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When I went through the most challenging time of my life, the Lord taught me many things that formed a “theology of suffering” that changed how I thought about God, myself, and others.
Each abuse is different, and mine is not like yours, but from a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and soul-discomfiting point of view, it is similar. The disappointment is thick, the anger can be all-consuming, the bitterness seeks to creep in, and the process out of it is slow, tedious, and sometimes maddening.
But as you have already experienced to some degree, and are experiencing in an ongoing way, God was there at the beginning of your disappointment (Genesis 39:2), and He is there now (Hebrews 13:8). The Lord is answering one of your most prolonged and most desired prayers, though not in a way that you ever wanted or anticipated.
That prayer is your heart’s desire to look like Jesus. All Christians want to be Christlike, though, sadly, the process to that good end is usually not how we expected or wanted. But the benefit of Christ-transformation is life-changing. Paul asked for it this way:
That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10
You’re living out that prayer now. You are learning more about Jesus through the things that you are suffering.
The good news is that as you continue to persevere in your suffering, you will mature through it. The gifts that will be yours are impossible to explain or appreciate fully.
Our ministry is an outward manifestation of God’s gift to me (Philippians 1:29). Most of those “gifts of suffering” are internal and heart transforming. Here are a few examples.
If you happen to be a writer, please give yourself to journaling your thoughts. I began journaling in 1994, and it has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. My “journal thoughts” formed the basis for our ministry.
If writing is not your thing, find a friend that you can talk through what the Lord is working into you (Philippians 2:12-13)
One of the things you’ll be able to see through this process of reflection is how your heart continues to change, as you move closer to Jesus.
Fight tenaciously for any sin that is yours, which is the heart of Matthew 7:3-5. Those humble acknowledgments may be a few “mile markers” down the road, but you must go there.
Without owning things that are not yours, being honest about your role in life’s disappointments is part of the process when working through the Lord’s gift of suffering (Peter 2:21).
Another mile marker, though just as hard, is to pity those who have hurt you (Psalm 103:13-14). I’m not saying that you forgive them; you can’t do that until they ask you, but you can pity them because they are in a worse condition than they probably know.
To own your sin and to have pity on those who have hurt you does not negate the abuse, and it is not a sign of weakness (1 Corinthians 1:25) or a call to submit to more suffering.
What it is though, is a sign of Christian maturity, God-given humility, and biblical clarity (1 Corinthians 2:14). Similar to Joseph in Genesis 50:20, he learned God’s purpose in the pain while not submitting to the control of others.
And then there is another more subtle form of abuse that happens to individuals like us, which may take a while to perceive. At least it took me a while to recognize.
Long after the abusive person leaves, the abused begins to reflect on what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and a thousand other ancillary thoughts and questions that come to the mind.
This problem is especially acute for reflective thinkers. If you’re not careful, bitterness can creep in through regret, anger, missed opportunities, a realization of personal failure, a desire for a redo, or a wish that you never met the abuser.
Some of this reflection is vital to sort it all out, but the more subtle form of the “backward glance” is that it can turn to bitterness. Bitterness is “self-inflicted abuse” that comes through the revisiting of past disappointments without a redemptive grid in which to filter what has happened to you.
There is a fine line between thinking about the past so you can change and let the past weigh you down in ways that keep you from maturing in Christ.
May the Lord give you the clarity and wisdom you need to be able to look back so you can benefit while shrugging off any temptation to blame yourself or be bitter (Hebrews 12:15).
Most of the time a person rarely perceives the bitterness until years later. I noticed mine when I went back to read my journals, and then I exclaimed,
Oh, my! I was so bitter when I was going through that. I never saw it.
This problem is where a loving community can be one of your best allies. Surrounding yourself with good companions is a non-negotiable when going through some of the more challenging disappointments in life (Hebrews 10:24-25).
If we can be one of those friends, please ask. It would be a joy to serve you on your journey with the Lord.