Wrestling with the Pain of Why
Death seemed to be closer than usual last month.
Every week held either a funeral, a text from a friend at a hospital, news of more cancer found, updates on the progression of dementia, another covid death, or memories of those no longer with us.
In the past year, many of us experienced the death of dear ones as we endured and continue to endure this pandemic. Ushering in the summer made me ready for change. Ready for hope and to put death behind us, at least for a little while.
Death didn’t seem to care that summer arrived. All these experiences with friends and loved ones left me with grief and sadness that hid in the corners of my soul.
It’s counter intuitive for me to give space for my feelings. It’s easier to care for others, click through my “to-do” list, and dive into work projects. But as I rested my head on the pillow one night, tears began to well up in my eyes. I knew the anxiety and grief piled high and I needed to carve out time to be with the Lord in this. I needed to release the pressure valve of sadness and perhaps frustration, too.
In the following days, I allowed my own tears to fall and journaled honest prayers and feelings with God. He can take our raw emotions if we bring them to him. The Lord knows that bringing our pain up and out brings relief. Just as cleansing a wound is painful at first, it’s needed for healing. But not only did I have feelings, I had questions. Questions that received no answers.
Why is my friend still dealing with chronic pain and malignant tumors?
Why does dementia exist and why does my mother-in-law need to suffer so much? And why does my husband have to watch his mom go through this?
Why did the fathers of my friends die so young?
Why did God allow all of this?
As I created space to be present with God, I felt the Spirit nudging me to extend myself to be present with others. Would I say yes to simply being present with those in pain? Don’t fix. Don’t avoid. Just love. Their pain and grief would remain, but the love of Christ flows from the presence of one human to another.
How can I help when I feel empty myself?
Perhaps I made this too complicated. I couldn’t fix this. No one could bring my friend’s father back to life. No one can say enough words to help ease the pain in a cancer filled body. Simply being present, however, and holding space for love, seemed to be the right medicine. The phrase, “less is more,” persisted in my mind. I needed to trust God to shine whatever kind of light he could through me, even if it seemed futile. He promises to do this as Paul encouraged the people in Ephesus a couple thousand years ago:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God,” Ephesians 3:16-19.
So, while I can’t fix cancer, I could invite some friends to simply hang out for a fun afternoon. We gathered around my friend who experiences pain from stubborn tumors, and we listened, we hugged, we laughed, and we cried. We reminisced about times that seemed much simpler in our twenties when we were all roommates and trying to figure out life and purpose. Now at middle age, there’s more complexity and a lot more we realize we don’t understand. Yet friendships still matter, and God’s grace still carries us. Our collective presence with one another that day, was not only a gift to our friend in pain, but it also blessed all of us.
Being present with someone in pain doesn’t even have to be noticed in the moment to be healing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the funeral of my friend’s father, where I knew few people attending. I slid in a pew toward the back of the chapel, unnoticed by her as she and her family painfully grieved. I prayed. I cried. I learned more of my friend’s beautiful story. And then I left, unable to connect with her before they headed to the burial. The text message I received from her husband later confirmed that simply knowing I was present, even after, blessed her heart. That must be God’s powerful love flowing through to another.
And for the friends who I can’t be physically present for, I am invited to be present through the Holy Spirit in whatever ways, I can. I’m reminded of the power to simply reach out to someone and extend love. It requires me to pay attention to nudges from the Spirit. Pray intentionally for someone when she comes to mind. Perhaps send a Door Dash because making food is just too hard right now. Or maybe a short text “thinking of you, call any time.”
These are small and mighty yeses God can use if I’m open to His Spirit working through me. Even in my weakness, perhaps particularly in my weakness, God’s grace prevails.
God uses US to bring healing amid the painful whys. He sends us to be light to the suffering. May we be present to the Spirit’s promptings as we extend a loving presence to a world that desperately needs it.
A Bit More To Ponder:
Prayer in the Night, by Tish Harrison Warren is an honest book that explores the question of how to trust God in the suffering we experience. I appreciate the framework she uses in the nighttime prayer of Compline to help navigate the wrestling of the whys.