Grief is no respecter of people.
It can barge in like a storm on the wake of sudden loss, or materialize slowly, like a cold, permeating fog in such protracted hardships as singleness, long-term illness, or childlessness. This kind of unremitting anguish I call ambulatory sorrow. There is just enough hope to keep moving, but over time, dreams imperceptibly begin to deflate, like air seeping through a pinhole.
As a childless couple, we were familiar with this sorrow. We had been praying for children for seven long years, yet up to that point it had merely been disappointment and loss. Our only pregnancy had ended in miscarriage five years earlier as we were being commissioned to join a team heading to Portugal. And, now, we were reeling from the devastation of a failed adoption attempt.
Having been in Portugal two years, we were preparing to return to the States for a visit. Under normal circumstances, I would have been elated to see family and friends again. But these weren’t normal circumstances.
We had spent the previous two years facing the challenge of starting a business, adapting to a new culture, learning a foreign language and integrating with a multi-cultural team. However, that somehow seemed infinitely easier than going home and facing the questions. “So, do you have children?” “When are you planning to start your family?” “Have you heard of this latest remedy?” “Have you ever considered adoption?”
In the time we had been away, our mailbox had been flooded with upwards of 20 new pregnancy and birth announcements. So the thought of being reunited with these friends also added a layer of complexity.
Unless you have experienced infertility, it is difficult to fully describe the internal conflict. There is an ever present sense of shame at not being more godly and celebrating the good fortune of others. Simultaneously, there is a recurring monthly cycle of hope, loss, despair and hope that produces an almost constant state of emotional exhaustion. And it seems nowhere is safe from the sudden eruption of unwanted tears.
It was during one of these eruptions that I found myself imploring God to make a way for me to stay. As I sobbed into my pillow, I knew I didn’t have what it took to face six weeks of questions and well meaning, but misguided, attempts to comfort.
In a lull between sobs, I perceived a gentle voice questioning me. Not audibly, but in my spirit. “But if I wanted you to go, would you?” The question was formed almost as if asking a favor.
I was taken aback. I’d never thought of it that way. In my mind, the trip was simply an obligation we had to slog through and check off the list. To think this might be something God was asking me to do for Him, somehow hinted at a higher purpose.
If He was asking me to go to the states, I would be willing to face the pain. Out of obedience, I would make the trip. He alone would understand what it cost me to entrust my sorrow into His hands. The cold, permeating mist of grief would still accompany me, but I knew I would be empowered to face what would come because He would go before me.
Slowly, the tension left my body and an unexpected breath of peace began to course softly through my being. It would be alright.
I made it through the trip, and when we were settled back into our routine, I came across a passage in John 11 that made me believe Jesus could relate with my struggle.
Mary and Martha had sent word that Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, the one he loved, was sick. They were fully confident Jesus would come quickly to their aid. After all, He had healed so many strangers before, it would seem natural he would go quickly and heal a close friend.
But to the contrary, Jesus stayed where He was for two more days – enough time for his friend to die and be buried. As a friend, Jesus would have wanted to go. But instead, He obeyed the Father’s will and stayed.
Even though He knew He would be raising Lazarus from the dead, my guess is, staying cost Jesus. He knew the miracle would be more glorious in the end, but He was intentionally being asked to withhold help from ones who were among His closest friends. For the sisters, His waiting increased the agony of their loss by adding to it the ache of betrayal.
When Jesus finally arrived in their town, and His friends came to Him with their pain, Jesus’ own tears erupted. Confronted with their grief, he was moved. He wept and was deeply troubled in spirit. He responded to the heart cry and did not discount its anguish.
He did not fully disclose his reasons, nor explain His decision, but quietly carried the pain of obedience that seemed a blatant disregard for their needs. For a time, He shouldered the shame of being misunderstood. And in a way, this foreshadowed His own heart cry from the cross when He would soon face what seemed the ultimate betrayal from His Father.
And here, it seems, a tension emerges. God is always faithful, but not necessarily predictable.
Sometimes, He will ask His friends to face trials or take steps that seem impossible. He seems to have faith in us to hold on to Him even through disappointment and the messy “in-between” when nothing makes sense. Despite the pain, and the risk of being misunderstood, He allows the silence. But His Spirit also intercedes for us and whispers the question, “Will you share in my suffering? Would you do it if I asked you to?”
Our confidence, then, is if He is asking us to do something, our spirit will align with His despite the emotional storm. He will give wisdom to those who seek it, and His Spirit will guide, strengthen and comfort. As a result, peace and resolve will be birthed, along with the courage to stand and do what appears impossible.
And as faith moves into action, our pain is mysteriously transformed into something sacred, pointing to a higher plan and a deeper love that promises our suffering will never be in vain.
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” –I Peter 4:12-13
Tamara Carpenter is part of Newsong’s Board. You can read more of her writing on her blog: tamaracarpenter.com