By / Sep 23

For a long time I’ve had a serious problem. And it is the kind of thing I’ve always thought I couldn’t talk about. My problem is doubt. I know that might not seem like a scandalous revelation. But to be honest, for most of my life I felt enormous pressure to keep my doubts a secret. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first reason is that I didn’t want to undermine the faith of anyone around me. It’s not as though I felt like the people in my life only believed in Jesus because of me. But I didn’t want to have anything to do with causing someone else to question their faith. The second reason is even more personal. I didn’t want to admit that I often struggle to believe in my best friend. And that is what Jesus has been ever since I was a small child—my very closest friend.

Doubt and despair

I was in junior high school when I first began to deal with doubt. And of all things, I think it was reading Greek mythology that kicked it off. As I began to learn about the vastness of our world and the multiplicity of beliefs about God and life after death, I began to question my beliefs. And for the first time I wondered if I was merely assuming my beliefs were true because they were the only ones I’d ever known.

As time went on, more things compounded these questions. I learned about other religions, each of which had its own perspective on both the divine and the meaning of life. I was introduced to agnosticism and atheism, and alongside these, secular humanism and Big Bang cosmology. And even as a teenager, I realized that Christianity wasn’t something I could believe by default. My faith was no longer something I could take for granted.

In college I was surrounded, for the first time, by smart people who rejected my beliefs. Not only that, but many of them were effective apologists for their own. And during those years, I went through something like the dark night of the soul.

I remember lying on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night, crying out to God, and feeling ridiculous because I was certain no one was listening. I was crushed and in despair. My faith that was once so certain was anything but secure. And Jesus, my best friend, felt so far away. But probably the worst part was that I was ashamed to reach out for help. I didn’t want to harm anyone else’s faith, and I didn’t want to admit where I was with my own. 

But thankfully, Jesus came through.

Help for my unbelief

One day during this time I wandered into a LifeWay bookstore and picked up a tiny book called, of all things, Doubting. In this little volume, the author, Alistair McGrath, offered real answers to my questions instead of merely brushing them to the side. Though I have not read it in many years, what I remember most is that McGrath helped me understand that my doubts didn’t erase my faith. He showed me, as strange as it may sound, that my faith was actually the best defense against my doubts. 

 Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too.

Around the same time, I started to dig into apologetics. I wanted to learn the answers to the questions people put forward to challenge Christianity. The more I learned about defending the faith, the more answers and hope I gained. Ultimately, I realized that if the Christian story is true, it is strong enough to withstand any challenge or scrutiny.

But as much as those things helped, nothing helped me more than Scripture. I learned that the Bible is a book for doubters and skeptics. And in my early 20s, I began to devour God’s Word, specifically the New Testament. The more I read, the more I found that my doubts were relieved.

The men and women featured within the pages of the New Testament who followed Jesus and continued to advance his ministry after his ascension laid everything on the line to do so. Nothing stills my doubts more than this reality. The Apostle Paul suffered greatly—stonings and shipwrecks and snakebites—all for the sake of the gospel. For me, his most comforting words were these: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19) Or as Lecrae put it, “If Christ ain’t resurrected, we’ve wasted our lives.”

Freedom to doubt, and believe

One of the most helpful passages of Scripture for doubters like me comes from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist—the cousin of Jesus, who declared him to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”—is in prison. At this time, John knows he is about to die. But before he makes that final sacrifice, literally giving up his head for the sake of his faith, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John is imprisoned because he made enemies by faithfully proclaiming the words of righteousness. But before he embraces martyrdom, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Christ, just to be sure. Instead of rejecting John because of his doubt, Jesus answers John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus assures John that indeed the kingdom has come and that he is the long-promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus was not ashamed of his cousin. In that very passage, Jesus offers John assurance, and then commends John as the greatest man ever born of a woman (high praise coming from the eternal king of the universe).

Meditating on that passage brought forth a realization for me. If Jesus wasn’t ashamed of John, he isn’t ashamed of me or my doubts either. Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too. After all, Jesus is also the good shepherd. He is patient and gentle with his sheep. If, like me, you are prone to wander in the midst of doubt, Jesus is always faithful to seek us out. And he will carry you, if necessary, in order to bring you back and help you believe.

By / Mar 30

I was recently with some friends, and we were sharing with one another how the hardest things in our lives—the really hard things—are the things, in the end, that we are the most deeply grateful to God for.

This was no list of “privileged” suffering. This was raw, painful stuff: abject poverty, abuse, barrenness, deaths of spouses, and real struggles that make most people uncomfortable to even acknowledge the existence of. Yet this group, through tears, rejoiced and expressed gratitude for what God had allowed—or perhaps, more specifically, what God had withheld.

Who among us doesn’t want food and shelter? Who doesn’t want love and safety in their relationships? How many of us plan to lose a spouse before we’re old? And while I know there are some exceptions, how many women do you know who don’t long to bear and raise children?

These are things so basic to our human existence that most people can’t really imagine what it is like to live without them. And yet, there we were, not having even realized all this about our little circle (it’s definitely not why we were together), sharing how God, in his providential care, had chosen to withhold things from us in various ways. It was an intensely beautiful time together.

There was real grief shared of sorrowful and hard experiences. And yet, all of it was accompanied with rejoicing for the deep and profound lessons that God has taught through them. There was no sugar-coating of the realities involved. The experiences of grief and suffering can feel harsh, unrelenting, and even cruel.  But shining through the lines of story after story were beaming, glorious, wonderful realizations of the light of God’s goodness and kindness in withholding the good things that we had each longed for and providing lack instead.  

How do we learn that God is our provider if we never have to look to him for provision?  How do we learn that God cares for his children if we never know what it is like to lack care?  How do we know how long-suffering God is with our sin if we never face long-standing patterns of sin in those we love?  How can we know the sweet comfort of the Comforter if we never need to be comforted?

We can’t. And so the truth is, God orchestrates lack into our lives in order to fill us with something infinitely better than what even those very good things can bring—himself.  When we lack food and shelter, he is our portion and our cup, the bread of life. He is our strong tower, our refuge, and he would rather allow us to hunger and thirst for him than to have a full belly and no taste for Truth.

When we are victims to the horrible evil that dwells within men’s hearts, we find a suffering Savior who knows what that is like because he suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of the deepest evil the world has ever known. And through it, he demonstrates how he delights to make beauty that can only truly be appreciated through seeing and knowing and living in the ashes.

When we are devastated by tragedy and loss, we come to know the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief who would rather let us experience the searing pain of loss than let us miss out on what a Perfect Bridegroom can provide in the midst of all that pain. And when we long for something so badly that our chests ache and our souls burn, we find the tender, compassionate Shepherd who would rather give us what he knows we ought to long for in order to shape us into a better reflection of his goodness and care, than allow us to become arrogant or proud in the fulfillment of our lesser desires.

It’s so contrary to what we want. It’s opposite of what we think. We want good things—and they are good—but the problem is that they are not good enough. That’s what our lack reveals to us. Not having what we long for reveals our real needs, and not having the things we want refines our tastes for the things we need. Suffering the loss of what is precious to us helps us value the One who is most precious of all.

Our lack, especially of good things, ends up making room for the best things. Praise God for being willing to bear our sorrow and broken hearts in order to fill us with joyful, thankful hearts that know him better and love him more because of it.

By / Apr 10

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.” (2 Cor. 4:8)

Suffering can be so painful and dark that normalcy can seem like a distant memory from another life—an easier one, a happier one.

Like a dead weight bearing down upon our hearts, pain puts pressure on our faith and stirs up emotions that we find hard to confront or push back. “I don’t know how much more of this I can handle,” I’ve thought to myself. “Could my circumstances get any worse? I just want things to be normal again.”

Even if we know the hope of the gospel and believe it with all of our hearts, we still feel this pressure. Pain and suffering were never meant to be a part of our everyday experience and so they feel wrong; but, because sin entered the world, it is part of normal life to feel, from time to time or all the time, “afflicted in every way,” just as Paul described to the Corinthian church.

When Paul says “in every way,” he means it. He was one hard-pressed man:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24-28)

Danger. Exposure. Violence. Pressure. My guess is that you can resonate with Paul’s words, not because you’ve gone through similar struggles but because of the overwhelming pressure of the struggles you have known. What affliction is threatening to crush you right now? What suffering is testing your faith?

Maybe you’re fighting a malignant disease. Maybe it’s a short-term illness that is keeping you from carrying out your plans. Or maybe you lost your job this week, and you’re worried about feeding your family. Are you in the middle of a nasty relational feud? Or married to someone who is not following Christ?

Lyme disease threatens me. Because of Lyme and its ill effects, physical pain and weakness are my frequent visitors. There are times when, after an extended period of feeling well, stable, and hopeful, they rebound with a vengeance. I reach my limit during these regressions, as my faith feels pressed and my struggle to believe the gospel intensifies—and out pour the tears. I often cry because I’m angry, fearful, and worried. I wonder how much more I can take, if the struggle will ever end, and if any good will come of it.

I am tempted to believe that because I am afflicted in certain ways, I cannot get out of the downward spiral into being crushed in spirit as well as in body. How I long for my heart-cry in suffering to be like Paul’s! How I long to believe this beautiful truth: I am afflicted in every way, but not crushed.

Oh, don’t you want this? To have the confidence that the pressures of suffering will not defeat you?

Where to look

How can we learn to say along with Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed”? We look to the cross, and to the One who was hanged on it.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. (Isa. 53:4-5)

Jesus, the perfect God-man, decided to drink the cup of suffering given to him by the Father. He was violently nailed to the cross by the Roman authorities. He was spat on, mocked and hated by onlookers. As his lungs slowly failed him from crucifixion, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even God, with whom Jesus had enjoyed a perfect relationship from eternity past, had turned his face away.

And all because of our sin.

Jesus was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. He shouldered the burden of our sin upon his shoulders. Jesus willingly took the penalty of sin that we deserved, drinking the cup of spiritual death for us.

But this was not the end of the story:

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. (Isa. 53:10)

When Christ was nailed to the cross, God’s will to save sinners was prospering. In drinking the cup of suffering, Jesus became the offering for our guilt, and his offering was joyfully accepted by God. This is why God raised him from the dead three days later; Jesus overcame death by willingly entering into it as the perfect sacrifice.

In the words of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, “Suffering is overcome by suffering, and becomes the way to communion with God” (The Cost of Discipleship, page 92).

God has taken our gravest affliction—death—and has overcome it in Christ, so that we would never be overcome by it. The Father crushed his Son so that we would never be crushed by sin and death, so that we would spend an eternity of joy in his presence.

The cross and right now

But what about right now? An eternity of joy with Christ awaits us, which is beyond amazing, but what about our present afflictions? What does the cross of Christ mean for the pressures laid on us today?

The cross means that God is not condemning us. If you have trusted Jesus, then he has been punished for your sin—all of it: past, present and future. You will never be eternally condemned by God. You can know that your trials are not expressions of God’s anger, because all of it was poured out upon Jesus. There is no wrath left for those whose sins were borne on the cross.

So when you wonder if your affliction is God’s way of getting back at you for something you’ve done, remember the cross. If you think you cannot come to God in worship and prayer when you experience pressure, remember the cross.

Yes, some afflictions are the natural consequence of our sinful choices, but the ultimate consequence has been nailed to the cross as Jesus bore our sins there, and God’s purpose is never to punish his children, even when we sin against him. He may be disciplining us, so that we would see where we are in danger of running from him. But because of the cross, you can rest assured that God is not out to condemn you.

The cross means that God is for us and loves us—even when we cannot see what he is up to; even when we cannot see any purpose of discipline; even when suffering seems pointless. Because of the cross, we are free to view daily pressures through the lens of God’s love and his work on our behalf. We know that God is for us, not against us, because he gave us Jesus.

The author and preacher Jared Wilson writes, “There is one great sign that you are loved more than you thought. It is the cross. And there is a still further sign that you will live in this love forever. It is the empty tomb” (The Wonder-Working God, page 59).

The cross of Christ does not end in death, but leads to life! The resurrection of Jesus was the stamp of God’s divine approval on his sacrifice.

Jesus Christ was crushed for you because the Father is for you and loves you. This gospel truth is your assurance and comfort when the pressures of suffering seem too great to bear. Surely the Son of God has borne your griefs and carried your sorrows. He was crushed so you would never be. Your afflictions are temporary because your sins have been dealt with. Your future is secure because he rose to life. You can say confidently along with Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.”

Note: This post is an excerpt of Sarah Walton and Kirsten Wetherell’s new book Hope when it hurts: Biblical reflections to help you grasp God's purpose in your suffering. Watch Sarah and Kristen’s video about their personal trials that led to this book.

By / Feb 9

The flickering candle and the click of my keyboard are the only sounds in the room with me tonight. My heart feels tender and raw, and my eyes burn from the tears they’ve been swimming in over the last few hours.

You see, my husband and I have a precious son with a neurological disorder that causes emotional and behavioral problems. We have good months and bad months, good days and bad days. Today has been a bad day.

Our official diagnosis is ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome, but if you look up “bipolar disorder” or “oppositional defiant disorder” or “borderline personality disorder,” you’ll find many of the same symptoms that live with us inside of our beautiful, nine-year-old child.

The symptoms look so neat and tidy on the healthcare websites, sitting there in those perfectly aligned, bulleted lists. They look benign—like you could just select them and delete them if you so chose—impulsive behavior, persistent dark thoughts, social and communication deficits, extreme emotions, difficulty coping with the demands of everyday life.

The truth is that these little words—these “symptoms”—regularly show up in bodily form and press my face against the laundry room wall. They twist my arm behind my back and force me to my knees when I’m trying to get dinner on the table or help the kids with homework. They keep me from ever getting my balance, strolling by and giving me a shove when I least expect it.

This is my whole family’s normal.

Many days it feels like we’ve set up camp in a landmine field. I’m constantly vigilant, trying to keep the whole world calm and ordered to protect my son and those around him—an impossible task. When one of these emotional mines suddenly detonates, I throw myself on the blast, absorbing as much of it as I can to shield others, especially my other children, from the fallout. I stand guard like this day after day, month after month, year after year. I walk around with my breath slightly held, feeling like we’re always about to cross a busy street.

Sometimes I handle things well; other times I lose my temper and lash back at my son. Those are the darkest days, the weeping days. I’m supposed to be his comfort and help, but this job is so much bigger than me. I run out of energy. I run out of strength. I run out of patience. I come up short again and again and again.

An invisible disability

One of the hardest things about our family’s disability is that you can’t see it; you can only see what spirals out of it.

If my son walked into the room with two broken legs, no one would be angry with him for not being able to walk; they would offer to help him. Our child’s symptoms are visible, but the disability itself is not. His weakness pushes people away when he needs their help most. It’s hard to understand (even for my husband and me) that he needs extra grace and compassion when he’s lashing out in anger. He’s usually melting down because he’s anxious or afraid or overwhelmed.

This beautiful boy is a kind and tender little soul, always willing to share or help or stand up for someone who needs it. He never wants me to kill a spider or throw away a drawing. He’s off-the-charts smart, and he longs to please his father and me. He sees the world in a marvelous and interesting way, noticing details I would always miss. He uses crazy-big words and sees patterns in math that I never would.

That same unique wiring of his brain also makes him quick to spring into a fight; he perceives threats everywhere, even where there are none. And so this sweet little boy can suddenly explode with adrenaline and anger and leave us running for cover in our own home.

The road God has placed us on feels unbearably hard to walk some days.

My heart’s longing is to give you a glimpse into the pain the mother of a child like mine quietly carries around with her. You probably won’t see it. She has to keep functioning, after all. She may have other children to protect and care for. She can’t walk around passing out handfuls of sorrow, so chances are you don’t know how she’s quietly suffering.

God’s Word tells us we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” It tells us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

How can you help bear a burden like this one? It’s not as complicated as you might think.

Eyes to see, ears to hear

  • See her. A few years ago, my neighbor Lucia stopped in front of our house to chat. She had heard from her husband about our son and his struggles. Lucia told me that she had worked with special needs kids at our local school and had some small idea of what I was going through. “If you need anything—if I can give you a break any time—please let me know. I really mean it.”  Instantly, I was choking back hot tears in my driveway. I didn’t realize how much I needed someone to know what I was going through—to just see me standing here in this hard, hard place.
  • Hear her. Ask her how she’s doing. Ask her how her child is doing. Ask her what it’s like to live with Asperger’s Syndrome or whatever lives in her house. Just give her an opportunity to express how she’s feeling, and even if she doesn’t want to share, she’ll know you cared enough to ask.
  • Encourage her. Point out the good things you see in her child. Tell her something you’ve noticed that she does well as a mother. And do think carefully before offering advice. She’s probably read stacks of books and articles and consulted with more professionals that you can imagine. She doesn’t expect you to solve her problems; caring about them is enough.
  • Relieve her. I’ve found that it’s all too easy to turn away general offers, but if someone says, “I have a meal for you. Could I bring it by this afternoon or tomorrow?” it feels like my load is suddenly lighter. Another friend watches my baby once a week so I can go for a walk by myself. I’m so grateful for how God shows his love to me through kind friends!
  • Pray for her. If there’s only one thing you do for your friend, let it be this one. Ask her how you can pray for her, and then pray! I have no doubt that the prayers of our family and friends have held us up many, many days.  More than that, I believe these prayers are part of what God uses to actually shape the future of our child and our family. This could look a thousand different ways. You could pray during a certain day of the week for her family. You could text her or e-mail her or handwrite prayers and drop them in the mail. You could write their family’s name on an index card and put it on your fridge or in your Bible. Please, please, please pray.

One of the most vital ways the Lord Jesus shows his love to us is through one another, his very body. We are united to him and to each other by his Spirit, and each of us has something life-giving to share. Life in this world is full of hardship, and we need one another in very real and urgent ways. As I walk through these difficult days and remember that Jesus promised never to leave me or forsake me, I’m grateful that one of the ways He cares for me is through people—messy, imperfect, trying-their-best people, just like me. Sometimes we feel lonely, but in Christ we never stand alone.

Can you relate to my story? Are you struggling to hold on to hope? How has God shown his faithfulness to you?