Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chronic Pain

“Oh, that I might have my request, that God would grant what I hope for,
that God would be willing to crush me, to let loose his hand and cut me off!
Then I would still have this consolation—my joy in unrelenting pain—
that I had not denied the words of the Holy One.

What strength do I have, that I should still hope?
What prospects that I should be patient?
Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh bronze?
Do I have any power to help myself, now that success has been driven from me?”
(Job 6:8-13)

“But he said to me, ‘My strength is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Chronic pain. Living in survival mode. Disconnected. Thankful that my family’s life can go on without me when I have nothing to give. But feeling like days are wasted. Life is going on and I am not participating. Sidelined. Only half-living. Sometimes not even half.

The Sunday after my birthday in early March, I was lying in bed with terrible migraine pain that wouldn’t go away. Not responding to medicine. I felt desperate, like the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and thought, “If I can just get to Jesus…” My desperation though was to find a pain-killer that would work—to be knocked out, to able to sleep, to get away from the unrelenting pain.

From my bed that day, I could overhear Charly in the living room having a positive discussion with our kids about our year in Lanzhou…lessons learned about connecting with the community here…how we could all work at connecting with our new village community when we move (its this coming Saturday!) I felt convicted that I still don’t feel that connected in Lanzhou. And here I am lying in bed—not able to do anything. By afternoon, I was finally able to sleep, and by dinnertime the pain had subsided so that I was able to get up and eat with the family. But I felt so worn out, weary, and broken that I cried through the blessing on the meal.

In a quiet moment after dinner, Charly asked me what was behind my tears, and I choked out the words that were on my heart, “I feel like I don’t have much of a life.” Charly gently told me that wasn’t true, but he could see how I would feel that way. He said that what I had blogged about recently was written out of my pain, and he believed that the lessons God was teaching me through that pain had and would minister to others. But he could understand how I could still struggle with believing those truths myself when I was in pain. I’m so thankful for my husband and how God used him to bless me in a very significant way at that time of brokenness.

Now I feel like I am emerging from that bad stretch—today is my 9th day in a row headache-free! And I’m trying to process what to do and where to go with what God has brought me through. I want to reconnect where I have been disconnected…in relationships, in commitments, in responsibilities. But there’s cautiousness in not wanting to “jump” back into life because I never know how long a good stretch is going to last…

We’ve been watching the destruction of homes behind our apartment this past week—as there was a landslide while we were in Beijing, and the city declared those homes to be no longer safe. Out of all the rubble accumulating as the walls come down, I can see the workers saving as many bricks as they can.


As I sort through the rubble in my life, I too want to seek and to set aside the bricks of truth with which to rebuild. I want to be open to what God wants to continue to teach me about those many “wasted” days of pain, and the feelings of helplessness, uselessness, and discouragement that I was fighting in addition to the physical pain.

One brick of truth came this week as we studied “Experiencing the Power of Jesus” in the Max Lucado study and Joshua and Jordan recited their memory verse of 2 Corinthians 12:9. I even asked them, “Does it really say that…so that God’s power may rest on me?” I had never noticed the word “rest” there before, and that phrase really resonated with my heart.

His power resting on me turns my weakness into His strength.

Another brick came this morning as I was looking up “rest” in the concordance and “pain” caught my eye. I scanned down and noticed Job 6:10 “my joy in unrelenting pain.” As I flipped to read the full passage (quoted at the top of the page), I wondered if Job was superspiritual here and had joy within his pain (unlike me).

When I am in significant pain, I generally do not experience a special closeness with the Lord, feel a deeper dependence on Him through prayer, or have a joy that sustains me. All I can think of in those times of pain is bringing it to an end. In whatever way. As soon as possible. In this passage, I discovered that I could relate with Job asking God to end his life so that his “joy in unrelenting pain” would be “that I had not denied the words of the Holy One.” He had no power of his own to help himself, no strength to keep on hoping. He was out of patience. That’s how I feel. I want to be desperate for Jesus like the woman bleeding for twelve years. But reality is that often my desperation is for pain killers that will bring relief quickly.

Even though I feel very far from spiritual when I am hurting, when I look back, I can see how Christ’s power can rest on me like Paul described in 2 Corinthians 12:9. A power dependent on the giver not on the receiver. In weakness the receiver has nothing to give. Only able to receive a power that is a gift. A treasure.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed…because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 14a, 16)

Through His power resting on us, we are renewed. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead. This power does not come from us, cannot come from us. It can only come from Him. And can only come when we are needy. Broken. Spent. Struck down.

Brennan Manning said in Ruthless Trust, “Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded.”

Pain is not wasted. It can be transformed.

There is more to this life. By ways that we do not understand and by working where we cannot see, God is creating something beautiful through pain. If you are struggling with chronic pain, my heart truly goes out to you. I would love to know what God is teaching you through your painful circumstances.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither heights nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

When life feels hopeless, and no end to the pain is in sight, God remains the God of Hope.
When life feels devoid of all joy, and even a simple smile seems impossible, God is still the true Joy-Giver.
When life feels heavy with burdens, and we have no ability to offer anything, God continues to be our God of Peace.

May His power rest on you today to give you the very strength that you need for your unique circumstances and challenges. He can make our lives full even when we are in survival mode and feel only half-alive. I don’t know how He does it, but I believe He can.

He is sufficient and He never changes. Even in chronic unrelenting pain.

Monday, March 26, 2012

His Hands

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’” (Jeremiah 18:1-6)

Soft clay. Moldable. Shapeable. Conforming to the intentions of the potter and the unique design in his mind. No resistance to his masterful hands. Have your way with me, O Lord. I am surrendered to you.

Hard clay. Brittle. Breakable. Resisting the work of the potter and the design in his mind. No, Lord, my way is better. I don’t want what you want for me. I reject the work of your hands.

Last week in Beijing, a friend set up an appointment for me to see a Chinese doctor who could possibly help me with my neck problems and relieve some of my headache pain. As I positioned myself on a stool in Dr. Wang’s clinic, he stepped behind me and placed his hands on my neck. His hands were experienced and could feel out the sensitive, painful spots almost instantly. I knew that I could trust these hands. So I set up 5 appointments for the 5 days we would be in Beijing. Those appointments involved painful massage and manipulation as well as acupuncture needles, but that was okay because I knew that pain would be part of the process.

He would ask, “Does this hurt?” and I would cry out, “Yes!” Then he would push harder. “Can you stand it?” And I would grit my teeth, “Yes, I can stand it.” Then he would tell me to relax and I would try as hard as I could to let go of any resistance as he twisted and pulled my neck into positions I wasn’t sure that my neck wanted to go. Today is my 6th day in a row now without a headache! Truly the best headache-free stretch I have had in a long time, and I am very, very grateful.

On the train coming back from Beijing, Jordan was sick (already for a day and a half) with a fever and sore throat. She became steadily weaker on the train and fainted while waiting outside the bathroom. We were thankful that she hadn’t already entered the bathroom and locked herself in! Charly and I took turns during the night sitting up with her on her bottom bunk in case she needed anything, as she was sicker than we had ever seen her, and we weren’t sure that we could hear her from the top bunks. As I watched her sleep, and asked God to help her get better, I could hear God asking me, “Do you trust My hands the way you trusted the doctor’s?”

Just as I had let go of as much resistance as I could in my neck to let him have his way, so now, I was choosing to let go of my worries by saying, “Have your way with Jordan, Lord.” Even if this road leads to death (such were the fears about our sick, almost lifeless girl in the middle of the night, on a train in the middle of nowhere), Your ways are good.

You are good. You work all things out for good. I trust Your hands as the masterful potter who has a plan.

Jordan was so dizzy and weak the next morning that Charly had to piggy back her off of the train. But her strength gradually returned as we traveled home from the train station, and she was able to walk up our nine flights of stairs when we got to our apartment building. And by the next day, apart from a lingering cough, she seemed back to her normal, bubbly self! We are very, very grateful that her health has been restored.

Trusting His hands. To shape. To protect. To guide. To comfort. Letting go of all my resistance.

“On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:7-8)

“Into your hands I commit my spirit…My times are in your hands.” (Psalm 31:5a, 15a)

How are His hands shaping your life? Are you trusting or resisting Him?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Even Though

Habakkuk questioned God. “How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! ‘Violence!’ I cry, but you do not come to save.” (Habakkuk 1:2, NLT) God gave him an answer that was hard to accept. “I am raising up the Babylonians to be a new power on the world scene. They are a cruel and violent nation who will march across the world and conquer it.” (1:6) Habakkuk challenged God’s plan, “You are perfectly just in this. But will you, you who cannot allow sin in any form, stand idly by while they swallow us up? Should you be silent while the wicked destroy people who are more righteous than they?” ()

Habakkuk then climbed up into his watchtower to wait for God’s response (2:1). God said, “But these things that I plan won’t happen right away. Slowly, steadily, surely, the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. If it seems slow, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed. Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked; but the righteous will live by their faith.” (2:3-4) He went on to reveal to Habakkuk the woes that would befall Babylon, concluding with, “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him.” ()

Habakkuk prayed, “I have heard all about you, Lord, and I am filled with awe by the amazing things you have done. In this time of our deep need, begin again to help us as you did in years gone by. Show us your power to save us. And in your anger, remember your mercy.” (3:2) Then Habakkuk recounted the story of the Lord’s miraculous rescue of His people from their oppressors in Egypt (3:8-15).

It was Habakkuk’s encounter with God I believe that brought his questioning heart to peacefully surrender. He humbly laid down his own ideas for how and when God’s justice would prevail. “I will wait quietly for the coming day when disaster will strike the people who invade us.” (3:16b)

Habakkuk chose to live by a joyful faith, even when the wicked Babylonians would eventually conquer their land. He affirmed that there will be no conditions on his rejoicing in the Lord. “Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vine; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He will make me as sure-footed as a deer and bring me safely over the mountains.
(3:17-19)

Habakkuk’s response reminds me of the psalmist, who with a grieving heart and a bitter spirit, questioned why the wicked seemed to prosper, and his own life seemed so difficult. "When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny." (Psalm 73:16)

I love the way that the psalmist's peace and acceptance of the life before his eyes came as a result of being in God's holy presence, where transformation took place and He was able to see what couldn't be seen with physical eyes: a life of eternity. He understood that God was always with him and would one day take him into glory (v. 24). And he received assurance that the God of justice would judge the wicked. (How He Answers)

And Habakkuk’s response reminds me of Martha’s after Lazarus’ death, when Jesus chose to delay his arrival, allowing the one he loved to die. This is how I would describe Martha’s statement of faith in the midst of her great disappointment toward Jesus: If only you were here, we wouldn’t be mourning the death of our brother right now. I don’t understand why you didn’t come to heal the one whom you love when he was sick. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask. I don’t know what that looks like, but I know that you are his Son, and so I still have hope. My heart has not become hardened with bitterness toward you. I believe that you are the Christ. This understanding could only have come from you, so that even while I am mourning and don’t know why this has happened, you have not changed. You cannot change. I fully believe in you. And I accept whatever you have done and will do. (from John 11:21-27)

Martha was not stopped by the “If only.” She went on to confess her belief in the one who acted in a way she could not understand and to place all of her hope and trust in Him. (If Only, Even Now, I Believe)

"May all your expectations be frustrated,
May all your plans be thwarted,
May all your desires be withered into nothingness
So that you may experience the poverty and powerlessness of a child…
And sing and dance in the great compassionate heart of God.”
(Brennan Manning quoting the old priest Larry Hines)

In Better Than My Dreams, Paula Rinehart refers to a “chosen ache.” She says, “I’d not choose it, but I’m making choices to accept its presence as something God has allowed for His own good reasons, which must be good ones because He is good.”

She also refers to the Proverbs 31 woman who “smiles at the future.” (v.25) She says, “We smile because God always has more to this story. We live in hope because whatever tragedy strikes, it cannot usurp the blessing of God on our lives as we walk with Him.” She says this is “a habit of heart you cultivate every time your present reality disappoints—and you are comforted in the presence of the Lord.”

Because ultimately, she says, “the God who spoke the worlds into existence and keeps the stars in place is the God who knows you like no one will ever know you. He has always loved you. He will love you to the end. His purposes for you are so set in place that you can rest every minute of your journey in the cool shade of His merciful sovereignty over your life.”

Brennan Manning, in Ruthless Trust, writes “To be grateful for an unanswered prayer, to give thanks in a state of interior desolation, to trust in the love of God in the face of marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life is to whisper a doxology in darkness.”

God, even though I don’t understand what you’re doing in my life right now, I trust that your plans for me are good. Your ways are higher than my ways. You are God alone. I long to rest in the cool shade of Your merciful sovereignty over my life.

“Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:2)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

In the Unanswered

Last Friday, we discussed Max Lucado’s study Grace is Enough in Experiencing the Heart of Jesus. We talked about unanswered prayer, thorns in our flesh, and the uncertainty of what God has planned for us. Our five-year long adoption wait is another part of our journey where we are walking In the Dark. Four years ago we believed God wanted us to pray and trust Him for two siblings from Gansu province to adopt into our family.

Does He still want us to wait and hope? Is His answer to delay the fulfillment of our dream or could He actually be denying our request? Did we hear God right then? What is He saying now?

Friday ended a week that was really rough for me migraine-wise. So when we got to the question of thorns in the flesh, it was easy for Jordan to identify my headaches as an ongoing thorn. We continue to cry out to God for mercy and healing. But while we’re living in the unanswered, Max Lucado reminded me of the eternal perspective: “You wonder why God doesn’t heal you? He has healed you. If you are in Christ, you have a perfected soul and a perfected body. His plan is to give you the soul now and the body when you get home. He may choose to heal parts of your body before heaven. But if he doesn’t, don’t you still have reason for gratitude? If he never gave you more than eternal life, could you ask for more than that? His grace is sufficient for gratitude.” These words are so true and help me to put my focus in the right place.

Saturday was my birthday and I as I blew out the candles on the cake that Jordan had made for me, my “wish” turned into a prayer. God, help me to be at peace with whatever you bring (or don’t bring) into my life this year, to fully believe that your plans for me are good. Your grace is enough.

John Eldredge’s book, The Journey of Desire has also been an encouragement to me recently. He says, “Bringing our heart along in our life’s journey is the most important mission of our lives—and the hardest. It all turns on what we do with our desire. If you will look around, you will see that most people have abandoned the journey. They have lost heart. They are camped in places of resignation or indulgence, or trapped in prisons of despair. I understand; I have frequented all those places before and return to them even still. Life provides any number of reasons and occasions to abandon desire. Certainly, one of the primary reasons is that it creates for us our deepest dilemmas. To desire something and not to have it—is this not the source of nearly all our pain and sorrow?

“To live with desire is to choose vulnerability over self-protection; to admit our desire and seek help beyond ourselves is even more vulnerable. It is an act of trust…The deepest moral issue is always what we in our heart of hearts believe about God. And nothing reveals this belief as clearly as what we do with our desire.”

Desire cannot live without hope. Yet we can only hope for what we desire. There simply must be something more, something out there on the road ahead of us, that offers the life we prize. To sustain the life of the heart, the life of deep desire, we desperately need to possess a clearer picture of the life that lies before us.”

Eldredge encourages us to cling to Jesus’ response when he was tempted by Satan to prove God’s love for him. “After we have chosen to remain in our thirst for a while, the doubts begin to creep in. God, I know you love me. But I didn’t expect to have to wait so long for what I desire. We begin to wonder, Do you care for me, God? Satan jumps all over this, throwing fuel on the fire of our doubts. Jesus’ response is our only hope. ‘I don’t need to prove that God cares for me. He cares for me now.’”

And ultimately we can look to the cross for full assurance of our doubts. “Jesus came to answer once and for all our question, Do you care for me, God? That is why the ground before the cross is the only place we can take a firm stand against the doubts that come in the journey of desire. We don’t need for God to prove his love for us; he has, at the cross.”

In The Restless Heart, Ronald Rolheiser describes a beautiful picture of someone who chose to continue to trust in God instead of giving into doubts. “After the Second World War, the following words were found written on the wall of a Nazi concentration camp: “I believe in the sun, even when it isn’t shining, I believe in love, even when I feel it not, I believe in God, even when he is silent.”
  
In the devotional Jesus Calling, Sarah Young writes from the perspective of Jesus speaking to us: “You need Me every moment. Your awareness of your constant need for Me is your greatest strength. Your neediness, properly handled, is a link to my Presence. However, there are pitfalls that you must be on guard against: self-pity, self-preoccupation, giving up. Your inadequacy presents you with a continual choice—deep dependence on Me, or despair. The emptiness you feel within will either be filled with problems or with My Presence. Make Me central in your consciousness by praying continually: simple, short prayers, flowing out of the present moment. Use My Name liberally to remind you of My Presence. Keep on asking and you will receive, so that your gladness may be full and complete.” (February 22)

In the unanswered, we can keep on asking with a surrendered heart that remains full of desire. We can fill the emptiness within our hearts with His presence. We can cling to and depend upon Him alone. It’s our choice.

We can focus on self, listen to the doubts, give in to fear, be filled with despair, and give up hope. Or we can hear God’s voice in the midst of the battle, the way that David did. Because his greatest desire was to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of his life, David’s heart was not overcome with fear of the enemy and of all that might happen. His response to God exemplifies the choice that I want to make.

“The LORD is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid?
The LORD protects me from danger—so why should I tremble?
When evil people come to destroy me, when my enemies and foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.
Though a mighty army surrounds me, my heart will know no fear.
Even if they attack me, I remain confident.

The one thing I ask of the LORD—the thing I seek most—is to live in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life, delighting in the LORD’s perfections and meditating in His Temple.
For he will conceal me there when troubles come; he will hide me in his sanctuary.
He will place me out of reach on a high rock.

Then I will hold my head high, above my enemies who surround me.
At his Tabernacle I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
Singing and praising the LORD with music.
Listen to my pleading, O LORD. Be merciful and answer me!

My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
And my heart responds, “LORD, I am coming.”
(Psalm 27:1-8, NLT)

This is the same way King Hezekiah responded, when faced with a monstrous threat from the mighty Sennacherib to lay siege to Jerusalem. When mocked and challenged to give up hope in God (What are you trusting in that makes you so confident?” Isaiah 36:4), Hezekiah “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the Temple of the LORD to pray.” (Isaiah 37:1)

O LORD Almighty, God of Israel, you are enthroned between the mighty cherubim! You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the earth. Listen to me, O LORD, and hear! Open your eyes, O LORD, and see! Listen to Sennacherib’s words of defiance against the living God!” (v. 16-17)

God listened.

“That night the angel of the LORD went out to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 troops. (v. 36)

It’s our response that makes the difference. In reality, our personal victories will not always turn out with the angel of the Lord killing 185,000 troops for us. And yet, for the prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp, there was tremendous victory in the words of hope scribbled on the walls. Those were merely physical walls for the body that did not imprison the spirit. Within the midst of great suffering, in the unanswered, we too can be overcomers through our trust in the One who gives us the strength and the hope that we need.

We can choose to focus on Jesus as Peter did when he started to walk on water, or we can focus on the wind and the waves, which will cause us to sink. (Matthew 14:28-30) We can continue to live in hope even when things look hopeless. For when our hope is in Him and not in what we’re asking Him for (Holding on to Hope), we can fully believe that He is all that we need. And we can embrace the mysterious ways of God.

In Experiencing God's Goodness I wrote: And what a wonderful thing to open the door to God's mystery! It is giving Him permission to work in His way in His time and to expect Him to do the unexpected. And it is trusting that His plan for me and for my family is the best. We haven't missed out on His best somehow. He hasn't forgotten about us. He hasn't made a mistake.

Of course, God doesn't need my permission to accomplish His purposes, but my submitting to His sovereignty allows me to experience His goodness even when things don't go the way I want them to. I am able to hope again because I believe that He is good to me and that even those things that are difficult and still unknown can be used for good in my life.

Because God is good.

Despair or deep dependence. Which will you choose in the unanswered of your life?

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