As believers, there are certain faith principles taught to us throughout our spiritual development that we think we understand in our regular, everyday lives; things like, “In my weakness, He is strong” (2 Corinthians 12), or “blessed are the poor in Spirit” (Matthew 5), or “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5) – and we wholeheartedly believe all of them to be true and important. Then, the grenades go off and we have to unearth ourselves from the rubble. Suddenly, those teachings take on a whole new meaning. The paradox continues, but we have greater understanding. What was once platitudinal now takes on an experienced truth, and those teachings become anchors of freedom; something to cling to, so we can live in freedom.
When I reflect on those days of deep grief, I am struck by three distinct and long-lasting faith lessons that became fully realized because of profound suffering.
The peace that passes understanding is real.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” ~Philippians 4:7
I grew up sharing a room with my sister. In college, I had roommates, and then I was married. If he was out of town, I slept with the light on because I was afraid to be alone in the dark (true story). The day he left, I slept alone in the dark for the first time, and I was never afraid of the dark again. It seems silly to say it out loud, but it is one tiny way in which the peace that passes understanding manifested itself from day one… er… night one.
I was in ministry. He was a licensed clinical social worker. Our financial livelihood very much depended on him. My natural inclination would be to distress about our finances on my minister’s salary. I didn’t. I couldn’t distress over it even if I tried. Something deep in me just knew that everything was going to work out.
Paul was a genius when he strung those words together for the Philippians. “The peace that passes understanding” is difficult to explain verbally. It’s one of those things you only understand when you’ve experienced it.
Surrendering wasn’t quitting; it meant taking up my cross, and letting God do HIS work.
“My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.” ~Proverbs 23:26
3 decades of faith taught me that battles are won on our knees, and yet I fell victim to the notion that if I prayed hard enough, long enough, used the right words, or had the right motives, then I could win the battle over my marriage. Two months later, he came back. “I was right!” I never gave up, thus, I persevered to victory.
If my stubbornness had any real power, then the degree to which I fought for my marriage should have resulted in my still being married. If I could fight for my kids to not have a gay father who divorced their mom, I would. Yet things happen that cannot be changed by the sheer force of my will.
I mostly got to the place where I could say “not my will, but Yours,” but for a long time, that didn’t really include my kids. My maternal instincts were white-knuckling those two sweet souls. I couldn’t yet reckon surrendering my kids over to their circumstances. It would take a long time before I could make peace with the truth that I wasn’t surrendering them to circumstance; I was surrendering them to their Creator and Redeemer. I could never be their true source of security.
At the one-year anniversary of his confession, I wrote these words down:
“I’d read that depression should be expected on or around the anniversary date… By the Lord’s incredibly good graces, I find myself to be beyond busy… Yet, even though I am busier than I’ve been in a year, I still “go there” in the cracks of time… It’s as if all the things I do these days are freshly laid-out tiles and the grout being smeared is all the times I stop and remember… somehow, it’s still a lot.
But you know what else? It’s also the anniversary of learning just how much a measure of forgiveness I could extend and how easily it flowed. It’s the anniversary of understanding what it means to “take up daily” and simultaneously “surrender.” It’s the anniversary of the confirmation that my church loves all four of us with a deep, authentic and enduring love (both in word AND deed) and of finally getting to see the best of myself in Christ.”
“If you would direct your heart rightly, and spread out your hands to Him… Your life would be brighter than noonday; darkness would be like the morning. Then you would trust, because there is hope; and you would look around and rest securely. You would lie down, and none would disturb you” ~Job 11:13, 17-19a.
Trusting in God’s plan doesn’t require my understanding of it.
By the time I was six years old, I had probably attended church, at minimum, 936 times. That accounts for Sunday mornings, evenings, and Wednesdays. The way MY parents did church, there is no doubt I had been to church well over one thousand different times. In my 6-year-old arrogance, I had already made my little mind my god. Thankfully the Spirit was working on my heart. For weeks, my tender-aged soul vehemently fought the heart call to go forward during the 52 verses of “Just as I Am” to publicly make Jesus the Lord of my life. Little Sarah was sincerely mad at God for putting that tempting tree in the Garden of Eden. “Why did You even plant that tree there? You are all-knowing, so obviously You knew it meant that Jesus, YOUR SON, would have to die on the cross.”
I didn’t like it. And I knew going forward would be a lie that I accepted the whole Gospel story. I didn’t.
It was my dad who taught me that I didn’t have to understand it all yet. I could trust in Him now and, as I grew, so would my understanding of who God is and why He let the garden story happen as it was written. He taught me that I would never understand it all because I wasn’t God, but one day, I would not only have greater understanding, but I would love God even more for it.
The next Sunday, I walked forward in “big church” … and then again in children’s church. Don’t judge me. God absolutely called me in the main service, but kids who went forward in children’s church got candy. It’s too much to expect a first grader to forsake free pixie sticks. Besides, I was confident enough in God’s grace to never feel guilty about praying the prayer twice in a day.
The lessons I learned from my dad at the start of my faith journey rang again loudly ten years ago and have tolled through to the present. I understand so much more; I appreciate even more, but I am still not God, and I am still in the process of embracing the idea that earthly circumstances mean so little. Holy transformation comes through a deeper understanding of who God is. The disciples similarly struggled to see the bigger picture, but they were steadfast in trusting anyway, and we should be too.
“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.’” ~John 13:7.
When sin enters the camp, the repercussions ripple out for a long time – possibly forever. I’ll have to keep you posted on that. Restoration -in whatever form- has not yet been made complete for me, nor for our two children, and will likely not happen on this side of heaven. I am here to testify, however, that my life in the valley turned many contradictory scriptures upright, giving me real security and all hope through Christ alone.