Few are likely comfortable with that fine, old passage from Ecclesiastes 3:
There is a time for everything,and a season for every activity under the heavens:a time to be born and a time to die,a time to plant and a time to uproot,a time to kill and a time to heal,a time to tear down and a time to build,a time to weep and a time to laugh,a time to mourn and a time to dance,a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,a time to search and a time to give up,a time to keep and a time to throw away,a time to tear and a time to mend,a time to be silent and a time to speak,a time to love and a time to hate,a time for war and a time for peace.
Who, after all, wants the worse of each couplet? Death, being uprooted, killing, tearing down, weeping, mourning, scattering, refraining from love, giving up, throwing away, silence, hate, war. No thanks.
Any of us who have lived one moment of honest life and who have experienced one significant moment of pain knows the after-effects of these negative actions. When tragedy strikes, when disappointment emerges, when depression seeks to pull us under, as followers of Christ, our first (and correct) instinct is, “Maranatha!”
Come, Lord Jesus. Enter the prison of our souls, the longings of our hearts, the brokenness of our world…and make it right.
Not too infrequently, when we go through difficult times, we may even begin to question who this God is who has promised to love and care for us. St. John of the Cross wrote on this in his “The Dark Night,” otherwise come to be known as the “the dark night of the soul.” Moments when our cries lead to confusion and to questioning—a longing to more deeply know and understand who this God is who allows such tragedy to happen.
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once put it this way: “What is my desolation? It is the black setting for the sapphire of his everlasting love.” This is powerful metaphor for what happens after tragedy and sorrow seek to overwhelm us.
What If Our Pain Isn’t All There is?
No time on earth has been an easy one, but as followers of Christ honestly and slowly look around today, it really is challenging to hold tightly to our God and our mission simultaneously.
We see violence all around and the scars of many who have been victimized at the hands of others—wounds that tear deeply, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally. Always spiritually. Our experiences frame our understanding of God, whether we like it or not.
But what if…
- Love does win?
- God is victorious?
- Good does actually overcome evil?
- God does have a good plan for our lives?
- God does want to redeem and restore all that is broken?
- God wants to use our pain to heal another?
- The good and bad parts of our lives do have meaning?
Twenty years ago, I almost took my life. Not because I wanted to die, but because I didn’t know how to live. The sins of others and myself had pulled me under. It took a series of moments and people to carry me daily until the day when I heard these precious words: “Laurie, you’ve had enough. It’s enough.”
As I reflect back on the past 20 years I can see how the pain I had experienced—and caused others—was the very cauldron where my understanding of God and his love was birthed. Isaiah 61’s prophetic call on the works of God—"to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”—is tantamount to breaking through our dark nights of the soul.
Back to Ecclesiastes: without death, we can’t really understand the grand beauty of birth; without silence, we can’t grasp the power of a kind comment, without tears and mourning, there is no way to understand the miraculous sound of laughter. Without evil, would we know good?
Bringing Heaven to Earth
But in the moment, the pain of life sucks. It just does. In the pain of life, we cry out to God to “Come quickly!” But what of our cries? Are they for eternal healing, or are they for his presence? Artist and missionary Lilias Trotter uttered these powerful words more than 100 years ago: “Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.”
This. Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light. Remember the laughter when the tears come. Remember the gentle whisper of love when questions of God’s peace allude you.
Yes, Maranatha is good and real and needed. We long for heaven.
But what we long for as well must be an earthly Maranatha.
Be with us, Jesus. Don’t leave us. Don’t forsake us.
It is no coincidence that Scripture is clear on these kinds of answers again and again: “I promise to never leave you nor forsake you.” “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Back to my story. Twenty years ago, in God’s grace, he saved me. I lived. And over the years I have seen how God has used my pain for the good of others. I have opened myself up to be real and authentic, and to love on others (God willing) as God has loved on me.
This is our story, church. Our prayers for Maranatha in these hard days are powerful. Come, Lord Jesus, into this day. Into each day. Use our ashes as the building block for a new creation that understands that tragedy isn’t the end of our story—perhaps its only our beginning.
What will you do with your pain? It’s a good and hard and important question for all of us.
Laurie Nichols is Director of Communications and Marketing for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, creator of the Our Gospel Story curriculum, and co-host of the new podcast, Living in the Land of Oz. She formerly served as Managing Editor for Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Laurie is involved in anti-exploitation efforts when she is not spending time with her husband and two kids.