“My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” Psalm 119:50
“There are many ways of dealing with your pain, and perhaps the most tempting of them all is to forget about it, to hide it not just from the world, but also from yourself…If you manage to put behind you the painful things…then the deepest and most human things you have in you to become are not apt to happen either.”
— Frederick Buechner
Three weeks ago, I received a phone call no parent wants to receive. It was my son Caleb, crying so hard he couldn’t talk. “Caleb is that you?” I asked, panicking on the inside. “What’s wrong, son?” When he could catch his breath, he said the unthinkable, “It’s Cassie…. she’s dead, Mom.” I could hardly breathe. Cassie is Caleb’s girlfriend of two years. She was only 22.
The circumstances of Cassie’s death are heartbreaking—likely the interaction between her medicines for her physical and emotional ailments and a drug she had been introduced to as a young teen.
But to know this isn’t really to understand Cassie. She was a bright light with a deeply spiritual side, who agonized over her weaknesses, but who brought joy through her child-like spirit and her ability to love deeply and without reserve.
She loved children, music, Hello Kitty and coloring. She was intelligent, funny and had a huge heart. Most of alll, she loved my son.
Cassie’s parents had fought long and hard for her. (In fact, a few days before she died, she was released from a hospitalization for her mental health.) At her funeral, the priest talked about how Cassie was especially taken with Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. It was a great comfort to her to think there was a saint who related to her struggles.
Cassie’s death has imprinted on my heart moments of pain I’ll never forget…
Caleb carrying Cassie’s ashes down the aisle of the church, while his grandmother Marilyn sat behind us weeping.
Watching Cassie’s two younger brothers cry in the arms of their parents during the funeral service.
Weeping with Cassie’s mom in the funeral home with our arms around each other.
Yet there have also been moments of sheer grace….
Cassie’s mother generously comforting me in my grief, although my son was still alive.
God giving me a pause in work right when I needed it.
Abundant comfort from my physical and spiritual family.
A friend offering her condo in Galena where I went to heal, write and find perspective.
Pain as a teacher
But one of the biggest moments of grace came the night before the funeral, when I was up at two in the morning, unable to sleep with a heavy heart.
As I sat on the bathroom floor of the hotel room not wanting to wake my daughter, I wondered if the pain was just too great. The pain of Cassie magnified other pains: my sister’s death at close to the same age as Cassie’s, the loss of my father and mother, and myriad other disappointments and heartaches, past and present.
It felt like darkness was pressing in all around me. I told God in tears, “I’m at the breaking point. I can’t do this!”
Desperate for perspective, I picked up Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner. And out of over 300 pages of small print, God brought me straight to the words I needed. Buechner was talking about the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. You know the story. Three different servants are given differing amounts of talents. The servant given five talents and the one given two talents multiply what they are given.
The servant given one talent buries it, afraid of his master. Then Jesus makes a statement: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (v. 29)
Now I’ve heard these talents interpreted as our natural gifts, our money or even our time. But Buechner suggested that perhaps one of the truest applications of this scripture would be to our pain. And to bury our pain, preventing it from being multiplied by the grace of God, would be to waste it.
As I sat there shivering in that lonely and cold room, I thought back over the four losses of 2009 including a dear friend, my dad, my cousin, and now Cassie.
Buechner’s words brought hope, “…the universal experience of pain is what makes us all the brothers and sisters, the parents and children, of each other, and the story of one of us is the story of us all. And that in itself is a pearl of great price.”
Suddenly, I was crying again, but this time in recognition and in awe of how God could reach into the innermost places of my pain, just when I needed it, bringing peace.
The stewardship of pain
To be honest, I’m still wrapping my heart around all of this, but here’s what I’m seeing. There is a sense in which God entrusts us with pain. Not that God delights in our heartache. Rather I’m convinced he weeps with us, like Jesus wept over Lazarus.
Satan wants to deceive us here, making us think our pain is somehow something to be ashamed of, something that shows we are deficient, “Your pain is your own fault!” or even worse, shows that God is deficient.
To do so, Satan boldly attacks God’s sovereignty, Well, I guess he just wasn’t powerful enough to prevent this,” and God’s goodness, “Wow, that was some way for a father to treat his child!”
But if we allow it, the truth is that pain comes bearing magnificent gifts, opening our hearts to the deep things of God, including his goodness and his sovereignty. Feeling the pain of my son’s heartbreak, I think that it must take an enormous amount of love for God to allow us to suffer (even though his heart breaks along with ours), because he knows there is a greater good to be had.
And perhaps, God so wants us not to waste our pain, because pain has such power to bring redemption and hope. Pain translates my story into your story, and your story into mine. Pain brings us together.
Pain takes me straight to the cross of Christ, where I fall on my knees humbled and eternally grateful as his pain, his loud cries, his blood becomes my salvation, my hope, my glory.
And walking with God into my pain, entrusting myself to his goodness and his lavish love, is what is leading me step, by faltering step, towards true security of heart.
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Romans 5:3-5 (emphasis mine)
Matthew 25:14-28, Jeremiah 15:17-19, Psalm 119:75-77, 2 Corinthians 4:8-17
Where do you see yourself in the parable of the talents when it comes to pain? What kind of abundance has God brought you through painful circumstances? (For instance, allowing you to comfort others or a deepened reliance on God.)
Listen to God’s voice: "The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying, 'I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving kindness. I will build you up again, and you will be rebuilt...'” Jeremiah 31:3
Make a list of difficult trials you have faced. Then, write down ways that God showed you his love and grace through each trial. Pray to God and thank him for his love and kindness to you.
Think of a time when someone you love was suffering. How did you feel? How did you seek to comfort them? Now imagine yourself back in a time where you went through a painful trial. Picture God nearby, offering his comfort and strength. What does he want to say to you? How is he communicating his love?