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A Field Guide for Suffering Well


Jun 20 2014
Finding beauty and blessings in our spiritual deserts.

Many of us don't know what to do when we find ourselves in the spiritual desert. Because our hyper-connected culture provides everything on demand, when we don't get what we want, when we want it, we feel disoriented and cranky.

And if our losses pile up or our suffering becomes unbearable, we either blame God or doubt his existence. Even within the church, it's increasingly rare to find someone who doesn't run away from such pain. However, Scripture's insistent theme of redemptive suffering clearly communicates that we all need to learn the skill of suffering with Jesus.

Author Marlena Graves is no stranger to the spiritual desert, and in her extraordinary new book, A Beautiful Disaster, she generously shares the many lessons she has learned about suffering well.

God began grooming her as a desert guide from the time she was young. She writes, "I lived in a world of turmoil.... I needed God to show me his path through the desert wilderness of poverty, DUIs, adultery, mental illness, prison, a house fire, the death of loved ones, and my own bad decisions. I needed him (and still need him) to show me how to live."

As a female minority born into poverty, Graves did not have the option of postponing lessons of dependence on God. She admits, "Growing up, I begged God to take the cup of suffering from me, but mostly he didn't." By stubbornly, perhaps naively, clinging to him, she discovered "the desert land is fertile ground for spiritual activity, transformation, and renewal."

Graves understands that because the desert strips us of everything, it forces us to stand naked before God, without the jobs, relationships, and resources that normally camouflage our weaknesses and prop us up. Our vulnerability will either lead us toward idols, which temporarily alleviate our suffering but ultimately disintegrate us—or toward God, who brings integration and reveals our true self.

Quite miraculously, during her many desert sojourns, Graves has made wise choices that have allowed both her faith in God and her identity as a child of God to prosper. I asked her to share how she has navigated the desert's many temptations in the hope that her experiences would encourage and guide others.

What have you discovered about your true identity as a child of God during these seasons in the desert?

Marlena Graves: I often feel so small and inadequate when I'm in the desert. My life has been such that I've had to depend on God for daily provision—I cannot truly flourish in my own strength. Expressing these needs to God and to others reminds me of my dependence on him and Christ's beloved community for my daily bread. God's grace comes to me through Christ's body. I'm like the paralytic in Mark 2: I'm not going to make it without help.

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