The words stood out in bold black lettering against the stark white page: “Suffering: Having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have.” I was forty when I first heard this definition for suffering and for some reason it struck me. It rolled through my brain, captivating my thoughts. It was so profound and yet so simple. All suffering falls into one of these two categories. We want something we don’t have or we have something we don’t want, and that leaves a longing that cannot be satisfied. Maybe we long for something precious that was stolen from us, or ache over the ways that sin has stung our lives and for our pain to be taken from us. Maybe we long for our broken relationships to be repaired or desire a relationship that seems just beyond our grasp to finally come to fruition. Maybe we long for our children to be exempt from suffering and find peace and a sense of purpose in this life.
My natural instinct is to hold on to my life with a tight fist, afraid that if I loosen my grip the illusion of control that I have will slip through my grasp.
Anxiety is a common issue faced in this life. Trusting the will of God, and that His timing is perfect, is difficult. Giving up control of this life is a struggle. It’s pasted all over the Bible. Do not worry (Matt 6:34)…be anxious for nothing (Phil 4:6)... and yet my natural instinct is to hold on to my life with a tight fist, afraid that if I loosen my grip the illusion of control that I have will slip through my grasp.
Depression and anxiety often overwhelm us because we experience the suffering described in tandem. This combination can feel as if the ultimate storm has been unleashed on our life, leaving us breathless, suffocating and begging for just a little reprieve from the tightness in our lungs. It can leave us feeling as if the waters of life will crash over our heads and surely pull us down into the abyss. As we gasp for even a small sip of air it can be difficult to comprehend that any good can result from this oxygen-deprived environment. It is hard to imagine that God could ever use this for our benefit.
This state of mind is exactly where I found myself on a chilly December morning as I submerged myself in the pool. Surely a good workout would clear my head and maybe reveal some hidden solution to the anxieties plaguing my life. I began to count my strokes as I made my way from one end of the pool to the other. As I approached the wall, I felt someone tap my head. I lifted my eyes to meet the face of the man who served as my swim coach as he lowered himself into the pool beside me. I knew he would have a challenge for me. He always did! What he asked of me may have sounded easy, but amidst the breathlessness I was experiencing it sounded daunting and overwhelming. His goal was for me to swim the entire 25 yard length of the pool underwater on a single breath, eventually working up to two lengths or 50 yards on a single breath.
The idea of choosing to place myself underwater in a manner that would feel like drowning amidst the stresses of life that already seemed to be leaving me struggling for air seemed unimaginable. And yet I trusted him. I know the challenges he encourages me to undertake make me a better and stronger swimmer…but they still hurt. He must have seen the trepidation in my eyes because he proceeded to explain. “You can do hard things. It will hurt and you will want to gasp for breath.” And I realized that the real challenge he was issuing me was to move forward through the pain, even when I felt like I was drowning.
And I realized that the real challenge he was issuing me was to move forward through the pain, even when I felt like I was drowning
We have not been promised an easy, pain-free life. In John 16:33 we read, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” We have a loving father who much like my swim coach allows us to walk through painful and trying times in this life paired with the promise 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 out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). As we face the trials of this life we can rest in His promises. He has promised us that He will never leave us nor forsake us and—just as He promised the Israelites in Isaiah 43:2—he promises that He will always walk with us through this life.
As I reminisce about this day in the pool, I recognize that while my swim coach’s request may have frustrated and pushed me into an uncomfortable place, he was not asking me to do something that he was unwilling to do himself. In his quest to be a competitive swimmer, he had spent many hours pushing his lungs to capacity even through great hardship and pain. We have a Savior who is aware of every detail of our lives and sometimes he even allows us to feel the pain of this life as He is forming us into the creation He had in mind. When our Savior asks us to walk through difficult circumstances he does so as one who, according to Isaiah 53 “was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.” He never asks us to walk through something that he did not willingly walk through himself. Anxiety; he felt it, betrayal; he knew it, disappointment; he lived it, heartache; he suffered it and He did it willingly because he knew that in His suffering life would be found. As he walked the road to Calvary he did so knowing that one day as stated in Revelation 21:4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[a] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” When I am emptied of strength with nowhere to turn, I can rest in the truth that God is sovereign and knows every hair on my head. He promises that not even one sparrow falls to the ground apart from His knowledge and how much more than a small sparrow must He care for me? In addition, he is Immanuel, God with us. It is in this truth that He grants me the grace to accept what I don’t want so that through His grace, I receive what He knows I need!