How to suffer well
Let me begin by assuring you that I am not claiming to have the corner market on suffering. While I have had specific struggles in my life, some being more intense than others, and some lasting longer than others, I realize that, in comparison to many, many people around the world, I really have no idea what true suffering is.
Despite this, we all suffer in some respects. We live in a world broken by sin and to pretend we are unaffected by it would be foolish. Jesus promises we will have trouble in this world (John 16:33). People get sick and die. Relationships become great sources of pain. Chronic pain sets in and never leaves. The list goes on and on. We all can name others who we have watched suffer through excruciating circumstances. We can also each think of times (maybe that’s right now for you) when we find ourselves in the midst of deep struggle.
Recently, I have been thinking about what it looks like to “struggle well.” If suffering is truly inevitable, as I believe it to be, then I figure I have several choices when it comes to my own personal struggle. I can a) throw myself a gigantic pity party, focus completely on myself, and get angry at God for allowing it while resenting those around me who are not struggling or … b) acknowledge the pain I am in the midst of, trust the God who I believe to be sovereign, loving, and caring about the minute details of my life, and figure out how to live selflessly in the midst of my pain.
I’ll be the first to admit that option “a” comes very easily to me. For the last 3 weeks, I have been struggling with chronic back pain. In general, I consider myself to have a fairly high pain tolerance; after all, I gave birth to 2 babies naturally and tend to not be fazed much by most illness or injuries I experience. But chronic pain? That is just a different beast … the constancy of it wears on me emotionally and mentally, therefore easily affecting my ability to cope and live the selfless, gracious, and God-honoring life I desire to. After the first few days of the pain when it did not subside, I became anxious and started focusing mostly on myself. I wanted to lay in bed on my heating pad and not do anything all day long. Now, for the record, Shun-Luoi has been more than gracious during this time and has definitely picked up a good deal of my slack for me. However, I was not immobilized by the pain and there was just no way I could decide to not carry out any of my responsibilities during this time. The fact that I was a mother showcased my extreme selfishness; my little ones had constant needs throughout the days and I didn’t want to meet their needs. I resented them for asking of me when I didn’t feel well. Me, me, me, blah, blah, blah.
Now, don’t get me wrong – if you’re struggling in some capacity, you shouldn’t ignore the fact that you are. If I would have been able to ignore my back pain, which I was unable to, it would not have negated the reality of the pain. I needed to figure out what was wrong and take steps to remedy the pain. There were times I did need Shun-Luoi to take over specific tasks that needed to be done. It was ok that I cried out of sheer frustration because I couldn’t catch a break from the pain. However, I also needed to figure out a way to suffer gracefully and continue living everyday life in the midst of the pain that wasn’t going away. I needed to figure out steps to address the pain, but, even more than that, I needed to cry out to God for the grace, strength, and courage to do the daily tasks that I needed to do. Being in pain did not “let me off the hook” in terms of the way God calls me to live. It did not give me license to be selfish, resentful, angry, and impatient. The following are a few practical things I have learned about “suffering well” during my most recent struggle:
- Trust God. I know, I know – it sounds trite, but .. it’s true. Do I trust God and who He says He is; that He is loving and good, and that He will do things for His glory and my good? Or do I not? Will I demand to know why such and such is happening and to know how He will possibly use it for good or … will I put my hope in Him (vs. whether or not He will “explain Himself,” as if He somehow owes us that)? I’m by no means saying this is easy in everyday life, much less during times of intense struggle. I often have to ask the God to help me trust Him because I just cannot in my own strength.
- Pray that God would relieve your suffering. Do what you can practically to alleviate your suffering, if appropriate. Sometimes, there are no practical ways to alleviate suffering and quite frankly, no action should be taken. Yes, yes – I realize that we are Americans and try to avoid pain and discomfort whenever possible (that’s totally unbiblical, by the way), but I do believe there are times we are supposed to “sit” in our struggle. Then there are the other specific times in which we can take practical steps, as in the case of my back. But in the cases when we can and should take practical steps and they don’t help, then what? See #1. Seriously. Again, what we truly believe about God will come to light and determine how we handle our struggles.
- Tell some trusted friends that you are struggling and need prayer and/or practical help. And just as importantly, let them help you!
- Do the things, if you are able to, that need to be done. Think of others. When I am in pain, it’s even easier than normal to think only of me, me, and … me. It’s embarrassing, really. A few weeks ago, my back pain woke me up in the middle of the night … I grew anxious about the pain, then about how I was going to be able to do what needed to be done that next day due to sleep deprivation, and on and on my mind raced. It was not helpful to dwell on the pain and how I was being affected. A week ago, the same thing happened and I was up in pain for about 1.5 hours this time. God gave me the grace to do what I could in the way of stretching my back, etc., and then spend the time praying for others. He brought specific people to mind and, although I was uncomfortable, I spent the majority of that time praying for others. When I finally drifted back to sleep, my heart and my mind were at peace although the pain was still present. I had spent that time in prayer and thinking on God and on others. What a difference it made! Don’t be fooled, though – God is the one that made doing so possible. In the same vein, I grew in being able to focus on my kids, my husband, and what needed to be done at home … however, it was a fight at times to focus on others and I failed more than I would like to admit.
Interestingly, in the last few days as I have written this, my back has come to feel much, much better. For that I am grateful. However, I’m realizing the lessons I began learning during the times of chronic pain are invaluable and will only continue as I grow older and struggle again and again. Pain and struggle are inevitable. If that is indeed true, shouldn’t we learn to struggle “well?”
What about you? What have you learned about what it means to “struggle well?” As always, I would love to hear your thoughts!