WHEN THE FORMULA DOESN’T WORK--- WHAT’S NEXT?
Sometimes the happy ever endings of life we so desperately desire don’t materialize. When that happens, it’s easy to lose heart. We express our protest to God by asking the traditional “why” questions. We want answers, believing they will lend meaning to our pain, and pour God sized truth into our feeble hearts to begin the healing process. If there was a point to all this, maybe loss wouldn’t be such a bitter pill to swallow. Surely God would not have us waste our sorrows without some grander purpose, some deeper meaning—maybe even a reward for all this mess. After all, scripture does say that our confidence will be richly rewarded (Heb. 10:35). Is that the point—we suffer through pain and loss so that we can have a bigger crown in heaven? What reward is Jesus talking about? Is it eternal life or is it something more?
I believe it’s much more. Our idea of victory or reward is usually focused on our achieving a set outcome. So, victory over pain generally means that our marriages get restored, Uncle Joe gets healed of cancer, or our kids come to know Christ after years of rebellion. Those, we believe, are the payoffs for a godly life of prayerful obedience.
There’s only one problem. The formula A + B = C doesn’t always work. Why? Because it leaves out a very important detail—the sovereignty of God! God doesn’t use cookie-cutter formulas to make life work. That’s far too impersonal. And it’s in the trenches of life that we find him. Our losses are divinely fashioned to drive a sledgehammer through our nice, neat theology. God uses the loss, pain, and brokenness we experience to expose our need for the only thing that will ultimately satisfy—Jesus.
When we become Christians, many of us were led to believe, “If you do this, you’ll get that.” Accept Christ, go to heaven. Raise your children in the church, get a holy Christian family. I know; I lived most of my Christian life that way. It’s a life of controlling, orchestrating, and trying to do everything right. If it works (and it does for some people), we risk falling to pride and self-righteousness. If it doesn’t, it leads us to ask the “if only” and “what if” questions that eventually drive us mad: “If only I had been a better parent.” “If only I had tried harder in my marriage.” “What if my mother hadn’t died when I was so young?” Yet there’s no life to be found in ruminating about past failures or future outcomes. That negative, self-defeating thinking profits us nothing. The griever is left feeling lost, confused, angry, and sorely inadequate.
When what we’ve spent a lifetime planting doesn’t seem to grow or flourish, we can easily become discouraged. Whether it be our marriages, our careers, or our children’s lives, we feel ultimately responsible that things didn’t work out as we so carefully and painstakingly planned. We ask ourselves if we would we have invested so much of our hearts in the process if we had known the outcome would be loss. I think the answer has to be yes, because it’s what God has called us to do—and ultimately we will answer to him. He calls us to be obedient, not to focus on the outcomes—that’s his business. When we try to assume his position, we are heading down a slippery slope.
Our Losses Matter to God
There are losses in our lives that we may never fully understand, and we have to decide if we can live with that. It’s about surrendering the “right to know” and trusting Christ as our security anyway. It’s about giving up the mental pictures of how our lives should have played out, what the outcome should have been, that are often radically incongruent with our present reality.
God never said we wouldn’t suffer. In fact, he says just the opposite throughout the Bible. The grief journey almost always leads us back to the age-old questions about suffering. Does a good God really expect us to shoulder the burden of loss and suffering? As difficult as it may sound, the answer is yes, because our sufferings unite us with Christ. They give meaning to what Jesus did on the cross because they give us someone real to relate to.
When Jesus said in the garden that his “soul sorroweth unto death,” we get that. When he says everyone deserted him, we know what he’s talking about. Each story he gives us that is recorded in Scripture is about real people who suffered real pain and loss so that we will not grow weary and lose heart. Why should we be exempt from walking in the places where they have trod? The writer of Hebrews reminds us:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. (Hebrews 11:35–38)
Where was God when these precious saints were suffering such profound loss? Didn’t he care? In fact, he cared enough to devise a plan of reconciliation with the only perfect sacrifice he could come up with— himself.
So what about the answers we may never receive? Or maybe the ones we don’t like—what do we do with those? If we knew the answers, would it really make a difference? Would we see God’s heart differently? What is God’s ultimate purpose for us in experiencing grief?
Wrestling with these questions is as inevitable as the tragedies in our lives, but if we’re stubborn and unyielding in our search, we will find something far more valuable than answers—we’ll find the very heart of God. How? By discovering what God does in the process of watching our hearts break: he gives us his. Our pain is given meaning because we don’t experience it in isolation; we share it in relationship with Christ.
That’s the first thing we need to see about our losses—they matter to God. He is not some cruel taskmaster who is unsympathetic to our plight; he is a high priest who sympathizes with all our weaknesses, and who has been tempted in every way just as we are (Hebrews 4:15).
This shared suffering, God being with us, gives a context for us to fight for our lives and our hearts. Lest you think I’m overdramatizing, let me explain by way of a simple illustration. In the Disney film The Kid, Bruce Willis plays Russ Duritz, a guy who appears rich and successful and yet is really very empty and lonely. He has spent most of his adult life trying to forget his childhood and the painful memories that wounded his heart. Enter eight-year-old Rusty, who Willis initially thinks is a hallucination, but who won’t go away. He is sent to help the grown-up Russ work through some unfinished business. Little Rusty is very unhappy that big Russ turns out to be a loser, and he sets out to replay events in his life to expose the lies he has believed about himself.
One of Russ’s most painful memories occurred at his school playground, where a group of bullies beat him up. Little Rusty takes Willis back to that place, but today, as he goes out to replay the scene, something powerful happens. He knows that the grown-up Russ is standing there with him to face the bullies. Sensing his presence, young Rusty the kid is able to stand up to the bullies and win the fight. Here’s what we notice: when someone is standing with you in the fight, during those times of sorrow and suffering, the bullies don’t seem so big, the darkness isn’t so black, the fear isn’t as paralyzing, and the fight is worth fighting. In the life of believer, that that someone is Jesus.
So the next time you’re tempted to be discouraged that the life you have carefully tried to orchestrate didn’t turn out the way you planned, remember this: the story isn’t finished yet and God always has a better ending in store!
Rita A Schulte is a licensed counselor, author and host of Heartline Podcast and Consider This currently airing on 90.5 FM in NC and 90.9 FM in Lynchburg, Va. Heartline will be launching on the Internet on Christian Life Radio in the next month. Follow Rita at http://www.siftedaswheat.com Facebook http://www.facebook.com/RitaASchulte and Twitter at Heartlinepod.