Suffering is something I’ve learned a lot about in the past seven years. In looking back now, I can see I was called to live a life with grief and pain, dealing with tragedies that hit my family and myself. I believe this is the calling for all believers; if we are not suffering, there is likely a problem in our spiritual walk. The Bible has a lot to say on this subject, namely how we should share in the sufferings of Christ. Obviously I do not enjoy the suffering, but I now see it as totally necessary. While this mindset is at complete odds with a society that promotes ease and comfort, this past seven years has taught me that walking through the fires of hardship is what the Christian life is all about.
The struggles I have walked through have been horrendous, painful even to the point of death. The truth is that I am still walking through the fire — my suffering has not concluded. Here is my story.
My wife Jolene and I were coasting along nicely up until a dreadful summer day in August 2008. It was a hot summer evening and Jolene was on a jog when I received the dreadful call that my 17-year-old niece had drowned while tubing in a river. This tragic death was more than the family could handle; it made no sense to see a young life like that ended so abruptly. Andrea was a beautiful young lady who had just graduated from high school. Things got worse. Two months later Jolene’s father died of an aggressive cancer. Two family funerals in less than three months. Fast forward to 2010 — my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer and fought through nine months of brutal chemotherapy. It was not the cancer that nearly killed her, but the chemo. That was a hard year of fear for my family. We worried with deep pain watching my mom suffer, wondering if we might lose her.
The troubles continued. In March 2010 Jolene’s eldest brother Marlowe died of a massive heart attack after kissing his wife good night; he was only 53 years old. Grieving three deaths piggy-backing each other created complicated grief. Like that was not enough! Two months after his death, Marlowe’s 20 year old daughter Ariel was t-boned in a horrific car accident and nearly died. Ariel sustained a serious brain injury and will never fully recover. Multiple traumas proved exceedingly difficult to work through — a person’s emotional capacity for grief is only so much.
The story gets uglier. The three family deaths made my wife Jolene very ill with severe anorexia (although she has battled this illness all of her life). Jolene thought this round of illness was grief over the three family deaths, however a therapist helped her understand this was childhood trauma resurfacing. The deaths had triggered trauma centers in her brain and childhood sexual abuse of six years by a relative resurfaced. Jolene then started on her recovery journey facing those demons. Jolene revealed the abuse to her parents at the age of fourteen. Her parents chose to do nothing. The abuse continued and Jolene, being all alone, attempted suicide at 16. Twenty-five years later the majority of her family still refuse to acknowledge the truth while embracing the pedophile. The predator is seemingly living a free and good life. He is a wealthy man with a prestigious job, living in a beautiful home and enjoying his family. All is well for him. Jolene and I are the ones suffering and left with the mess he brought to us.
This next chapter of our journey was a painful one vocationally. One week before Christmas that year I lost my job of nine years. The months leading up to this layoff, due to the ministry shutting down, were both grueling and stressful. After nine months of unemployment I finally landed another job. However, I had to leave work after barely two years due to stress at work and at home. I had to go on long-term disability, which only recently has ended; I had reached a place where I was so ill I was suicidal. My wife has also been on long-term disability for over three years, recovering from PTSD, anorexia and other mental illness.
Sadly many people in our circles have become so burnt out with our story, because it has gone on so long. Last year Jo and I nearly lost our marriage. It was the darkest and hardest year. Numerous times I wanted to end my life, as did Jolene. Today, our marriage is doing well on many fronts as we are in good hands of good Christian therapists. We both go for individual and couples counseling on a weekly basis. The journey is far from over as we continue to seek healing. In light of us both being off work and the financial strain of huge therapy costs, we fell into debt. However, we hold no regrets about our choice to “invest” in therapy. It has been our lifeline.
During the past year and half, I was unable to attend church due to the incredible pain. As well I was very angry with God. I was frustrated with the Christians around me; I was in pain and most of them seemed to be living the good life. So I left my church of nine years and made Sundays a different day. I honestly did not know if I could ever return to church, but Jolene assured me that I would. I am not into “christianese religion”, but rather into seeking God in a unique way — a way that camped around suffering.
Finally, six months ago I went back to my home church, and I love it so much I cannot miss a Sunday. I feel God is working in me in dramatic ways, my relationship having gone much deeper. With my return to church, the wrestling match of deep anger with God has concluded and I am back to worshiping Him. There are no regrets for my time away from church. It was all part of a journey — I know God was with me all along the way. God chases his own with a furious love. I am rejoicing and just soaking in this new place of coming alive in Christ.
I truly believe suffering is supposed to be a part of the “Christian package”. A life without suffering now seems very odd to me. Christians should not have tidy, neatly packaged lives of ease. The road of a believer should include fires of many kinds including struggle, heartache, and pain. Why would Jesus have had to suffer so greatly if we were not to share in those sufferings? Why would we believe for a moment that we deserve a life of perpetual comfort? Enduring and living with suffering shows God how serious we are about our faith, and Him. It also speaks to the enemy about how far trust in God reaches. If our lives are “easy”, we should take a closer look and examine whether we are truly embracing the cross we have been asked to carry each and every day.
Photo by (flickr cc) Daniel Zedda