Tomorrow I am giving my testimony in MOPS. I was originally going to give it back in February, but we were snowed out, so I was rescheduled all the way in May. I reread it just now after not having touched it since the winter, and thankfully nothing about my testimony has changed in the interim. I wanted to share it here both for others to read, and also because it encompasses a lot of the things I wrote about in the early days of this blog. Be aware that it’s quite long. :-)
I want to tell you a story this morning. Please keep in mind as you listen that this is not a story of grief, loss, fear and longing. Despite those elements being present in my testimony, this is a story about joy.
I want to start by reading a passage from Lamentations 3:
[a]I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.
4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones.
5 He has besieged me and surrounded me
with bitterness and hardship.
6 He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.
7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
he has weighed me down with chains.
8 Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
9 He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked.
And the New Living Translation’s version of 1 Peter 1:6: “So be truly glad: there is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure trials for a little while.”
Has anyone here ever heard — or said — that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle? I think it was Mother Teresa who first made that claim. She was wrong. I know only the slightest bit about God, but one thing I do know is that He does, in fact, give us things that are beyond us to endure. There comes a point when all of us have to lean on Him, and not on our own strength.
There was a time in my life when I read — and lived — Lamentations 3 every single day. From 2010 through 2012, I experienced a season of profound grief which included three significant losses within one year. I suffered two miscarriages four months apart (one of which occurred very unexpectedly on my 31st birthday), and just as I began to emerge from that fog, my mother died of breast cancer after a sudden decline. The Lord truly had walled me in so I could not escape. He weighed me down with chains.
I found out that I was pregnant with my son, Will, just over 24 hours before my mom died; in fact, I told her I was pregnant during the very last conversation we were able to have. So I began my journey into motherhood in the midst of deep, deep grief. I wasn’t excited to be pregnant; I was filled with fear about losing another baby, and I really wasn’t sure I was interested in bringing new life into a world I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a part of anymore. I felt very keenly the fact that we are all just pilgrims in this earthly world, and that our true home is in Heaven. I knew that my mother had gone to her true home, and that my first two babies had as well, and frankly, their home sounded a lot better to me than the lonely world in which I was stranded.
Not only was I grieving, but I felt a lot of resentment as well. I resented the fact that, as Joel says, my years were being “eaten by locusts”. I was enraged by my loss. I walked around feeling for a long time like there was a literal giant hole in my chest where my heart had been, and that frequently it bled out all over the floor. I got very used to this feeling — a lot of the time, in fact, I could actually feel it physically. As you might imagine, this was uncomfortable, but the physical sensation matched my emotional state, and this was in a way comforting.
I realized early on that in my weakness, I was not at all up to the task of “staying strong” during these ordeals. I needed God to carry me through. I prayed every day not for the strength to endure, but for him to carry me, shelter me, protect me, uphold me during the storm. I felt more than anything like I was on the floor of a tiny boat, riding these giant waves of grief and anger, just praying for his protection. “Staying strong” was not at all an option, because my strength was gone. If I was going to survive my grief and learn to live again, it was going to be because of God’s mercy, and because of his strength.
I was blessed to have been raised by a godly mother who used her cancer diagnosis as an opportunity to glorify God. After she died, her friends told me that she never asked for her cancer to be taken away. Instead, she asked that God would be glorified through it. As a cancer patient she felt blessed to have the hope of Christ as she faced death. Her prayer was answered in every way, not least through the challenge it presented to me, her daughter. If my mother could pray that God would be glorified through her illness and death, so I must too be willing to pray the same thing in all of my own circumstances, no matter how painful. I reluctantly asked that God would be glorified through my grief, and that my losses would ultimately bring me closer to him, that I would grow in wisdom and closer to that elusive peace that surpasses all understanding.
I did not want to pray these things; in fact, to be honest I really would have preferred to be able to stay blissfully ignorant and spiritually shallow. I longed to return to a time when I still believed that if you just “fought bravely”, you could “beat” a deadly disease, and that having a baby was as easy as simply wanting one. Spiritual growth and closeness to Jesus did not seem like a worthy tradeoff for the loss of my mom and my babies. But I kept being drawn back to Philippians 3:
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
The challenge was just that forgetting what was behind, straining toward what was ahead, and pressing on toward the goal were not fun things to do. I was challenged over and over to actually claim my faith. Psalm 63 states, “because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.” Better than life. Can I really believe that? I was being called to actually live out these truths I had professed for my entire life.
In addition to having to face the stark truth of Scripture and live up to my mother’s testimony, I was also just very tired of my grief. I knew that my grief and rage were both natural responses and also very necessary, but I finally came to a place where I didn’t want them to rule my life forever.
From the book of Joel:
“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm[b]—
my great army that I sent among you.
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.”
Note the line my great army that I sent among you.
I had no desire to become my grief, and succumbing to a lifetime of sadness and anger would only be allowing the locusts to eat not just these years, but my life and my soul. If I was to believe the Scriptures, one of God’s promises to me would be to repay me for these years of grief. To redeem it. How could I allow that to happen if I stayed locked inside my sadness? How could I do that, and allow cancer to win? To allow death to win? 1 Corinthians 15:26 states that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. My task was clear: I had to learn how to be happy.
There are 235 references to the word joy in the Bible, which is more than the words grief, sorrow and weep combined. So that told me something. Slowly, God began to show me how to make my way through the labyrinth of grief and use it as a means of finding joy.
I learned quickly that there was no avoiding the pain of grief, and that trying to white-knuckle my way through the experience wouldn’t make it any easier. Instead I turned to my yoga practice, and there I became comfortable with being uncomfortable. God used yoga as a way for me to begin to approach peace in the midst of pain. If I could breathe and stay calm while balancing in a difficult pose, I knew I could do the same while balancing in difficult circumstances. I stopped being afraid of the grief. It wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t have to let it hurt me. My grief and I began a hesitant coexistence.
He also allowed me to be angry. I really believe that actually experiencing what I was feeling — all the rage, the overwhelming grief, the fear — without running away from it was key to being able to survive it. Anger was huge for me; I did not shy away from it. It was far easier to be angry than sad. My rage wasn’t focused on anything in particular, but it was my faithful companion for a long time and I actually think it was healing.
Through all of this I clung to the verse in 1 Peter that reminds us that there is wonderful joy ahead. I knew now that this must be true regardless of how much I could lose. No matter what happened to me, I believed God’s promises to be true. I had to. There is so much evidence in scripture of this wonderful joy — weeping may remain for the night, but joy cometh in the morning (Psalm 30). The Lord shall be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end (Isaiah 60). Death could not win. It was impossible; it was written there in black and white, in the gospel, in Jesus. The victory had already been won. It was mine for the taking, but I had to want it, I had to believe it, I had to receive it.
I felt all the while like I was in a kiln. I felt like I had been lit on fire, but the fire was doing what it was meant to do: purify me. I was unfinished clay and I was going to come out beautiful. My losses made me a different person. In the end they made me a better person. I am wiser, I am more faithful, and despite all that God has taken from me, I trust him far more than I ever did before, because he has shown himself trustworthy to me. He has repaid me for the years the locusts have eaten. This doesn’t mean that my loss was good or that the purpose of enduring them was in order to make me a better person. It means God redeems. It means he took death and disease and used them for his glory.
There is a line in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that resonates with me, and it’s this: “He will not forget his grief, but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.” This is what the Lord has done in me.