I was 7 years old, in front of that big hymnal-holding Baptist congregation, when my father dunked me under the water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Dripping and shivering, I felt good. I remember how I stood a bit taller from my wet hair after church ended.
I honestly can’t speak much on the theology that was taught in the Baptist church of my childhood. I was not exactly a fully present parishioner in my roughly two decades there. I learned that I was a sinner and that Jesus loved me—and in hindsight, that’s not a bad foundation to be given—but I didn’t have ears for much more.
After leaving that church, I made my own way, and it might be said that I made my own faith, too. As a freshman in college, I actually wrote my own version of the Ten Commandments. Nineteen years old and faux-pensively modifying the Word of God. I guess I had to if I were to find a place for myself inside it. I had already left church for that very reason. I saw no place within its walls for someone like me.
But the seed had been planted at 7 years old, so when I finally broke, I knew just where to go, and I crawled my way back to church. But this time, my church home looked a little different. It looked like loud worship music, impassioned conferences and charismatic gifts.
Healing and God’s Will
Just as with the Baptist church, I was nurtured there. For many years, I was fed and nourished by the Body there, and I am so thankful.
But there were things, here and there, that never sat quite right. The emphasis on “believing for full healing,” whether physical, mental or emotional, at times felt incredibly inspiring and at times unnerving. When I prayed for a broken leg to be healed and the crutches were not immediately tossed aside, it was clearly a lack of faith either from the wounded or myself. Or perhaps Jesus wanted us to “ask and keep asking,” to see how badly we really desired it.
I have no recollection of ever being seriously taught the possibility that perhaps Jesus was working in the suffering. In the missions training school, we watched a video of a televangelist emphatically teaching that healing is always the will of God. To be fair, I hadn’t heard any leader in my own church put words to the sentiment quite so authoritatively, but it certainly seemed to give voice to what everyone around me hoped was true.
If there were ongoing areas of struggle (impure thoughts, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, the list goes on) that my friends or myself were facing, the attitude was the same. “Press in” until you are “fully set free.” If you don’t, well then you’re giving the devil a foothold in your life. You must keep “contending.” Yes, it is exhausting and may breed self-loathing, but the only alternative is to lose spiritual ground. Just as with physical healing, I don’t have memory of being taught that any good may come from having a thorn in one’s side.
For me, it was a debilitating burden to live under. It was quite literally the weight of the world on my shoulders. There was always more I could be doing to be a better conduit of the miraculous power of God on the earth. The suffering of the world became a source of guilt for me: I didn’t have enough of the Spirit’s power to completely set people free. And I should.
I lived under that burden for far too long. But then, quite unexpectedly, Jesus saved me again.
The Reality of Suffering
My husband and I adopted an 11-month-old boy with a traumatic past. We assumed love would be enough, that the power of God would come, that he would be healed of it all in time.
Instead, he suffered. In fact, he seemed to suffer more and more as the years went by. There is a psychological reality known as secondary trauma, and so my husband and I suffered, too. We prayed and believed in all the ways we knew how, but nothing brought about change or comfort. God, it seemed, was silent. Could we trust a God who wouldn’t heal, at least not in the way we expected Him to?
In our search for answers, we were drawn to broken people like us, to authors and writings that spoke of this human condition. We devoured the works of Jean Vanier, of Henri Nouwen. We moved like magnets toward anything that was willing to explore the mystery of a good God in existence with human suffering.
We found there were indeed centuries of theology formed around the topic. The richness astounded us. The idea that our sufferings could be the greatest blessings of our lives, could be that which actually unites us most to Christ, was life-altering.
We began to taste the implications of Jesus becoming human, of Him binding Himself to us and to our poverty. We experienced greater love for mankind than we had ever known, more compassion than we could ever muster up in the past. We let ourselves be ripped open, and we made the choice to sit still. We made room for mystery in our theology, and in doing so, we have found the world to be a much more beautiful place.
I once doubted a God who wouldn’t set a little boy free. Now I recognize that He used that suffering to transform the boy’s parents into the ones he needed: ones who, rather than will away his messy places, could sit down to link arms with him and say “me too.”
We continue to suffer, to varying degrees, my husband and me and our son and you and your brother and grandpa. Whether we want to believe it or not, human suffering is inescapable. But we get to choose whether we become consumed with seeing it pass, or whether we are willing to open up and let it change us.
I once was told there is no value in suffering, yet I see Christ on the cross and I see a God who suffered. Not so that I wouldn’t have to, but so that He could sit down and link arms with me when I do.
Shannon continues to be surprised that Jesus won't quit saving her. She writes about the heart of God, human suffering, and the radical implications of loving your neighbor at We, A Great Parade.