Life is gorgeous and hard and awe-inspiring and messy. We can re-frame, see all the silver linings, count it as blessing in disguise, speak positively and practice gratitude. We can and we should and we DO. But this doesn’t negate the existence of painful things.
Yes, life is wondrous, but it can still be hard.
Perhaps you’ll be tempted to tag me as pessimistic or void of faith, but before you do, how about reaching, instead, for the word honest? I feel called to shouting truth from the trenches of life; to living vulnerably and authentically; to voicing what most of us feel.
There are some very real struggles around us and in us. And I’m not sure why this truth tends to throw us off-kilter, because Jesus actually gives us a heads up about this.
He tells us: “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (NIV, Jn 16.33)
There seems to be a natural progression for most humans in terms of their perception of safety. These are massive, sweeping, simplified generalizations, but the point is to show development through life stages.
Early on, so long as a baby’s needs are met—warm, fed and comforted—the baby will feel safe. In later months, a baby or young child may experience anxiety when separated from the adult to whom he or she is attached, but will soon learn that, while the adult may leave, he or she will surely return. In a healthy attachment situation, a child will launch into the world, feeling capable and mostly free from fear. As an adolescent, the experience of ‘safety’ and immunity to consequence becomes even stronger, as the brain rewires and the prefrontal cortex (the part that insists on self-control and well-thought out plans) temporarily abdicates its position. (As a parent of teenagers, this is terrifying). Eventually, we experience a few hard knocks to help us understand that we are not invincible. Not strong. Not above the natural consequences of our choices. Not immune to pain.
For me, the deconstruction of my perceived safety began as a young teenager and continued intermittently into my thirties.
Romantic notions like “marriage lasts forever” were countered with reality when my own parents’ marriage ended. Suddenly, that covenant which had seemed inalterable to me was vulnerable. I was dismayed to understand it was a fragile entity, not insusceptible to real life. It changed my view of true love from trusting belief to how do you know? Scary truth: you really don’t.
The FAME-like ideal, “I’m gonna live forever!,” came crashing down when I was sixteen years old. As a pastor’s kid, I’d been around death my entire life. I’m sure I visited more funeral homes with my dad by the time I was ten years old than most people do in a lifetime. But these were old people. Their turn was over. When I was in tenth grade, one of my best friends was killed in a car accident. She was fifteen. There was no foul play, no alcohol. Only bad road conditions, inexperienced driving and an inflated sense of safety. On that day, just before Christmas, I got a phone call from a hysterical little sister telling me that my friend and two others were gone. It’s amazing how the tears still come when I re-visit this twenty-eight year old memory. I remember recognizing that life as I knew it was forever altered. I understood that we are not safe and that we are not guaranteed immunity from death.
Another myth dispelled in my early-twenties was the romantic comedy film plot: that my person and I would meet, something hard would happen to separate us or to blind us to our love, but in the end, it would all work out. Happily ever after. At nineteen years old, I met someone who I was confident I would marry. We were friends, but I loved him more than that. Although he didn’t recognize it as more, I was certain he would eventually know we were meant to be. My heart was betrothed to him for years, unbeknownst to him. Years later, only days after I finally found the courage to send him an honest letter, I learned through a friend that he had just got engaged. My letter was already in the mail. Heartbreak and humiliation. And then he got married. End of dream. How’s that for a sucky movie plot?
In my early twenties, I experienced a friendship that was rich and life-giving. I had never been more open and accountable. I felt so safe and loved. I shared myself deeply, only to learn later that my confidences hadn’t been respected or treasured. My faith and safety in friendship was rocked.
Suicide is another realm that remained blissfully inconsequential until it infiltrated the realm of possible. Though I knew of people who’d committed suicide, it wasn’t something I thought much about or even entertained as possible. It was not in my backyard. When someone important to my family took his own life, it revealed a door that had previously not existed. Before, when someone wasn’t answering my phone call, the reason was clearly that they had forgotten to charge their phone or they were sleeping. After, my first thoughts in every scenario flew to suicide. I realized fearfully and heartbreakingly that humans are so very fragile.
All of these hardships curbed the reckless safety in which I’d lived. These realities burst through the false walls of immunity that I’d so carefully constructed. They introduced plot lines that I’d never intended for my life. I was going to grow up, be very educated, be a rockstar, fall in love, get married forever, have lots of children and hugely impact the world. There would be no rejection, no broken trust, no divorce, no death. So when all of these things were introduced into my experience, my world was shaken. I realized with despair that I wasn’t really safe.
This tight space, almost like a bottle neck or funnel, occurs for all of us at some point. The revelation can cause a number of responses. In my life, the option that presented was the choice between despair and fear OR trusting in something or someone higher. For me, it was the someone higher. Trusting God became the pathway to a new kind of safety. Not in myself, but in Him.
Finding our safety in God doesn’t mean that we now wear some sort of supernatural immunity cloak. We live in a world that is broken and the rain falls on the just and unjust. The difference is in our experience of the hard things. The Bible promises over and over that He is with us.
Life with Jesus doesn’t make us exempt from adversity. Those who hope for only health and wealth once they know him will surely be disappointed. Yes, he is always good and he’s the giver of innumerable good gifts: hope, joy, peace, fulfillment, identity, comfort, wisdom and healing. But he doesn’t promise us problem-free living. Because we live in this beautiful, but imperfect world, we do experience challenges like sickness, death, betrayal and loneliness.
While we may not always feel bubble-wrapped or be plucked from terrible situations like we’d wished, what we do have is the God of the universe with us. He’s with us in the hard things. He strengthens us. He holds us together. When we say yes, he repurposes all things for our ultimate good. Even the parts that don’t make sense, like the earthquakes that rock our foundations (read this).
One of my favourite (and possibly most-prayed) pieces of writing is this excerpt from “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” (5th or 8th century, depending on your source):
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
He is in us and with us. He surrounds us.
Like you, I have already weathered many storms. But I am not overcome. I am honest about the hard things, but truly, I live with great joy. My heart is at rest. His peace goes beyond my understanding and doesn’t even make sense in light of the circumstances. There are some losses I hope I will never experience, but even if I do, I know I will be okay.
I walk boldly and with confidence, knowing that whatever comes, he is with me. And this makes me feel so safe.