In college, I took a few leadership classes that taught me how to identify all these relevant, key features about yourself – your strengths, values, weaknesses, and so forth. We played a game where we had to narrow down the values that we connect with the most, and I discovered a theme in the values that I chose. A core value of mine that I really treasure is growth.
I just love growth.
I desire all the time to grow personally – craving to read more, learn more, and be more. I long to discover new lessons in my day to day world, and most especially in a longer season of life. This is why I’m completely obsessed with stories; I drool over getting my hands on a memoir or an autobiography that someone has written about their lives because in it, I can read about the growth that they’ve been able to experience and how they were changed because of the events that unfolded uniquely in their own story. It’s why I’ve kept every journal of mine since middle school; it’s why I string together memories to eventually create a bigger picture that you just can’t see at the time. God is the best Author, and it thrills me to see how he crafts and creates – and the growth that happens along the way.
So whatever I go through, I am pleased if it means I grew somehow by the end of it. I am most disappointed when I cannot see any growth that emerged from an experience.
But here’s a challenge.
What if growth comes hand in hand with suffering?
In a remarkable book I’m reading, The Color of Grace, by Bethany Haley Williams, she asks a question I beg everyone to ask of themselves: “Can we say we welcome suffering if at the end of the journey of pain we look more like the heart of a Savior on a cross?”¹
What I’ve encountered personally in the last eight months is a piercing promise from Jesus. “If we are to share in his glory, we must also share his suffering” (Romans 8:17).
This wasn’t even a “maybe.” Paul says it: You must.
And this makes sense. Because the more our hearts resemble Jesus’ heart, we invite deep pain into our stories. In her book, Bethany Haley Williams prays, “I desperately wish for your heart, and yet I know that with your heart comes hurting.”¹
Jesus is not the source of pain; it is, of course, our sin. And Jesus is in no way sinful. We are. It is the sin that wounds our hearts. The closer we get to Jesus, the more treacherous the road of pain becomes – for we have been given more of the Savior’s heart which is completely devastated by sin.
In my life where I’ve felt God has shared pieces of his heart with me, I’ve wept for seeing the opposite of his heart taking place in the world. For instance, I love God’s heart for purity. But I am broken and devastated at how twisted and impure the world I live in is. In allowing me to feel totally overwhelmed and shattered for the impure images and actions that my culture entertains, he has given me a glimpse of the devastation he feels as he witnesses it all.
I have been wounded by sin. I have wounded my own self with sin, but I have also been wounded by other people’s sin. And my, it hurts.
This distresses me. When the wound is deep, I feel helpless because it’s not like it’s God’s fault! He’s not the one who hurt me. He didn’t bring the sin to the table. But here’s where our suffering from sin brings us close to the heart of God…
Jesus was wounded by sin.
Can he not identify with our pain? He was the one who chose to be personally wounded for the sin of his people. When he never had to, because he never once had any association with sin of any kind.
So can my God not feel our hurt when we cry because of sin’s searing impact? Of course he can. It’s the very thing that draws my heart closer to his – for he was the one most horrifically wounded by sin.
And most astonishing: “By his wounds, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Now this I don’t understand. He was not only wounded for us, but because he was, we have the chance to be healed from those very bruises of sin inflicted upon our souls.
So would I welcome suffering if I knew the suffering would mold my heart to look more like his, the Savior wounded on the cross? The one suffering on the cross?
If I’m honest, a week ago I typed “yes”to this question.
But as I thought more throughout the week, I had to come back and erase my bold and naive “yes” because I thought of people I know who have walked through suffering I would not welcome. They have been made more beautiful because of it, but I would still not want to face the monsters they have met.
So I won’t pretend I’m at a point that I can say yes, even though I do treasure the growth.
Through my honesty, I truly just hope to be encouraged by those of you who have braved and endured your own hand of hardship. And I pray to learn from you.
I cannot imagine anyone who enjoys getting up another day and welcoming pain. Not at all. But growth seems way better than a comfortable complacency, where our hearts are unchanged and numb to feeling, numb to suffering.
C. S. Lewis says, “Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.”²
I get C. S. Lewis here. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have. Because before then, my heart really did feel like it was in a little coffin. I had never gotten close enough to anything (or anyone) to feel the deep joy – or the shocking pain – of that closeness. Two years ago, God colored my world when he taught me how to have a relationship with him and how to open myself up to others in relationship around me. Truly, it felt like color had finally entered my story, whereas before it was all just gray and dull – like that little coffin.
But before long, I realized that a colorful life didn’t just mean excitement, joy, peace, or freedom – it also showed me a deep color of suffering. And I’m only scratching the surface here. I don’t pretend to know suffering as some people do. I would be embarrassed to compare my hurts to someone else’s. But the point is that a rich life involves glory and suffering. “If you want to share in my glory, you must also share in my suffering.” And oh, how the Savior suffered for our sin.
Might we look at pain as a gift?
Bethany Haley Williams provides trauma therapy to former child soldiers in the war torn countries in Africa, children who have been forced to kill and terrorize, children whose innocence has been stolen and whose light has been dimmed by wicked rebel militia; she writes, “Throughout this journey into the dark places of the world, I have realized that by not saving us from pain, Jesus may be extending a great kindness. It is by not rescuing us that he may be saying, ‘I honor you. I want you to grow and live in fullness more than I want you to be comfortable. I want more for you because I love you too much to let you live in weakness or mere comforts…'”¹
So it is up to us, whether or not we welcome pain into our lives. Suffering is inevitable; sometimes we bring it on ourselves, but other times it’s completely out of our control and we mourn from the hurt others have brought into our lives. But it is our choice whether or not we invite it in and ask it to make us more like Jesus. One of my favorite sayings is that there is purpose in the pain. Doesn’t that sometimes make it feel worth it? What if the growth is more beautiful than the hurt? We have to welcome the hurt in order to find out.
I have an wonderful, lovely counselor who shared with me that a wound is different from a scar; a wound is open and bleeding, maybe fresh or maybe it’s been there for a while, not properly tended to. But a scar is a wound that has healed; it is there to show us that, absolutely, pain was felt, but it is not a gaping infection anymore. A scar can be quite beautiful.
In Bethany’s book, she quotes an unknown author by saying, “Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”
But the way a wound becomes a scar…is not exactly what we want to hear.
To heal a burn victim, the nurse must literally scrape the burn off of the skin, clearly a horrifically painful process. But that is what must happen before the burn can turn to healed scars.
So suffering must happen, the grieving must take place, if growth and beauty are to exist. When I visited the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, I encountered a tragic memory but a wonderful reality. (Shanksville is where Flight 93 crashed down on 9/11 – an open field once full of healthy flowers and towering hemlock trees, but after the crash, a place of devastation and brokenness.) The memorial is just stunning. It perfectly honors the events, the people, and the resiliency of America on that day and thereafter.
The wonderful reality that I was struck by at the memorial was the wildflowers. Coloring the field of a horrific site in the tiny town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, were pretty, healthy wildflowers sprouting up tall and strong from the earth. The natural and wild beauty of these flowers bore a marvelous hope to me. A place of death was now a place of bright color and life splashed across the meadows.
The Flight 93 Memorial website said it well: “The memorial marks this land as a place of violence and a place of healing and renewal. A wildflower meadow sweeping up the slopes above the Memorial Plaza at the crash site brings color and life to a once scarred landscape.”
Yes, that land is scarred, representative of a country who was scarred deeply from an event 16 years ago. And a big boulder sits on the exact location that the plane actually crashed into – the scar visible to all. But much bigger than the boulder, much grander than the scar, are the wildflowers that clothe the land with their array of colorful beauty.
But glory, too.
Will we welcome it?
Photos taken from Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville. Pictured center is the boulder marking the site of the crash. Surrounding it are the wildflowers that grew up from soil marked by terror and devastation.
Notes 1. Bethany Haley Williams, PhD, The Color of Grace: How One Woman’s Brokenness Brought Healing and Hope to Child Survivors of War (New York, NY: Howard Books, 2015), pp. 218, 194, 205, 231.
2. C. S. Lewis, “The Four Loves” quoted in Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2011), p. 31.