By the time I was 32 years old, I was already a three-time cancer survivor, and had experienced the loss of five children, two of which I held in my arms. My life has not been easy. I have endured radiation therapy twice, and nearly died from chemotherapy. I also watched helplessly as my newborn daughter died in my arms because she was born too early to survive. And I handed a child I believed in my soul was meant to be my son back to his birth mother, when she decided to revoke his adoption plan. I understand what it means to grieve and mourn the loss of shattered hopes and broken dreams.
While it has been the example of Jesus Christ that has enabled me to endure some of life’s greatest trials, it wasn’t enough to simply be saved. In order for me to effectively work through my grief, and be able to learn how to turn these ashes into beauty, I needed to understand the nature and personality of the God who saved me. I needed to build my relationship with Him based upon that understanding.
If we had a relationship with God, but only thought of Him as a strict ruler or judge, we would view our trials as punishment for our sinful nature. Every bad experience in life would make us angry toward God. If we viewed Him as a cosmic killjoy, we would then view anything good in our lives with hesitation. We would live a life of fear, waiting for the other shoe to drop or the rug to be ripped out underneath us. These kinds of relationships would be like having a marriage with a false understanding of who the other person really is. Sure, there is a commitment, but would it really be an effective relationship?
It has been my concept of God that has decided how I view my greatest joys and my deepest sorrows. It allows me to see His love in my sheer brokenness, and creates within me a desire to turn my own trials into ministry opportunities.
I once had a dear friend tell me that if God was described as a mother, then she could understand God as a loving, compassionate, personal and merciful God. However, because God is described as a father, she viewed God as someone who would let her down, abandon and forsake her—for this was the very relationship she had with her own earthly father.
It was difficult for me to grasp her words, because my own earthly father was my best friend growing up. He knew everything about me. He knew which boy I currently had a crush on (and how quickly that would change), my views on sex, my questions about God, relationships, marriage, abortion and a whole host of controversial issues. I have always been able to talk about anything and everything with my dad, without fear of judgment, abandonment or him dismissing my feelings (even when what I had to say wasn’t pretty). My dad made it easy for me to understand God as a loving, relational, compassionate and caring Father, because this is the only kind of relationship I know how to have with a father.
For years I have taken this concept of God for granted, not realizing how much my own dad set me up for success through the journey I have traveled. Understanding God as a loving Father, allows us to see the depth of love displayed on the cross from a different perspective. The death of Jesus, His only Son, becomes very personal. He’s been there. He understands. He can relate. But, not only did God watch Jesus die, He also allowed Jesus to suffer an immense amount of pain.
And yet, what sticks out the most is that God had all the power in the world to stop this suffering from happening. But He didn’t. He could have easily chosen an easier and different way for reconciliation. God could have decided to sacrifice a goat, or an elephant, or a llama, and call it good. He could have made us say a riddle, or hum a melody backwards in order to reconcile our broken relationship with Him. He is God—He makes the rules, after all. Yet His decision of how to show us the depth of His love is humbling when you truly grasp the fact that He allowed and endured the greatest suffering known to man. What an intense, unfathomable love our Father has for us.
And here is the beauty of it: If God’s sole purpose for the death of Jesus was purely to provide a way to restore our broken relationship with Him, the suffering did not need to happen. Yet it is through the suffering of Jesus Christ that God reveals His desire to relate to our own human brokenness in such an intimate way. He understands. It is this very suffering that can bring us comfort, knowing that our own heartache and pain pales in comparison to what Jesus did for us on the cross, and what our Father’s love allowed to happen.
This depth of love begs us to consider the following: If God was willing to allow Jesus to suffer, why should we be any different? And if God was willing to allow Jesus to die for us, should we not be willing to live for Him?
There is a unique gift hidden in each trial, should we choose to accept it. The gift is the ability to relate to other people in their times of suffering; to build relationships, and to earn the rapport to share our faith in God. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is what secures our eternity in Heaven, and we would be lost without it. But it is our understanding of who God is that either hinders or enables us to continue to trust Him when bad things happen in our lives.
Erica McNeal (@toddanderica) is a blogger and author of the book, Good Grief! which stands in the gap between people who are hurting that don’t know what they need and their loved ones who don’t know how to help.