suffer? Who wakes up with cancer, depression, or the wounds of abuse and says,” This is the best thing that has ever happened to me!” What parent says that the death of their child was one of the best experiences of their life? Who lies awake at night hoping that the next day will bring pain and heartache?
Before you add that to your list of demotivational sayings of the day, understand that that’s not what Spurgeon meant.
Spurgeon knew firsthand the struggles of suffering. Just as one example, he battled depression for much of his life. He understood what it meant to despair, to be grieved, to feel anguish.
When Spurgeon says that sorrow – being cast down – is one of the best things that could happen, he’s speaking from experience. He’s saying that, whether suffering is brief or long-lasting, it can and will often be beneficial for me and/or the people around me.
This is meant as a comfort. It is difficult to wrap our minds around – we want to live lives free of distress, pain, and sorrow. We want to be encouraged and inspired by another person’s journey through suffering, not our own. Give me the brave survivor of domestic abuse but don’t let me experience what she has!
That is not the sort of world we live in. People hurt and hurt each other.
Where is the comfort in that?
In the midst of dating abuse and suicidal depression, I did not see an end in sight and it devastated me. I remember a good friend, who had had similar experiences, saying to me, “You know…this may last the rest of your life.”
It hasn’t become a lifetime; only a year. I now know I have to be vigilant because depression could be crouching just outside my door and, if I’m not careful, it could attack again. That friend was kindly reminding me that not all suffering has a time limit.
A year of darkness; a year of this unbearably painful, confusing weight on my mind and heart as I searched for reasons to live. I prayed, I pleaded with God to either remove the pain or let me die.
I wept, “Please. Please. Please, God, take it away!”
By the way, Jesus Christ – the perfect Son of God – prayed a similar prayer as he faced his crucifixion, during which he would bear the full wrath of God against sin so that we could be saved (Luke 22: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”) Jesus experienced the ultimate suffering so he is able to understand ours.
What Jesus’ prayer teaches me, among other things, is that prayer is more about learning to trust God’s will than it is getting the quick answer for what I want. Jesus prayed “not what I want but what you want”. When life is overwhelming, I sometimes forget that prayer is not meant to be the magical band-aid by which I tell God what to do so he can fix everything within the next five minutes. Thus, my attitude was much less trusting. It ran along the lines of: “Ok. I’m not doing this anymore. I don’t care if you have a plan. This cannot be worth it. Here are your options: heal me or let me die. Pick one or the other!”
His inaudible answer? Neither. Not yet.
Ummm…God? I think you missed my ultimatum. Let’s go over this again…fix me now.
And God probably smiled at my silliness as he sought to comfort me by saying again, “Not yet. I have better plans. They will be awesome and they will blow your mind!”
God did not just think to himself one day, “I’m going to make Rachel’s life miserable for…oh…say…roughly 365 days. Just for kicks.” That is not something God does (read the book of Job in the Bible). God is not a malicious puppeteer nor does he ever do anything “just for kicks”. He is able to do exceedingly more than I could ever ask or imagine. And he usually does.
God chose to allow me to suffer because He knew how it would change my life and he knew how it would positively affect other lives. He knew it was going to dramatically influence my adulthood decisions, habits, etc. Maybe you could call it my “coming of age” story; I very much went from being a foolish and naive teenager to a (hopefully) less foolish and mature adult. Suddenly, my eyes were drawn away from my own little world and I was able to begin seeing and understanding the other 6,999,999,999 people on the planet (give or take).
Here are three big examples of what I mean. First, while God allowed me to suffer, he never allowed me to suffer alone. He was with me every moment of every day and night, as always. He used new friends and old friends to help me. He even used the brilliance of modern medicine to aid my healing (depressants are not for everyone but, after arguing against them, I’ve learned they are definitely helpful for me).
Second, he had never promised me a life free of suffering. In fact, Jesus told his disciples to expect suffering. God also promised that – for those trusting in his power through Jesus Christ – we will never face something we cannot handle alone. Emphasis on alone…without Jesus Christ, I would literally fall apart. The things I face which should utterly destroy me are manageable because God is in control.
Third, he receives glory from what happens in my life. Think of it this way: what I experienced that year revealed God’s character. My suffering put him on display: his love, his faithfulness, his patience, his healing. He wept alongside me in those moments of darkness. It did not please him to see my aching soul. But he knew the scars would be purposeful. He walked with me in the darkness only to bring me back into the light and say, “You see; I will never let you go.” Suffering continues to put God on display even if it has ended; I cannot talk about that year without telling you, “God was so good to me. Look and see how awesome he is! Read his Word and seek to know him!”
About a year after the messiness, a friend called me up from a few hundred miles away to tell me she had started cutting again and feared she might become suicidal. If I had not been in that position myself for a year, I would have had nothing (or at least nothing very helpful) to say to her. It was hard enough knowing where to begin and I understood what she was saying! But, once I could find the right words, I was privileged be there to say, “Do you have a plan for when you don’t feel safe by yourself?” “Have you talked to someone there that you trust?” “This helped me when I wanted to give up”, etc. She ended up seeing the same counselor I had been seeing and is doing well. She’s using the pain of her past to help others and I learned that a big part of healing is helping.
It’s not the first time I’ve shared pieces of my story in a post but I cannot say enough how thankful I am for that year of abuse and depression. I wish everyone could say as much – I know that doesn’t happen and it breaks my heart. I hope I never experience it again and I would not wish it on my worst enemy. At the same time, I know that I would not be the same person without that year of “how could this get any worse” growth.
I grew spiritually as I learned that in my moments of utter despair and weakness, God was still holding me. I grew psychologically as I learned, however slowly, that I did not deserve abuse and that there were ways to fight my depression. It’s because of that year that I have a better idea of what to avoid in a dating partner and, ultimately, in a husband. It’s because of that year, in large part, that I am working with abuse survivors today and plan to continue doing so for the rest of my life.
I don’t mean that as a pat on the back. I’m well aware that my efforts are limited and I genuinely have no idea what sort of impact I am having on others – if I help anyone, it’s because God did something through me. Still, I would not have looked for an opportunity to encourage suffering people if I had not first undergone my own suffering. (I’m that introverted nerd who will just read in the library and avoid people because they intimidate me, thank you very much.) Suffering was just another reminder that my life is not just about me. I never need a reason to help another person. Again, a big part of healing is action.
What if God’s answer to my plea for healing had been, “No”? What if my friend had been right and that year had become this lifetime?
Well, it would make writing this post a little more challenging! I can’t fully grasp where I would be if the depression had not lifted or the abuse not ended. Yet the truth would remain that my suffering and my scars serve a greater purpose than I could ever imagine.
If you had told me about all of the incredible people I have met because of our mutual understanding of abuse and depression while I was curled up under my dorm room desk, sobbing and thinking about those nice, full bottles of pills on my dresser, I might have felt a tiny bit better but I would have found it hard to believe. And it would not have made the pain magically disappear. A cheerful “Don’t worry, it will get better!” does not often have its desired affect until much later. However, it was the pain of moments like that which has allowed me to meet all of those incredible people. It was the pain of moments like that which taught me more about God: his goodness, his faithfulness, his patience, his grace and mercy, his power, his love, and his holiness (perfection).
If I was still having panic attacks every day, crawling under furniture to hide from other people, sobbing at the slightest provocation, staying in bed for days, sleeping in the back seat of my car, skipping meals…God would still be good, faithful, patient, gracious, merciful, powerful, loving, and perfect. God is my Comforter, my Prince of Peace, whether I am healthy and happy or not.
Charles Spurgeon also said that “It is the presence of Jesus and not the absence of happiness that designates the situation and provides our hope…We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul.”
The total absence of happiness left me feeling as if I had no hope. But feelings can be incredibly deceiving. I’m not saying depression is a misguided feeling you can just get rid of…it’s not. What I am saying is that I lived a year of sorrow and learned that Spurgeon was absolutely right. God promises eternal hope to me -and anyone who believes- because of my faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on my behalf. So, when I felt hopeless, there was still hope. God didn’t change because my life suddenly got hard. My actions and feelings do not dictate whether or not I have a relationship with God and am welcomed into heaven. He has chosen to love me unconditionally; it is not because of anything I have said or done – it’s because of Christ.
Healing is a continual process. There are still days when the memories come flooding back and I cry out, “God! Why did you ever put me through that? Why did it have to happen?” He lovingly reminds me of what I’ve just told you. His grace is sufficient because his power is perfected in my weakness. He is using my pain to benefit others. He is using my pain to help me understand him better. He is using those memories to remind me that I need to trust in his promises. He has never failed to prove himself faithful. He is using my pain to make himself known.
Perhaps someday I will have all the answers to why God allows his children to suffer. But not yet.
“God has not shut up his tender mercies; it may be night in the soul, but there need be no terror, the God of love changes not.” Charles Spurgeon