When You Can't Skim Over Life
Words by Samantha Barnes
Very rarely does anyone willingly embrace pain. We love the short cut and the easy way. We’re smart enough to plan ahead.
But the more I read the Bible, and the more I read authors who help me to read the Bible differently, I see pain laced in-between so many of the narratives. I love to celebrate the miracles and the happily ever after of God’s promises. But I’ve begun identifying with the characters, recognizing their pain in ways I have previously just skimmed through.
It’s so much easier to summarize the past than it is to live in the process.
Take Hannah’s story, for example. 1 Samuel 1 tells us, “[Elkanah] had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.” How much life is actually built into that blunt statement! We know the whole story—God is going to show up and provide a son who will be instrumental in the shaping of Israel’s history. Knowing the whole story can cause us to keep reading to get to the good stuff: the angel’s promise, the answered prayers, the boy who would later audibly hear God’s call. But Hannah didn’t have that advantage. Day in, day out, Hannah lived through this harsh and constant comparison, uncertain of her future and of her God’s plan.
The death of Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, is another happy ending we can gloss over too quickly. Mary and Martha send a messenger to Jesus to ask him to come heal their brother, who is sick. Jesus somewhat cryptically responds, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11). He then waits before going to visit this family, and by that time it is seemingly too late. Mary and Martha have been mourning their brother’s death for four days. What do you think those four days were like for Mary and Martha? If you have had a loved one pass away, what were the first few days like for you?
When Jesus finally shows up, Martha runs out to greet him, but Mary doesn’t leave the house. When someone comes to tell her that Jesus is calling for her, she runs to him, falls at his feet, and wails, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
We know Jesus is about to do something great. But for the past four days, Mary was lost in grief. She knew Jesus’ authority and power, yet she and Martha waited and waited and he didn’t show up.
We don’t get to read ahead in the story of our lives to see how God is going to act or what he is doing.
We have to live each day in uncertainty of the future, certain only that life doesn’t always go the way we hope it will. There is an ultimate happily ever after when Jesus comes back for good, but until then we are surrounded by brokenness.
The sweet thing I am noticing in the midst of the pain is the way that pain draws a person into deeper intimacy with God—and, in my recent studies, especially in examples of women in Scripture. We don’t read a lot from the perspectives of women in the Bible, but in the times that we do, there’s often desperation present in their need for God to show up. We get to see Hannah praying so intensely that the priest Eli thinks she is drunk. We see Mary fall at Jesus’ feet and audibly question what he is doing. At the end of Genesis 29 we are privy to Leah’s heart as she names her sons to reflect her own pain of being unloved—and as they reflect her transition over the years from craving her husband’s affirmation to being able to praise God despite her reality of a loveless marriage.
It's a beautiful picture of the Gospel: our desperate need for God and his grace to meet us in our lack.
In When Life and Beliefs Collide, Carolyn Custis James describes Mary’s interaction with Jesus after Lazarus’s death:
Jesus does not stand above or outside of Mary’s pain, much less urge her to snap out of it. He is neither philosophical nor patronizing. . . . He acknowledges her sorrow and validates her suffering by entering himself into the full measure of her distress without reserve. Surely Jesus’ behavior should prevent us from ever thinking good theology makes us impervious to our pain or indifferent to the suffering of others. . . . Good theology—in Jesus and in us—coexists with broken hearts, shattered lives, and unimaginable pain.
Jesus is with us in pain. He doesn’t chide us for being overwhelmed with sadness as we walk through the hard seasons of life. Faith in him doesn’t mean that we are able to endure trials personally unaffected by what’s happening.
Faith is experiencing the grit of life and crying out against it, yet still choosing to cling to him in the midst of the unexplained.
In another book, The Gospel of Ruth, James comments, “God uses suffering to open our eyes to see more of him than we would under rosier conditions.” How my heart longs for my own eyes to be opened in such a way—to not skim over pain in hope that it will be over soon, but to walk each step looking to see more of God through my sadness than I could if everything went the way I wanted.
One of the blessings I’m realizing now, as I walk through the unmet desire of pregnancy, has been the reality that I can’t share my story or even how I am doing right now in that skimmed-over fashion. It’s easy to tell others how God has worked in my life in the past, now that I can connect the dots and see what he was doing. In this moment, though, I don’t see the full picture. I don’t have the promise of a pretty bow to tie it all together. What I do have is the confidence that he is present, even in the midst of sorrow. I am challenged to put what I believe about God to work.
This unavoidable brokenness I encounter is the reality that I live in the process, but I can and must cling to truth in the midst of the day-to-day. He is with me. He is for my good. He is for his glory. Those truths are too precious to skim over.