In the Midst of Such Pain, Is Peace Possible?
“Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.” 1 Peter 4:12 MSG
As I sat down to type these words, a ding on my iPhone announced an incoming text. A loved one has just experienced a crushing disappointment. Again.
Three new cancer diagnoses this week among our circle of friends. A young couple whose marriage we deeply invested in has divorced. My news feed is filled with stories from the frontlines of the pandemic changing the world as we knew it.
The apostle Peter warned us. “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through,” he wrote, “as if something strange were happening to you.”
And yet surprised is exactly what I always am. No, Lord, not this, I groan. Not him, not her, not them. Not again.
On my first trip to Israel years ago, I looked forward to visiting the garden on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where Jesus prayed the night he was arrested. Gethsemane. Our guide told us the name comes from the Grecianizing of the Hebrew words gath and shemen, which mean “press” and “oil.” Gethsemane was the garden of the olive oil press, the place where the closing events of Christ’s life pressed so heavily upon his spirit that his sweat ran like drops of blood.
I was surprised to discover that Gethsemane looked nothing like the garden I had pictured. 2000 years had passed, of course, and the garden is now walled in to prevent visitors from breaking off branches. Yet the Church of All Nations nearby welcomes those wishing to pray with an inscription above the door: “With many tears and supplications he makes our wants known.” Visitors can kneel at the altar-rail designed by an Italian artist in the shape of a crown.
A crown of thorns. The only crown Jesus, King of the Jews, would wear this side of eternity. The crown he was preparing to wear even as he prayed in agony in Gethsemane.
How do we endure our own Gethsemanes? How do we survive when life presses us down so fiercely we fear we’ll be crushed under its weight?
My friend Karen Mains calls these events “minor crucifixions.” Karen is no stranger to suffering. She and her husband David were forced to close down their national broadcast ministry after a prolonged personal attack. They have dealt with debilitating illness. Most searing of all, they recently lost their youngest son to a brain tumor.
“Minor crucifixions are those passages in life when we wonder if we will possibly survive,” Karen says in her book Comforting One Another in Life's Sorrows.
“They are minor in comparison to such great tragedies as the holocausts or war. And they are minor in comparison to that ultimate Crucifixion, Christ’s death on the cross, in which he took upon himself the sinful calamity of the world and of history.
"And yet minor crucifixions, when we are enduring them, do not seem minor at all; they have the potential to make us question every belief we once held dear. But if we will allow it, they can go far in transforming us into the image of Christ.”
The apostle Paul was certainly no stranger to suffering. In addition to everything else he had endured, he was afflicted with what he described as “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan.”
To those of us whose only familiarity with thorns are the kind associated with roses, this metaphor may not have the same impact as it did on Paul’s first readers.
“Thorn” in the Greek is skolops, meaning a stake or sharpened shaft that can impale the flesh. Thorn bushes in the Middle East can grow to five or six feet tall, the approximate size of a human being. If you stumble into one of those in the dark, you won’t emerge unscathed.
So what thorn was Paul referring to? Some scholars contend it was a psychological struggle or physical affliction, others a person or group subjecting him to violent opposition. My vote is for the latter. A man who had survived prison, repeated floggings, stoning, shipwreck and hunger may not have considered purely personal struggles worthy of mention.
But whether Paul’s thorn was an illness or physical disability or adversaries who were a liability to his ministry, his focus was not on what the thorn was but on why God allowed it: in part, “to keep me from becoming conceited.”
So does this mean our struggles are solely intended to humble us? Why does God allow his servants to suffer so? The fuller answer comes to Paul through fervent, repeated prayer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
In the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom here on earth, the strong are made weak that we might depend on divine empowerment.
To be useful, we are emptied of self, broken like the loaves and fishes that whole might have fed a man, but broken fed a multitude.
Oswald Chambers once wrote. “If you are going to be used by God, He will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all, they are meant to make you useful in His hands.”
Are you going through a crucifixion of sorts in your own life right now that doesn’t feel minor at all?
His grace is sufficient. For you. And for me.
Peace in the midst of pain is not only possible, it’s a promise.
Taken from This Life We Share by Maggie Wallem Rowe. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
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