My daughter turned two this week. She is sweet, and tender. Affectionate, hilarious, tiny, pot-bellied. All four nursery volunteers at church last week told me that she’s “so sweet.” I agreed, but was surprised that they would gush when they are surrounded by so many other children who are, I’m sure just as sweet. She is a good, good gift from God. I love her more than words can express.
But her birthday was somewhat melancholy, if I am honest. My husband texted that a co-worker and his wife had lost a baby after the 20-week mark over the weekend. I remembered my own recent miscarriage, and the acquaintance who recently lost a baby at 23 weeks. Tonight I learned of the friends grieving the bittersweet news that the baby they have been loving for six weeks will be parented not by them, but will be returned to his birth mother (so bittersweet!). We may not suffer from hunger, or ebola, or work for pennies a day here in America, but there is real-life, heart-rending pain at every turn it seems.
I hate this fact, but I don’t resent it. There is something transformative about finding yourself at the lowest point. At first you feel all alone in your pain; just you and God. And then after awhile, you start looking around and realize that there are so many others down there with you. If you let it, your heart breaks again, and something about the breaking and healing of personal and shared suffering begins to give your soul a new shape. This is part what we Protestants call sanctification.
We commonly ask for sanctification. But I think that when we ask the Spirit to transform us into the likeness of Christ us we often expect something like Cinderella’s fairy godmother’s “Bibbity Bobbity Boo.” We think it will happen with just the flick of a wand. We’re baffled when the process leaves us feeling battered and bruised. We don’t expect the pain of amputated desires and broken bones of self-reliance.
We should, but we don’t.
My sister asked me if my daughter’s birth feels like a long time ago. I had to look back over the last two years to answer. What did the two years hold? One year of wonderful, exhausted, new parenthood and the beginning of grad school. And one year marked primarily by a series of losses. I lost a job I loved, and I had a miscarriage, along with even losses within my family. I answered that the time has felt short, but I feel like a totally different person. The intensity of loss in the last year alone has wrought change in my soul that may never have come otherwise.
That’s not to say that I regret the change. True, there were weeks and months of deep mourning: tears, nights of little sleep, confusion, anger, disappointment. And there continues to be moments of sadness. But as I continue to walk step by step further away from these losses, God is once again showing me at least a tiny glimpse of his purpose. Hebrews 12 has helped me to see my suffering as discipline. No, I don’t think losses are punishment, but they are a tool by which God is training me, building my faith and my character into a greater likeness of him: “…he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” The process is painful and leaves me feeling like I would be better off quitting, some days. But, much like most other kinds of training, the process is worth it, resulting in not mere physical fitness, but “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11). On my worst days, all I wanted was peace: a quiet heart, and a faith strong enough to rest in God’s steadfast love. And those are the very things that my suffering is bringing about through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross, and work of the Spirit within me.
I have been broken down, and through it I am learning a new humility under God’s training discipline. Looking to Christ, who endured his suffering “for the joy set before him,” I’m learning to do the same. I have been to the depths, and found there my own insufficiency. In my sinful frailty, I do not know what is best. The good things I want and think I deserve are not always what are best, and are never deserved. I have been humbled under the mighty hand of God.
I’ve been thinking lately of Abraham and Isaac, and the faith it took for Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son. What faith in God he had when he brought his only son to the altar. I don’t have that kind of faith. I want it. I hope that at the end of my life I am able to say that I begrudged God nothing, and that in the end my heart was willing to lose whatever God asked me to give. I want to be willing to walk through the valley if he wants me to.