“Pain is not the worst thing—wasted pain is!”
The year 2020 has been a hard year for us all. It’s been like no other I’ve lived through in my sixty-five years on this planet! It has been hard for us corporately because of COVID-19, economic stresses, bitter national divisions and deep, ongoing racial injustices. It’s also been hard for us individually because of our own problems—family crisis, cancer diagnosis, mental illness, financial difficulties, loneliness, and depression. Yes, 2020 has been a really hard year!
At the start of the pandemic, my husband, Rich, said something in a sermon that I’ve not forgotten. He said, “Pain is not the worst thing. Wasted pain is!” The Bible takes a unique and radical view of suffering. It does not see hardships as something to be avoided at all cost whenever possible! Instead, the Bible sees hardships as something to be embraced and even rejoiced over!
In the New Testament book of James we read, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2) And in the book of 1 Peter we read, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6) According to the Bible, the reason we can celebrate hardship is that God uses it to make us better—to mature us and make us more like Jesus! That is why the worst thing is not pain but wasted pain!
A few weeks ago, I began to reflect on this hard year of 2020. What, if anything, have I learned? Did I waste the hardships I experienced, or have I changed and become better? I took some time to review the journal I keep, reading through my prayers, God’s answers to my prayers, my state of mind and my innermost feelings. I saw many ups and downs, some definite patterns and some repeated themes. I also saw some “ah-HA” moments—God teaching me things even in spite of myself!
So as 2020 draws to a close, I’d like to share a few things I feel the Lord has taught me. My hope is that you find some comfort, encouragement, and strength from the lessons I learned (and I am still learning).
I learned how little control I really had over my life.
It didn’t take long for COVID-19 to upend my life and interrupt my plans. Things I had hoped to accomplish my final year leading women’s ministry at Vineyard were cancelled. Family trips we had planned—college visits in the spring and a Mediterranean cruise in the summer were cancelled. All the normal things in life I enjoyed, like hosting our small group and having friends over for dinner were cancelled. I began to feel that planning was a waste of time because I had so little control of the future.
Now I know the Bible teaches that God (not me) is in control—that He reigns and rules as a sovereign King. But I lived as if I was in control and called all the shots. I often thought about the bigness of God—His power, majesty and sovereignty, but I failed to give any thought to my smallness and just how limited I was!
Here is what James 4 says about this:
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
These words were originally written to the wealthy because they were the ones often deluded into thinking they had more power and control than they really did. They had money, so they could get whatever they want! We are a little like that today. We are so sure of our future plans and so confident in our ability to make them happen. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s the truth that we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow! Out of the blue, COVID-19 brought our whole world to a standstill. The message of James echoed in my head! “God is in control! He is running this show, not you! Why, you don’t even know what tomorrow will bring!” The more I believed this—letting go of trying to control the things I couldn’t and surrendering them to the One who could—a burden lifted, and a peace settled on my soul.
The image for me is the contrast between being the driver and being a passenger. Driving can be very stressful, especially when you don’t know where you’re going, and road conditions are exceptionally difficult. That is so often true of us! Life gets hard, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. But God is not asking us to drive the car. He’s asking us to let go of the wheel, move over to the passenger seat, and let Him drive. He’s in control, not us!
I learned how much I could live without and still feel satisfied.
In 2020 my life was stripped down to the basics. Days for me that were once busy with lots of activities, appointments, and running errands suddenly came to a halt. There was so much I could no longer do because of the pandemic. Most of my time was now being spent at home usually in front of my laptop. Whenever I did leave the house, it was simply to go to the grocery store. Life became very simple. Other people in my neighborhood seemed to be having similar experiences. I saw more couples taking walks together, more kids playing outside, and neighbors stopping just to talk.
It reminded me of stories from the Old Testament about the tearing down of idols. The Bible says idols are false gods—things we put in the place of God in our lives. Timothy Keller, pastor and best-selling author, refers to idols as counterfeit gods. They are fake and phony. They promise to do for us what God does, but they cannot because they are counterfeits! For example, idols are things we turn to for peace when we are anxious, comfort when we are hurting, and satisfaction when we are empty. Idols are where we go when life dull and boring, and we need a little excitement. When Covid-19 closed all malls, restaurants and movie theaters, cancelled air travel and all sporting events—it felt to me like many of our 21st century counterfeit gods were being torn down. But once these things were gone, I realized I didn’t miss them as much as I thought I would.
God was teaching me the discipline of simplicity. In his classic book called Celebration of Disciple, Richard Foster writes, “The Christian discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style.” * I felt God was teaching me simplicity in reverse—my outward realities were creating an inward change. My life had been simplified against my will! I could no longer run around and distract my inner emptiness with endless activities. I couldn’t, for example, walk around Easton just for entertainment or go out to eat as a distraction from stress or a remedy for boredom.
Simplicity is the cure for idolatry and the seduction of all our counterfeit gods. Here is what Foster says about simplicity:
The central point for the discipline of simplicity is to seek the kingdom of God and the righteousness of His kingdom FIRST and then every necessity will come in its proper order…Everything hinges upon maintaining the first thing first!
My stripped-down, simplified life helped me get my priorities in order and (to the best of my ability) seek His kingdom first! There’s an old Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” that expresses the truth of simplicity so well:
Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free.
Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
I was honestly surprised and happy at how satisfied I could be with so much less!
I learned to live more in the moment—one day at a time.
I must admit that much of my inner life is not spent where I actually happen to be at the moment. Mentally I am someplace else. Sometimes I am stuck in the past, obsessing over things I wish I hadn’t said or done, or things I wish I had—all the should-a, would-a, could-as of life! Other times I am racing off into the future, worrying and fretting about what was going to happen—all the “what ifs” and “worst case scenarios” of life—a lot of imaginary bridges I may one day have to cross!
The problem is, we won’t find God by doing that because He’s not there! Henri Nouwen, the internationally renowned Dutch catholic priest, author and professor who wrote 39 books on the spiritual life with God said, “God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful and painful.”
This was certainly how Jesus lived His life. He was totally present in the moment. His focus was always on what was happening right in front of Him and who He was with right then. This is also how Jesus taught us to live! He taught us when we pray to ask for our daily needs, whether they are physical needs, like bread or spiritual needs like forgiveness. He taught us not to worry about our needs, like food and clothing. He literally told us, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
Now I do NOT believe that Jesus meant we don’t have to work today so we can pay our bills tomorrow! (see Proverbs 6:6) I also don’t believe Jesus is suggesting if we made a mess of something yesterday, we don’t have to clean it up today. (see Matthew 5:23-24) The issue for us is that we are often mentally and emotionally someplace other than where we really are. We are frequently distracted and preoccupied with the past or the future and therefore not in the present. And it is in the present—the here and now—that we will find God!
I started being very intentional about taking one day at a time. I tried to pay more attention to the right here and now, and to the inner conversations going on in my head. When I found myself becoming preoccupied somewhere else, I’d stop myself in mid-thought and bring my focus back to the present. I turned any out-of-control worry or obsession into a prayer. For example, I began to invite the Lord into my guilt about the past or my worry about the future right as I was feeling it. I’d ask for His grace for what I needed in that moment.
Towards the end of the summer, I agreed to take a whole day to help a dear friend move into a new apartment. I knew in advance this was going to be a difficult move—that it would be chaotic and stressful because my friend was terribly disorganized! Helping her was going to test my patience to the limit. I envisioned myself losing my mind and my cool! But I felt the Lord wanted me to help her. So, before I left the house the morning of the move, I prayed Philippians 4:19: And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
I imagined God’s enormous storehouse filled with all the riches of Christ Jesus—everything I would ever need for any situation or problem! I told the Lord: I don’t have what it takes to get through this one day! I don’t have the patience! I am already stressed and tense! I need wisdom and strength, patience and peace from your unlimited storehouse! I prayed that verse and left the house trusting God to be with me.
At the end of the day, I returned home physically exhausted but completely at peace! For the entire day, I had remained calm in the midst of unbelievable chaos and disorganization! I was patient and kind! I never once lost my cool! All because I took one day at a time and lived more in the moment, where God is!
I felt the Lord say to me, Why don’t you live like this more often? Why don’t you do this every day? Amen!
I learned how to deal with myself!
One of the great hardships of the last ten months is the isolation and loneliness of being quarantined. All of us are getting tired and weary of being shut-in, and it doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
For me, being isolated and alone has forced me to have to deal with myself. All the things I don’t like about me! All the ways I am still very “rough around the edges”—my innermost thoughts and feelings—all the good, the bad, and the ugly! Under normal circumstances when I experience negative feelings, I’d distract myself. I’d go somewhere or call someone. I’d do anything to get my mind off those feelings. But now I couldn’t just escape—I had to face the truth about the person I really am!
I began to pay closer attention to how I was feeling and the state of my soul. Was I feeling good or bad? Happy or sad? Hopeful or discouraged? Did I feel restless or peaceful? Was I anxious and worried about something?
I also began to ask why I was feeling the way I did. What triggered my feelings, particularly the unpleasant, negative ones? Why was I so irritated and annoyed? Why did I want to respond so harshly? If I was angry, was it because I felt rejected or ignored or disrespected or unappreciated or excluded? I tried to tune into my inner life, the same way we might try to tune into how our spouse, our child, or a good friend is feeling. One thing I did was simply talk to myself more, which we see modeled in the Bible. Three times in Psalms 42 and 43 the psalmist asks himself, Why my soul are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? What’s really bothering me?
Last month I received an anonymous and rather critical email in response to a group email I had sent out. Rich has had a long-standing policy to never respond to anonymous criticisms, so I decided I wouldn’t respond back to this one. But I wanted to!! I was angry and crushed and devasted and mad all at the same time! For some reason, this anonymous criticism had gotten under my skin! I wanted desperately to defend myself and prove them wrong! I thought about it all day long and composed dozens of emails in my head! I hated the thought of someone disapproving of what I had said or done!
Throughout that day I talked with Rich about this and asked him what I should do. Each time he told me “nothing” and to let it go. But I couldn’t. At 11:30 that night I was still stewing. Rich was just dropping off to sleep when I leaned over and asked him again what I should do about this criticism. Needless to say, he was not happy with me, and said, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you take any criticism? I get criticized all the time for things I have said. Now just go to sleep!!”
I knew the Lord was speaking directly to me through Rich’s words. Why can’t you take any criticism? I lay in bed meditating on how much Jesus was criticized. I thought about all the criticism my husband has gotten. I considered how it didn’t stop either of them from speaking the truth or keep them from experiencing peace and joy and sleep at night! The Lord showed me I cared way too much about what others thought of me—how I needed everyone to like me and think well of me at all times. If Jesus could live with criticism and people not liking Him then so could I! I let go of the criticism, left it all in His hands, rolled over and went to sleep.
What I learned during 2020 is not that deep and profound. These are very basic lessons for every Christian:
- Accept the limitations of being human and allow God to be God and in control.
- Simplify the way you live, because having more won’t make you more satisfied.
- Live one day at a time, moment by moment, because that is where you will find God.
- Acknowledge the truth about who you are because this is the pathway to change and becoming more like Jesus.
Whatever the hardships and pain you experience in life, may they never be wasted! By God’s grace, may you surrender them into His hands allowing them to be used for His good purposes!
*If you’re looking for a good Christian book to read right now, I couldn’t recommend Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster more highly! He’s a great writer—so clear and down-to-earth in about the spiritual life—you won’t be disappointed!