We spend our lives, indeed most of waking hours, trying to get rid of the emptiness that is part of the human condition. We generally don’t like any sense of emptiness because it makes us feel vulnerable and weak, like we are not in control. We combat those feelings through strategies that we believe will fill … things like approval from others, accumulating material possessions, or achieving our identity in what we do and accomplish.
Most of the time, we are not even aware that we are engaging such strategies. It often just feels like normal life and whatever it takes to quell angst in our lives is embraced. And yet, we have those moments of clarity when the strategies aren’t working, when life gets messy. It is in those times when we become most aware of the emptiness and therefore, our vulnerability. Put simply, we become aware that we are powerless to “make life work.”
And, so, in what way is there a beauty in emptiness?
The beauty is in the fact that when we embrace emptiness and experience vulnerability and weakness, we are never closer to experiencing our divine design. This can feel very counterintuitive because we’ve been led to believe that being in control and strong is achievable. However, we have been created as vulnerable, dependent beings. As we welcome vulnerability, we have the opportunity to move toward deepening dependence upon God and His love for us. There is no other path.
Again, most often, our attempts to be in control operate under the surface of our lives and outside our immediate awareness. So, it is usually painful situations and suffering that bring us to a place of awareness and then we have choices to make.
For the last two years, I’ve been in a fight with cancer. I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma which led to a year of chemotherapy, a brief remission, a recurrence of the cancer, and then an unsuccessful stem cell transplant. It was unsuccessful because I had developed Leukemia as a result of all the chemotherapy I’d received. This all led to more chemotherapy and ultimately a stem cell transplant with a donor.
For the first six months of the year, I was in the hospital for three of those months, and I was confronted quite violently with a sense of vulnerability. Because of being isolated in the hospital and separated from my ability to do much of anything, I experience a stripping of those strategies that I’ve often used to fill the emptiness. In particular, as a “doer,” I felt helpless. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t take care of my family. I couldn’t control my body as chemotherapy reduced my energy and took away my immune system. I couldn’t eat for long stretches of time. The list of “I couldn’t” statements could go on.
The emptiness and vulnerability were heavy.
And yet, God in His grace met me there in ways that I’d never experienced. It was in the vulnerability that I actually experienced His presence and love. It wasn’t an emotional experience that made me feel warm but I deep settled sense of peace. It was in the vulnerability that I saw Him provide for our family financially, emotionally, and relationally in ways that I always thought I could control.
Things that I would have said I believe deeply (He provides, He loves, He is present) became my experience. It was in the vulnerability that I found an experience of dependence that was outside my control. I can relate to the following from Pedro Arrupe:
“More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”
In it all, I experienced a deep sense that all that was left was love … God’s love for me and my call to love others. As I underwent a stripping of my false self (trying to make life work on my own), I could see my identity in a very different way. Thomas Merton put it like this:
“To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”
So, why can we say that there is a beauty in emptiness? Because it is in the vulnerability that we experience so clearly the choice to release self and know love. Jesus, of course, said it so well: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matthew 16:25, NLT)
Giving up our lives is a way of saying that we let go of our strategies and embrace the emptiness. It is one thing to understand this all intellectually. Poet David Whyte wrote: “The only choice we have as we mature is how to inhabit our vulnerability…” So, how do we actually embrace or inhabit our vulnerability rather than fight against it?
In Philippians 2:5-7, the Apostle Paul writes:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant …”
The most studied phrase of these verses is “made Himself nothing.” In the Greek language, the verb is kenao and means to empty oneself. The theological debate over the centuries centered around what He emptied and much consternation surfaced around the idea that Jesus might have emptied Himself of His attributes as God. However, if we understand this idea in context, a robust idea emerges. First, the phrase “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” is the idea that He did not use His attributes as God as something to be used for Himself (“grasped” is literally, “to be used to one’s advantage). And then, second, we understand the idea of emptying as “embracing emptiness” or vulnerability, which is exactly what the second person of the Trinity did in taking on human flesh. There is perhaps nothing more vulnerable than being a baby. He continued to embrace emptiness throughout His life as He experienced temptation, suffered, and went to the cross. So, in the same way we are challenged to embrace emptiness by not using our “power” and strengths to strategize ways to make life work. Jesus modeled this for us.
How do we move into vulnerability? In Colossians 4:2, we are encouraged to “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”
First, we simply engage in prayer. We bring ourselves before God. Second, we watch. In prayer, we watch for the ways that we are tempted to push away vulnerability. We notice when we are trying to fill the emptiness. We ask God to show us the emptiness and to give us the strength to abide with Him. Finally, we give thanks. Gratitude is what keeps us grounded. As we see our emptiness and vulnerability, we thank God for the gifts that are a part of abiding in vulnerability.
What we begin to experience in this kind of prayerful life is that we see everything as a gift … everything is connected to His goodness in our lives. While I wouldn’t wish the difficulties I’ve been experiencing over these last years on my worst enemy (not sure who that would be anyway), I wouldn’t trade them for the world.
The beauty of emptiness … a life of gratitude as we see His gifts in all things and abide with Him in them!
The concept of God existing in an eternal dance has been present in Christian thought since the early centuries. It gives a poetic picture of what is happening in the Trinity. It also gives us an invitation. We are drawn to dance. We want joy … it’s as though we were made for it. In the following selection, C. S. Lewis writes about this beautifully:
“And now, what does it all matter? It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection, if you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever?” (C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity)
How can you sit close to the spray today? How will you choose to be infected with joy, power, peace, and eternal life?
Just a couple of quick suggestions … sit quietly and be still, ask God to help you see Him in whatever situation you find yourself, and then sit quietly some more as you contemplate deeply the pattern of His grace you see around you.
As we enter into the season of Advent, I am again reminded that so much of our lives is about waiting. Waiting is not for the faint of heart, but waiting is also not an accident. Waiting is a spiritual exercise that can connect us more deeply with life as God designed it for us. In the perfection of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve waited for knowledge and wisdom from God. The one tree from which they were not to eat was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was pure goodness to wait … to trust that God alone was sufficient for both defining and supplying their need.
As we wait, we have the opportunity to be shaped into people who can receive the true gifts of life and not simply the gifts we’ve been told we should want. The pain of waiting can give way to joy of receiving what we most long for in the depths of our souls. Waiting can feel lonely and disorienting when we are not able to cling to the lesser gifts that have given us comfort over the years. Like a young child “losing” its pacifier, that pain and disorientation is indeed for something better.
What is “the better”? Understanding the distinction between wishing and hoping can give us insight. Henri Nouwen beautifully expresses the difference:
“Waiting is open-ended. Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have. Much of our waiting is filled with wishes: ‘I wish that I would have a better job. I wish that the weather would be better. I wish that the pain would go.’ We are full of wishes, and our waiting easily gets entangled in those wishes. For this reason, a lot of our waiting is not open-ended. Instead, our waiting is a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair … hope is something very different Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes. Therefore, hope is always open-ended.”
What has God promised? As we scan what God has communicated to humanity throughout history, one thing seems consistent. He promises Himself. He promises His presence. “I will never leave you or forsake you” is the comfort given in Hebrews 13:5 in the face of temptations regarding money and sex. Earlier in the letter to the Hebrews we find this connection between promise and hope stated beautifully:
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (6:19-20)
The imagery of these verses is poetic and profound. First, “hope” is an anchor to the soul. Our souls long for hope. Whether in the midst of difficult times or more smooth seasons, our souls instinctively look for hope. We need something to anchor us and keep us in from wandering. We may indeed become distracted by “wishes” as the world around us tells us that “concrete” things like food or sex or comfort will anchor our souls but the hope described here is substantially different.
This leads to the second insight: our hope is to enter the inner place behind the curtain. The “inner place” is an illusion to the Old Testament “holy of holies” where the presence of God dwelled. Because of Jesus, we are able to be in the holy place and dwell there with God.
Our hope, which anchors our souls, is that we are able to dwell in the very presence of God. Our hope in the midst of whatever storm we are facing is that we can be with God, experiencing Him in our hearts. The place that God dwells is the heart of one who knows Jesus as high priest. We might wish that our circumstances were different (but this will leave us unanchored and floating around) but we can live with hope as He is with us, drawing ourselves to Him, anchoring our hearts to His in a way that circumstances can’t touch.
As our hope is in the deepening experience of His presence, we are able to receive what is rather than wish for what isn’t. Every moment of our lives, whether calm or stormy, offers us the gift of His presence and when we put our hope in this promise, we are anchored and filled with a peace that passes all understanding.
One writer put it this way:
“Must we be whiplashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment? Is it not possible to live from a place of greater equilibrium, to find a deeper and steadier current? The good news is that this deeper current does exist and you actually can find it . . . For me the journey to the source of hope is ultimately a theological journey: up and over the mountain to the sources of hope in the headwaters of the Christian Mystery. This journey to the wellsprings of hope is not something that will change your life in the short range, in the externals. Rather, it is something that will change your innermost way of seeing. From there, inevitably, the externals will rearrange. The journey to the wellsprings of hope is really a journey toward the center, toward the innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God.” (Cynthia Bourgeault)
So, how do we do this? How do we begin to reorient our way of seeing what is rather than wishing for what isn’t? Psalm 27:4 gives us an intensely practical, prayerful way of understanding the “how.”
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”
It begins with desire. The prayer of David in this Psalm is singular in focus: to dwell in the Lord’s presence. In the previous verses, David expressed the circumstantial challenges he was facing but his desire to experience the nearness of God was His desire. Want to be anchored in hope? Make Him your focused desire. In prayer, come back, over and over, to this being your desire. The reality is that this is your deepest desire whether you feel it or not. Honestly, when in the midst of trying circumstances, we may not “feel” it at all. This is when we pray this desire as an act of faith – knowing that this is our only hope.
Next, David, shares what it looks like to dwell. He describes being aware and attentive to God’s presence as “gazing” and “meditating.” The word “inquire” could also be translated as “meditate” (as noted in the footnotes of most English versions of the text). In Hebrew poetry, two concepts are often placed back to back in synonymous parallelism. In other words, the concepts of gazing and meditating are two ways of describing the same thing. We dwell with Him when we gaze upon His beauty, the nature of who He is. How do we do that? Through meditation.
When we “fall” in love with someone, we often find ourselves mentally gazing upon them and mulling over in our minds all the attributes of what make that person so incredible. This is a form of meditation. To meditate is to intensely focus our heart upon something.
If we want to have our souls anchored in true hope, we have to learn to focus our hearts upon the beauty of God throughout our day. Then, we are able to see and receive the gifts of His presence. We will begin to see that the world is filled with the fingerprints of His love if only we are trained to see them. Meditating on God’s beauty in the quiet, routinedspaces of our lives can translate into seeing His beauty in the more noisy, random spaces of life.
As you find yourself waiting, try these daily spiritual disciplines:
- Pay and express to God your desire to experience His presence. Journal your prayer. Write a poem about your desire. Simply tell Him what you want. Be creative each day!
- Meditate daily on the beauty of God. One way to meditate is to sit in a quiet space and focus the attention of your heart on an aspect of God’s beauty. First, try to sit for 5-10 minutes and let all thoughts gently fade except for your focus on God’s beauty. As other thoughts come, gently return to focusing on Him. For example, you might choose to meditate on His love. Simply take the phrase like “I am His beloved” or “The Lord is My Shepherd” and let that phrase come back to your awareness over and over. If other thoughts enter, gently let them go and return to your phrase.
One final thought: experiencing our hope as we learn to gaze upon Him can only happen as we learn to slow down. If we live hectic lives, the old program of fixating on “wishes” will just keep running undetected in the background of our lives. As we slow down, our waiting can be infused with hope because we will begin to see His presence in all of life. Then, we will be able to experience the grace that is always present and available.
Over these last few blog posts, we’ve been looking at suffering as an invitation. It may sound strange to link suffering and invitation together but it is something that the Biblical text does over and over again. Because of the pain that comes along with suffering, we generally would say “I’m just fine, thank you” with no need for invitations in sufferings and would rather just get back to “normal” life as soon as possible.
Indeed, this is an overall temptation in all suffering: to just grit our teeth and get through it. Of course, we don’t want to experience pain, loss, and grief so the natural response is to think through how we can muster the strength to just get through it. However, when we just try to get through it, we run the risk of missing the gifts that come in suffering. It is a radical concept but Jesus makes it clear that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) He goes on to say: “whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The concept of “loving” one’s life is to try to preserve it. And, if we try to preserve our life, we ironically will lose it. In other words, we will stay committed to those life-preserving strategies that we believe can keep us from pain. But in trying to protect ourselves from pain, we miss the gift that pain brings. So if we choose to “hate” (or let go of our life) these life-preserving strategies, we will find that our lives become connected to eternal life. And, by “eternal life,” Jesus means that quality and dynamic of life that we experience in God. So, again, the gift of suffering is that we are stripped of that self-protective instinct and ushered into a way of life in which we are stripped down to nothing but love – the love that is God Himself.
Of course, God does not cause suffering but He does use in it our lives to do things that can’t happen any other way. Suffering can be received as an invitation to learn and grow because suffering is a teacher like no other. Suffering will strip us of all illusions of security and power and control, if we let it. And then … we are ready to see. Further, we are ready to receive the love of God in purity and in ways that fill our empty souls. Suffering empties us and when emptied of all else, we are ready to receive the fullness of His love.
Simone Weil makes this observation: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.”
Part of the task of the spiritual journey is to allow these empty spaces to arise and simply exist. From the time we are children, we fill the empty spaces with experiences and things and people we believe will fill them. In addition, we develop self-protective strategies to keep control of what comes in and out of our hearts. Suffering empties us in the most gracious way.
As we continue to look at Jesus in Matthew 4, we see the struggle between receiving the invitations of suffering and the temptation to self-protection. In the first temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to provide for Himself in a time of suffering and decides rather to listen to God as His sustenance. In the second temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to prove that He is loved and decides rather to rest in God’s love. And finally, in the third temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to try to control life and decides rather to participate in God’s life.
When we are suffering, everything feels out of control. In a sneaky way, this is one of the gifts of suffering. We are given a glimpse into the reality that we are not in control of anything. Control is indeed an illusion. However, this is not a vision we usually welcome. We cling tight to the idea that we can control and defend and protect our lives. Even when tragedy strikes, we want answers and control and strategies.
In this third temptation, we read:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)
How is this a temptation? It is a temptation for the same reason that we buy a lottery ticket. We believe, “if I just had more money, then I can control life.” The idea is that if we had all the kingdoms of the world, we could protect ourselves once and for all from anyone or anything that might hurt us. Clearly, we might not be tempted with all the kingdoms of the world, but it might be the promise of more money or accomplishments or power that seduces us. If we fall down and worship ourselves as we seek to control, the temptation has taken hold.
However, Jesus shows us the invitation as He responds:
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Jesus knew that no matter how difficult the trial and season of suffering, His life was about participating in the life of God. We often reduce the concept of worship to singing songs or perhaps the way we live our lives. However, worship is about an orientation of our lives. What we worship is that around which we orient our lives. To orient our lives around God means that we become a participant in His life. More often than not, we think about the ways that God is involved in our lives but what if we began to ask how we are involved in His?
2 Peter 1:3-4 beautifully paints a participation of worship …
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
Notice the word “partake.” The idea is that we participate in the divine nature. And what is “divine nature?” It is the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. We are invited to participate in their life. When all the facades are stripped away and we have no ability to control, this invitation becomes so clear and so attractive. As we come to the end of ourselves, we begin to walk into the life of God.
As we notice the choice between trying to maintain control and the invitation to participation, we might also notice elements of anger and desperation. We experience anger because our efforts to achieve and accomplish and produce are falling short. We may feel desperation because those last shreds of self-protective fibers are still trying to hold on and we know we are no longer able. At that moment, the choice is to delve further into anger or to surrender.
The joy of surrender is that we are led into freedom. There is a deep, intense freedom that comes when we choose to immerse ourselves in the life of God. And, what does that look like? It looks like asking God, moment by moment … “what are you up to? What do you see? What are you saying to me right now?” And then we wait …
Henri Nouwen shares:
“To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is trusting that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.”
How can you practice participation in the Divine Nature today?
Suffering is never something we’d ask for but it comes our way nonetheless. From what we see in Scripture, it is inevitable because we live in a fallen world and it is also the way that the Lord graciously loosens the grip we have on the things of this world. In an amazing display of grace, He uses the inevitable to produce what we find incredibly difficult to choose on our own. Indeed, we frequently find ourselves unaware of idols and sinful patterns that need releasing. Suffering opens our eyes and, if we let it, opens our hands.
Because God never coerces or forces us, in our sufferings we are given the invitation to release. In the account of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4, we see first that Jesus receives the invitation to listen to God’s voice rather than take things into His own hands.
Next, Jesus confronts a second temptation: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you.’”
Satan uses Scripture in an attempt to create a sense of entitled expectation. The statement that He will command his angels is a quote from Psalm 91 in which God is described as keeping safe those who are His. However, it is not a license to presume God will come running at our bidding. God is the one who does the commanding. We do not command Him or His angels.
What does this have to do with suffering and the potential temptations therein?
When we are in the midst of suffering, we want to make sense of things. Our flesh often cries out with the question, “What did I do wrong?” Or, “What could I have done differently to prevent what is happening to me?” Or, “What can I do now to fix it?” Reflective questions like these can be helpful in some situations but they can also be used in unhealthy ways to try to alleviate our pain and re-establish our sense of peace and well-being. Essentially, these are “shame” questions. They all assume that if suffering occurs, it is because I did something wrong.
Shame is the internal experience of saying, “There is something wrong with me.” Abuse survivors often feel shame, supposing there is something wrong with them that led to the abuse, when that is the furthest thing from the truth. Children of divorce report feeling that if they had only done something better or been a better child, their parents would still be together. For those who deal with shame, engaging in behaviors that give a sense of control can be soothing because shame can make one feel completely out of control.
When we feel that sense of shame, we look for anything to make us feel better … to make us feel loved and cared for. This often leads to trying to fill ourselves with approval from others as we seek to look good in the eyes of others, perform, or even strive for acceptance. Or perhaps, we isolate and protect ourselves from others so that our sense of shame can’t be reinforced.
In suffering, shame surfaces and so can our sense of what God should or shouldn’t do to affirm us and care for us. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempted Eve by calling into question God’s goodness. The reasoning was that if God was good then “He wouldn’t keep this beautiful piece of fruit from you.” When we suffer, we can begin to believe that if God loved us He wouldn’t let something bad happen and He certainly wouldn’t deprive us of something. So, if something bad happens, He must not love us. Shame is a weapon that the enemy wields to keep us away from trusting a loving Father.
The temptation for Jesus was to alleviate the pain of suffering through doing something extraordinary that would encourage the crowds to laud Him rather than resting in His belovedness that transcends circumstance. It can be easy to believe we are loved and cared for when the circumstances of life are rosy. Sufferings offers an opportunity to receive His love in the depths of who we are … beyond the vicissitudes of life.
In response to the temptation, in Matthew 4, Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “nothing needs to happen for me to rest in my Father’s love for me.” The invitation here is to rest in the Father’s love as we trust that He doesn’t need to do anything to prove His love for us.
So, the temptation in the midst of suffering is to question God’s love. We may find ourselves tempted to test His love as we ask for signs or pray in ways that suggest His love is not valid unless He removes or transforms the suffering.
The reality is that God allows us to encounter suffering not in spite of His love but precisely because of His love. There are things that cannot happen if we don’t encounter suffering. Namely, experiencing His love and care as actualities rather than theories. Further, as we grow in deepening intimacy with God, we share in His sufferings because of love (Philippians 3:10).
Romans 5:1-5 encourages us in this way:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
This beautiful passage describes the reality that we rejoice in sufferings because they lead us to living in hope, the hope that we are being transformed into the likeness of God, His glory. And that hope does not lead us to shame (thinking we did something wrong or that God doesn’t love us), but we are lead to resting in God’s love which is already in our hearts. Suffering releases our grip on things that don’t matter so that we can live from our hearts where we rest in His love.
One way to visualize this is to see ourselves out in the water. When we fight and grasp for something to hold, we miss out on the power of the water to hold us. When we release the grasping and allow our bodies to rest, we are able to float on the water. Indeed, the water of God’s love is enough to hold us and we rest in its power to hold us when we cease striving.
So, we don’t test God’s love but we rest in God’s love.
How might God be leading you to rest in His love in the midst of suffering?
As Jesus suffered in the wilderness, He encountered the same temptations that Adam and Eve encountered in the Garden of Eden. These three temptations are representative of the kinds of testing we all experience in the midst of suffering.
For Adam and Eve, they lived in paradise and even there, they experienced a trial. Being commanded to not eat from the tree of knowledge was a trial … a testing and a refining of their trust in God. They experienced a temptation to do just the opposite. But, inside that temptation was embedded an invitation … an opportunity to live out of and be deepened in their relationship with God.
As the people of Israel were leaving Egypt and journeying to the land of promise, we read in Deuteronomy 8:2, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” Of course, God’s desire is that the testing draws out a heart of keeping his commands with trust.
The point is this: in suffering, our hearts are tested and tried with the purpose that temptations become invitations. Jesus faced each temptation and shifted it to an opportunity to entrust Himself to God the Father as the Beloved Son. Our trials have this same intention: to draw out the reality of who we are as the Beloved in Christ.
The first temptation for Jesus was to “turn stones into bread.” Jesus was hungry. He was in need. Satan tempted Jesus by encouraging Him to use His own resources to take care of Himself. This is the temptation to possess. Clearly, using things to give ourselves a sense of security is part of the human condition. We want to know that we have enough, that we will survive. We are tempted to turn to ourselves for the security we desire rather than trusting in a God we cannot see.
Certainly, in Jesus’ weakened condition, this was a real temptation. He could have easily solved the trial He encountered but it would have happened on His terms, through His strength, and independently of the Father.
However, He responded in trust as He quoted from the second part of Deuteronomy 8:3 in saying “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The first part of the verse says, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone …” The idea is that God allowed His people to hunger and He provided for them day by day (a very humble place to be) in order to deepen their dependence. Specifically, mankind does not find security (a real need) through physical things but through listening to the voice of God.
So, this first invitation in suffering is the invitation to listen.
But, often, all we want to do is figure a way out through possessing the right knowledge for escape or possessing enough money to escape. When encountering a time of trial, we frequently go to the internet to research escape plans whether it is the best way to find healing or the best way to make a lot of money. Healing and money are not bad things in and of themselves (I’ll take both!), but they are not good when we are setting our hopes there.
Suffering exposes our needs, and the gift is that we begin to see our needs and the ways we are tempted to fill those needs in our own strength and wisdom. Often, we float through life unaware. Suffering brings awareness and also opportunity. And then, if we receive the invitation, we can, like Jesus, move from temptation to trust.
Of course, this can be difficult because we only listen and turn our attention to the Lord when we believe that He is enough … that His voice is that by which I can live in the fullness of life. Do you believe that He is enough? that His voice and leadership in your life what you truly need, even more than a piece of bread?
Perhaps in a defiant sort of way, we can begin to proclaim in the midst of suffering: “My life is not defined by what I have or don’t have but by listening to the Lord.” It is His voice that will fill us and shape us into who we most desire to be.
Going back to Jesus in Matthew 4, we can only wonder if He was thinking about the voice of the Father that He had just heard at His baptism in Matthew 3, “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Listening to that is indeed the essence of what makes life full.
How much time do you set aside to listen to God’s voice of love toward you? One of the ways that we can receive this invitation to listen is to intentionally engage in silent prayer in which we let go of all the other voices (“I need” “I want” “I wish”) and simply hear Him say, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”
Notice how the Psalmist walks through this in Psalm 73:1-3:
“Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
Why do we become envious? Because we believe that others have something I need. The Psalmist ponders all that others seem to have, and then we see temptation move to invitation:
“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin … When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strengthof my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps 73:16-26)
He is our portion! The first invitation in suffering is to know Him as our portion, or sustenance. We know Him in this way as we listen to His voice and hear Him speak His love. Its one thing to “know” that He loves us and another altogether to “hear” it. Suffering puts us in a place to hear, if we let it.
When we walk through times of suffering, we are usually challenged at deep places in our soul. Questions arise, doubts surface, and loneliness emerges. This, all in addition to the surface pain we may be experiencing.
The primary question that seems to emerge is “why?” When things are pleasant, we don’t usually ask “why,” we just enjoy the circumstance. But pain, with all the unpleasantness, we reason must be happening for a purpose. More often than not, the question of “why” is met with clichés of all sorts and sometimes even a bravado that we will fight and get to the other side.
The reason for suffering? While so much is wrapped in mystery that our finite minds cannot fully comprehend, we do know from the wisdom of Jesus that there are things that cannot happen except through a time of suffering. Indeed, we actually end up asking “why” when we are suffering which is part of the answer of why we suffer. When we are living with questions, we are pushed to consider what really matters. Suffering purifies (if we let it) in ways that nothing else can.
Suffering pushes us to the margins of life, away from “the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in the world.” (Thomas Merton) It is at the margins, in the wilderness places, that I can find my true center, God Himself.
In Hebrews 5:8, referring to Jesus, we are told that “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” In what sense did Jesus have to learn obedience? If we understand obedience relationally, obedience is not outward action but the inward action of trust and love in which we honor (obey) another person. In Matthew 3, Jesus was baptized and His “belovedness” was affirmed as the Father spoke from heaven.
Next, in Matthew 4, we observe that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not pleasant and it was also not accidental. The text says He was hungry and in Mark 1, the presence of “wild animals” is highlighted. In addition, Mark 1 pushes the idea of being “led” (from Matthew 4) further by saying that He was “cast out” in the wilderness by the Spirit. There was a purpose in Jesus being in this place of suffering and loneliness.
His belovedness was affirmed in Matthew 3, and then His belovedness was tested and strengthened in Matthew 4. It was in the context of hunger, isolation, danger, and weariness that Jesus’ identity and human experience of God the Father was deepened.
Over the last year as I journeyed with cancer, my son asked: “Dad, why is this happening to you?” And, my response was, “why not me?” If God loves me, He will lead me through times of suffering so that our relationship can be purified and deepened and strengthened. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that He caused the suffering or gave me cancer. Indeed, there are so many questions that we cannot answer about suffering but we can know that God does things in us that aren’t accomplished any other way.
In a wilderness place of suffering, we are stripped bare and left with nothing to hang on to. And, then with empty hands, we are able to hold onto God in ways we couldn’t when our hands were on the control panel of our lives.
Often, we are specifically stripped of the notion that God exists so that I can reach a place of self-fulfillment and peace and happiness. When this illusion is gone, we are left with a God who can now fill us with Himself. When we are experiencing emptiness, there is space for His presence in ways not possible before.
In his book on Desert Spirituality, Belden Lane writes:
“I really don’t want a god who is solicitous of my every need, fawning for my attention, eager for nothing in the world so much as the fulfillment of my self-potential. One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”
In this way, suffering is an invitation … an invitation to know God in new ways and to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
We can try to run from suffering or we can receive it. God won’t force us to enter the school of His love when suffering but He does invite us.
If we choose to run from suffering, we miss the gift of spiritual growth and deepening. When we run from suffering, we usually don’t get very far and end up going in circles. When we run from suffering, we experience confusion and frustration as the dominant realities in our lives.
We receive suffering when we ask:
- How is He speaking His love to me in this time in the wilderness?
- What is the invitation to deeper love and trust in this present circumstance?
Just asking the questions, that often take some time to answer, leads us to a place of freedom because we realize that it is not the wilderness or suffering that defines us but our relationship with God.
Note: in following blog posts, we’ll examine the specific invitations that Jesus experienced in His wilderness time of testing, and we’ll see that those invitations are emblematic of our invitations in times of suffering.
The last year of my life has been one of the most difficult and yet one of the most glorious years of my life. When I first heard the word “cancer” as the doctor called to tell me the results of a CT Scan, my wife and I were stunned and reduced to silence. Only tears flowed as we began to process what it might mean.
After an invasive surgery to biopsy the baseball sized growth in my chest, I began six months of chemotherapy. To put it mildly, it has not been fun. And, it appears there is still more to come. However, not too far into the process, I began to experience a depth of reality previously reserved primarily in the realm of theory. In Soul Making, Alan Jones puts it this way:
“There is an unfinished quality about human beings that is both tragic and glorious: tragic because the openness and freedom of human identity is hard to bear; glorious because the openness and freedom corresponds to our deepest desire. Many people think of themselves as in some way finished.”
As I began to lose my hair, I began to gain the deep sense that we are indeed a mixture of tragic and glorious. Because of the created freedom that humans experience, we frequently opt to pursue some sense of being “finished” and “put together.” This is tragic because it is illusory and unattainable. Suffering can be an incredible gift because such illusions are shattered. To sugar coat suffering or to say that a cancer diagnosis is not so bad is to deny reality. However, there is something deeper to be experienced than favorable or unfavorable circumstances.
Suffering has a way of highlighting our “unfinishedness” and it is glorious because there is the opportunity to live our created design without the illusions that often plague us. When life is going relatively well, we might believe that we can be finished, that we can be independent. Those concepts are not only illusions but they are not consistent with our design as contingent, dependent beings. Our deepest desire is to use our freedom to connect with God … to abide with Him … to discover our true self in Christ.
Romans 8 famously asserts “there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.” We often cling to that truth in a passive sort of way. We look at it passively in terms of intellectually trusting the concept that God loves us when suffering and loss is so painfully present. Beautiful words, but they might not necessarily transform the way we are interacting with things.
So, what does it really mean, “nothing can separate us from the love of God”? Foundationally, it means that He is not separate. He is not distant. Further, it means that if “no thing” can separate us, then “every thing” is a connecting point with God. This is not a passive concept but one that can usher us into a very active way of being in this world. If “every thing” is a place to connect, then experiencing God is always in the present tense. The present moment, as Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote, “holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams.”
Perhaps, those places of suffering and difficulty are actually great connecting points with God because we experience our need and desperation for God more fully in suffering than in the “pleasant” spaces of life.
However, we are frequently tempted to run from our sufferings instead of meeting God in them. In Exodus 14, the people of Israel traveled to the promised with the armies of Pharaoh on their heels. They begged Moses to go back to Egypt as they began to believe that they would die in the wilderness. Moses responded with, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” Silence is an expression of deep trust in the midst of suffering, and it has a way of opening us to a different way of seeing. In James 1, we are challenged to be quick to listen and slow to anger and speech. In silence, we are able to see that our frailty and “unfinishedness” is actually our greatest asset rather than a liability. If anger and talking take precedence, we often never move past feeling we’ve been deprived in some way.
When suffering, the sensation of separation from “the good life” can be very real. Like the people of Israel, it can feel like death. Again, if nothing can separate us from His love and presence in our lives, then we can reinterpret these feelings as the experience of our need and desperation for God. The “good life” is Him.
So, everything is grace. Every thing is an opportunity to know and experience His love.
Do I believe that everything is grace? Is everything an opportunity to know Him more fully and deeply? On some days, I can say “yes” and on other days, I struggle but even in the struggle I know that there is more. Perhaps that is what hope feels like … trusting that there is more.
Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast comments: “Can you be grateful for everything? No, not for everything but in every moment.” We cannot be and should not be grateful for things such as war, violence, or illness. It is not that the circumstance is a gift but in the moment, we can experience gratitude for what the circumstance offers, what it gives.
1Thessalonians 5:18 encourages, “Be thankful in all circumstances.” Notice that it does not say “for all circumstances.” Of course, but in each moment we can be thankful because each moment holds a wealth of riches.
As I continue on my journey with this illness, I am challenged to say, “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118) The circumstances of the day might be hard but this day will gift me with another opportunity to know Him, and the more difficult the day … the more deeper the knowing.
I am grateful because everything is grace … everything is a pathway into what my heart most desires, knowing Him.
Note: if you are interested in following my journey with cancer, you can follow my journal at mylifeline.org/tedwueste.
I entered the Advent season this year in a way I could have never imagined. Just one month before Advent began (on November 3), I was under a CT Scan machine to determine the nature of a 4 inch mass in my chest discovered by x-ray only days before. The news came fast and furious: lymphatic cancer. Did I hear the words correctly? Really? Could the cause of my coughing and extreme fatigue really be cancer? Once the news settled in, it became apparent that an intense journey lay ahead.
After the initial diagnosis came a needle biopsy, a surgically invasive biopsy, a bone marrow biopsy, and numerous blood tests. Just two days before Thanksgiving, I had a port placed in my chest where I would receive chemotherapy. Then, hours later, I received the first round of chemicals poured into my body. Next, a two week wait, through days of side effects and days of normalcy, until the next round of chemotherapy.
I’ve noticed that waiting in the midst of pain, uncertainty, and longing are the hallmarks of a cancer diagnosis and the subsequent therapy. This is the Advent season lived out in a tangible, physical way. Advent is a word that means “coming” or “arrival” and it is a time of waiting for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas during the 4 weeks preceding December 25th. Of course, He arrived in the past and provided salvation through the cross and resurrection but entering into a period of waiting each year reminds us of our need for a savior and orients our hearts to let go of the trivial and grasp that which is most real, Christ Himself. Each day of our lives, we have an invitation to welcome Christ into our lives and Advent gives us eyes to see the invitations as well as the resistances.
In Advent, we are choosing to learn to wait. We are learning to allow the unresolved and the uncertain to open our hearts to true hope. In our modern world, we can so easily slip around the sides of pain and uncertainty through avoidance. We avoid through numbing ourselves with activity and excess and substances. We avoid through moving away from that which is painful. Advent is the conscious choice to stay in the waiting and it is there that we are confronted with our tendencies to avoid.
Of course, something like a cancer diagnosis affords the same opportunity but not through the avenue of choice. But then again, I’m learning that there are choices and invitations each day in the midst of a cancer diagnosis. I can choose to make cancer my identity or I can choose to see myself in light of the hope of a God who is with me. I can choose to worry about tomorrow or I can choose the gift of what today will bring, even in the midst of pain. Part of my spiritual practice each day is prayerfully asking, “What are You inviting me into today, Lord?” (Note: I am learning this and not very good at it … yet.)
In observing Advent as a part of yearly rhythm in my life with Christ, it seems that our gracious Father has prepared me deeply for this season of prayer and waiting.
Here are a few things I’m leaning into these days:
- Trust is not relying upon answers and certainty, but resting in the One who holds all things. He holds my life and in one sense, the details are none of my business. I do know that He is good and sometimes that’s all I know.
- I see His love in the little, hidden things that many might not see. On my most difficult days, it seems as though He winks at me with a card in the mail or the text of a friend in which they unknowingly share things that are deeply meaningful in my relationship with God. I feel His gentle touch in the song or truth that the Spirit brings to mind in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. It is not the big things but the simple, quiet reminders that are so powerful.
- “The meaning is in the waiting.” This is the title of a great little Advent book by Paula Gooder. It is a reminder that waiting is not something to simply endure but a gift to unwrap. Waiting has its own meaning as it confronts us with our resistances to experiencing Christ in the now, not when our lives look the way we’d prefer.
- My identity is not as a cancer patient but as a child of God, His beloved. No circumstance or limitation defines me. On days when I feel like I can do nothing, I am reminded that I don’t have to do anything to be loved and valued. I have value that is independent of my ability to produce or contribute or even give back.
- I am truly learning to live day by day. I’ve never been so confronted by the reality that Jesus describes in Matthew 6, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow … sufficient for today is its own trouble.” I’m finding significant temptation in wanting to forget about today (especially when its painful) and move on to the next day, hoping that it will be better. No day is perfect and when I simply move on, I miss the gifts found within the imperfection of today. More than anything, it is His presence that is available today. Hope is about today … the hope and trust that He is at work, that He is present.
“Why am I in such a hurry to arrive? Yet how is it that, I’m grateful for this long and dusty road that is leading me back to loving union with my creator with my beloved. Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability— and that it may take a very long time … Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“Loving God, I don’t like to wait. So I don’t wait to see the unfolding of your kingdom or to rejoice in the Savior you have given me, because I would have to relinquish control. Too often, I end up creating my kingdom rather than turning to thy kingdom. Impatient, I stray from you presence, grasping at things and people rather than letting you alone satisfy my deepest desires. You see, Lord, if I am really honest, while I believe in you, I don’t always trust that you will be there to pick up the pieces. This Advent, make my will one with yours so that I may put greater trust in true wealth – your saving presence – especially one the days when mine feels so impoverished.” Andrew Carl Wisdom, Advent and Christmas Wisdom
“Do not focus on what may happen tomorrow, the same everlasting Father who care for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from the suffering or His will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations and say continually, ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts I Him and I am helped. He is not only with me but in me and I in Him.’” Francis de Sales
In our modern world, we find ourselves more distracted than ever. We struggle because we want to stay focused on what is important but we watch in seeming helplessness as technology draws and keeps our attention. Who among us hasn’t logged on to a social media site only to look up and realize we just spent 45 minutes on virtually nothing? Or, we find our attention constantly drawn to the beeps, bells, and ring tones of our smart phones.
At the core of who we are, we desire to live lives in which we are deeply loving God and others. What this requires is being fully present to others and living with an awareness of God’s presence. However, modern technology seems to clash with this desire constantly.
Social scientists have noted that many of us are actually addicted to our devices. The average American checks their cell phone every 20-30 seconds. Half of us check our cell phone first thing in the morning (66% of millennials) and last thing before going to bed. 75% of us never turn off our cell phones, and a growing number of people sleep with their cell phone in their bed. Leadership author and speaker Simon Sinek reports that the same chemical that is released in our brains through gambling, smoking, and alcohol is released when we engage our cell phones and social media. It simply feels good when we get a text or receive a “like.” We may experience the distractions and the addictions and feel powerless against these forces.
We may know that we have a problem, but the problem is not technology. Technology is nothing new. A technology is anything we utilize to make our lives easier. The challenge arises when we stop using technology and we become a slave to it. 1 Corinthians 6:12 says: “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” (ESV)
So, what do we do? How do we interact with technology in a way that nurtures our life with God rather than distracts us?
I would suggest three practices that can transform the way we interact with technology.
- Examine your heart. Prayerfully ask God to show you the motives of your heart. What drives your use of technology? Are there forces at work that are leading to being “enslaved” to your devices? Is it needing to be more productive? Is it not wanting to miss out on what others are doing? Is it simply that you are suffering from an addiction to the endless rabbit holes of social media and google searches? As the Lord graciously gives insight, entrust your heart to Him. Allow Him to be your source of security, strength, and significance. For example, when I experience envy as I view a friend’s post from their month long vacation to Maui, it can be transformed into prayerful trust that He is enough for me!
- Create boundaries. We simply do not need to have our technology on all the time. It is not physically, emotionally, or mentally healthy. Learn to use “airplane mode” on your phone. Turn devices off at certain times during the day (meals, meetings, times of prayer, church, etc.). Make a decision to stop technology use at some point before going to sleep and only turn things back on in the morning after you’ve attended to your relationship with God. Be creative and talk about technology boundaries with your family and community.
- Practice meditative prayer. Research has shown that we are better able to battle the distractions of life (technology included) when we spend time each day in quiet, meditative prayer. I’ve found that simply sitting quietly, meditating on an aspect of God’s character as I let go of other thoughts and distractions works well. Bottom line: carve out time each day to be quiet and sit with God in an undistracted way. It takes time to learn to sit still, but it will transform your ability to be present throughout the rest of the day. Consider Psalm 62:1, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.”
Technology is a gift to free up space in our lives to focus on what is most important.
Through intentional, prayerful practices, technology can remain just that, a gift, rather than a distraction that keeps us from what is truly important.