Last week I had a dentist appointment, and it was not good news. My gums are significantly receding in what seems to be the worst possible place – right smack dab in the center of my two front teeth.
My husband who is the opposite of an alarmist looked at it and said, “Oh, wow, that does not look good.” Typically, he tries to convince me that everything is just fine when my body does something strange, so these were not comforting words.
One periodontist appointment later, I have learned that lots of orthodontic work as a child can shift the teethe and underlying bones in such a way that the gum has nothing to rest on. So yes, my prize for enduring somewhere around five years of braces as a child is more teeth problems. And gum surgery. Hurray!
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because when I first discovered how bad my gums looked, I seriously wanted to panic. Because, really, it’s not good now, and if I have this problem at the age of 29, what will the state of my mouth be like in 20 years? And gum surgery, that just made me mad. It’s not the end of the world. But on top of everything else?
I was having all of these thoughts, and it was interesting the thing that snapped me out of wanting to panic and be mad at the world.
I thought about the people around me who are suffering well. I thought about how they are handling suffering far greater that what I am going through. I thought about specific people in my life and how they are responding to problems and tragedies and trauma and setbacks. How they are responding with grace and compassion and immense strength. And I thought how I wanted to be like them.
Before I go further, let me insert a little caveat. Comparing suffering and pointing out who is suffering worse is not helpful. It isn’t helpful to tell someone who is suffering that they should be grateful because someone else is suffering more.
But this isn’t about comparisons. This is about what we can learn from others who have gone before us and walk beside us. This is about those people who I look at and think – now that is how God wants us to respond when life doesn’t make sense.
Many of my friends are going through indescribable suffering, right now, in this very moment. I look at them, and see how suffering in community with other sufferers makes us stronger. We look at each other, and collectively think, “If they can do this, I can too.”
If they can endure constant pain, I can too. If they can find purpose when they can’t work a “real” job, I can too. If they can trust God when nothing makes sense, I can too. If they can ask for help when it feels embarrassing and shameful, I can too. If they can pull themselves through the unimaginable, maybe I can too.
These were the thoughts that went through my head as I contemplated gum surgery. With each new problem life throws at me, big or little, I think of these people. And to be honest, it calms my soul. I think about the common traits I see in them that I want to hold onto no matter what comes in life.
The people I know who suffer well are always looking for ways to give of themselves. How do I even describe the ways my friends encourage and help and serve when they are literally falling apart? I just received a gift in the mail from a friend who is going through numerous serious life struggles. She was thinking about me when her life was falling to pieces. It blows my mind away when I think of people like her who give in the midst of suffering.
The people I know who suffer well have self-compassion and speak up for their personal needs. These people have the courage and the strength to recognize that they, too, like the rest of the world, are a beloved child of God. I think of my friend who has a deep compassion for others, but also a self-compassion that allows her to rest, even when the world wonders why she is not being productive. Out of her self-compassion she asks for help, accepts help, and doesn’t feel guilty for help.
The people I know who suffer well never stop taking small steps forward. So many people come to mind when I think about all the small steps that must be taken when you are suffering. They call a friend when they would rather shut down. They talk to God when they would rather be silent. They walk from the bed to the living room, when it would be easier to not get up at all. They rest when they would rather clean the kitchen. They go to that appointment. Admit their helplessness. Find strength to move forward. Whatever a “small step” looks like for them, they do it.
The people I know who suffer well have specific prayer requests. If you ask my one friend how to pray for her, she asks for her suffering to be decreased, but then so much more. “God grant me strength; God grant me peace; God grant me joy” are the requests she gives.
The people I know who suffer well speak with an indescribable peace that comes directly from their faith that God is good and that he is up to something in their lives. I can think of two friends in my life who I sometimes chat with whose voices simply exude peace. It makes no sense. They tell me of immense suffering, but I hear no bitterness. They are not in denial of their situation. They are not numb or devoid of feeling. They simple have a measure of peace that exists right alongside the sadness and the distress and the pain.
These are the traits that I see when I think about some of my friends. But what if we aren’t this person?
Perhaps you read through this list and desire to be this way. I do. Perhaps you read through this list and felt guilt and shame and despair that you are not one of these people who “suffers well.” I get it. Often, I am not this person.
But, I have learned that there is no guilt or shame in not being this person, even as we move forward each day to learn how to better live in the midst of suffering.
I believe that these traits of those who suffer well come directly out of a realization that God is good and his promises are true. They come out of a faith in the promises of God, which spurs us to listen to his Word, keep moving forward, and hold on to Him as a means of finding peace and trust and strength in the midst of chaos. This doesn’t come naturally for many of us, myself included. Some people are better at believing and trusting than others.
I was reading Jesus the King by Timothy Keller several months ago and he wrote something that I have held on to. He says, “People who believe more must not be hard on those who believe less. Why? Because faith ultimately is not a virtue; it’s a gift.”
This past year I have considered what it means that faith is a gift (I Corinthians 12:9) and that God gives different measures of faith when it comes to believing in his promises (Romans 12:3).
This faith that enables us to endure suffering is not something we can create in ourselves. We can’t will-power ourselves to greater faith. There is no sense in judging ourselves or others for having less faith, because any faith that we hold is not of our own doing. God gave it to us.
Each day, may we takes steps towards greater faith in our suffering. But each day, may we realize that any faith we hold comes from God. Each day may we look at those with greater faith and be spurred on by their belief. But may we not feel ashamed when they handle things better than us. Each day may we work to understand how to endure suffering in the ways God calls us to, looking to others for their example. But may we also know that endurance of suffering is only possible by the strength God gives us.