March 24, 2022

Joy and Suffering: A Holy Paradox

I’ve met joy in the wake of sadness—mostly through the intimacy I’ve found with God and other people.

— Nicole Zasowski, What If It’s Wonderful?

It’s been a hard few months for our family. We lost my mother-in-law in December to a long and terrible degenerative disease. Last week, we lost my dad after a short and devastating battle with pancreatic cancer. I would never have chosen for our family to walk through any of this. No one would.

Of course, I have questions. Why did my mother-in-law suffer for years, unable to communicate? Why did we lose my dad to cancer in only three months? I don’t have answers. Yet, even in my grief and confusion, I know God never left us.

There were hours last week when I felt like my insides were being torn apart. There were nights when I woke with my mind racing, heart pounding, sweat pouring down my neck. I experienced pain in places in my heart I didn’t even know existed. But there was also grace, and peace, and above all LOVE.

I’ve written before about A Plague of the What Ifs. Perhaps you can identity with this way of thinking. It’s easy to get caught in a habit of catastrophizing, always imagining the worst case scenario. And sometimes, the worst things really do happen.

My dad’s battle with cancer clearly fit into that category. He was a police officer, so losing him is something I’ve dreaded since childhood. My fear for his safety manifested as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was young. When he worked nights, I would continuously check the front window of our home to be sure a police car was not arriving to deliver unwanted news. When I went to bed, I would lie awake until well past midnight when the garage door opened and I knew he was safely home.

Decades later, there I was facing one of my deepest fears head on. Leaving him at the hospice each night, not knowing what would occur in my absence, was excruciating for my little girl heart. I cried out to God. I didn’t think I could survive as the inevitable outcome loomed before me. But it was in this raging turmoil that God met me.

Perhaps it is these places of fear and darkness where his light shines brightest. Enveloped in God’s love, we discover healing, redemption, and tender beauty in the midst of suffering. I could never have imagined that even as my heart shattered while sitting on the hard chair in that cold hospice room, God’s mercy would turn my mourning into joy. Scripture told me this was possible. (Just take a look at Jeremiah 31:13, Psalm 30:11, and Isaiah 61:3.) But I’m not sure I believed it. I have a different perspective now, and I honestly find myself surprised to say I wouldn’t trade those hours sitting with my dad in his hospice room for anything.

Please don’t hear me wrong. I am still experiencing grief and sadness, and I know I am only in the early stages of this journey. I’ve sat with enough grieving people to know you can’t (and shouldn’t) speed these things up. It’s important to feel these emotions, but it is also important to experience what God may be doing in the midst of our grief. It is a paradox, but I’ve always believed that where we find paradox, we are close to the heart of God. So I find myself here—giving myself permission to celebrate my dad’s story, even as I mourn.

Life in this fallen world isn’t easy. There’s no way around it. But thank heavens life isn’t full of worst case scenarios, and often the thing we dread ends up looking nothing like what we imagine. Better yet, instead of the worst possible outcome, we sometimes get the best. But we might just miss out on joy if fear of the unknown prevents us from taking risks. Instead of all the negative “What ifs” that are so easy to embrace, my friend Nicole Zasowski’s book takes a different perspective—What If It’s Wonderful?

Zasowski writes, “Too often, I have let my brain convince me that it is helpful to practice the potential pain instead of training it toward hopeful imagination.” Can you relate? I know I can.

Three years ago, my husband felt nudged by God to look for his birth mother. He knew nothing about her. We didn’t have any idea where she might live or whether she was even alive. For some weeks, he fought the idea. It’s easy to think of the worst case scenarios. I have friends who have had less than positive reunions with biological parents, so we wondered if venturing into this could open a Pandora’s box we would one day wish we hadn’t opened.

Many people search for birth parents out of curiosity, because their identity feels somehow incomplete. They want to know who they are, where they came from. My husband didn’t really struggle with this, but God gently challenged him. Maybe it’s not just about you. How can you argue with that?

He took the leap and sent for his original birth certificate. The information we received changed everything. My husband and I flew to St. Louis to meet his birth mom in December of 2019. We received the warmest possible welcome from her entire family, including two brothers my husband didn’t know he had. We never could have imagined how wonderful this reunion would be. My husband often reflects that it felt like coming home, and our whole family has been blessed with this new relationship.

You see, God is for us. He’s not out to bring tragedy or destruction upon us. Bad things do happen, but wonderful things happen too—sometimes even in the midst of the tough stuff. The more we know the character of our loving Creator, the more we can trust him on this crazy journey of life and experience the joy he has for us right now. Will you join the celebration?

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