Many of us will walk through times of difficulty or suffering at some point in our lives. It may come in different forms - such as physical, emotional, or mental. And it can be difficult in those times to understand God’s purpose through it all. Of course, there are times when God works miraculously to put a stop to the cause of the suffering, in His incredible grace! But there are times when He walks with us through the suffering.
For me, understanding a little more of God’s wisdom in this and learning something of how to know joy in times of difficulty or suffering has been an incredibly painful, yet incredibly precious journey. I would like to share with you a small part of my own journey, and some of what God has taught me through it. I am extremely aware that many people reading this could have experienced or be experiencing levels of suffering far greater than I have experienced - however I hope and pray that there may be something that I can share that brings some hope!
One thing I’ve realised is that the harder the terrain that we walk, the more precious is the prize to be found! Romans 8:18 says: “I consider that the sufferings of my present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in me” (emphasis added). If we ponder that for a moment - would we not long for that to be true for us? That any suffering we experience is nothing compared to the transformational work God does in us?
God spoke to me through a book to help me understand what this means. Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurdard is an allegory depicting our walk with Jesus. I want to set the scene a little, but I’ll try not to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it! However perhaps skip the next few paragraphs if you really don’t want to know a few details of the story.
The story centres around Much-Afraid, who lives up to her name, and resides in the Valley of Humiliation with her relatives Fear, Self-Pity, and Resentment, among others. They love to torment her. However she, unlike her relatives, is a follower of the Chief Shepherd, whom she meets every day. He lives in the High Places, up in the mountains, where Much-Afraid cannot reach - due to her crooked feet. However, one day, the Chief Shepherd invites her to journey to the High Places, and he promises that on the journey, he will make her feet like hinds’ feet. She will then be able to walk on High Places with him, out of reach from her cruel and tormenting relatives.
They begin their journey, and the Chief Shepherd explains that she won’t be travelling with him, but in his place he will send two of his trusted guides. He introduces two silent, frightening figures - named Sorrow and Suffering. Much-Afraid, although afraid, trusts the Shepherd and agrees to journey with them. He instructs her that if she allows them to take her hands, they will help her up the difficult terrain to the High Places. And he assures her that if she ever finds herself in trouble or need, she can simply call his name and he will be there.
As Much-Afraid travels with her silent companions, she finds that the path to the High Places is often difficult and treacherous, and at times even seems to be leading away from the High Places. In addition to this, her relatives are following and take every opportunity to torment her to try and persuade her to turn back. However, she soon learns that when she calls for the Chief Shepherd, He is always there straight away, and her enemies immediately scatter.
I’ll stop there so I don’t spoil the book!
As a child and a teenager, I struggled with the idea of God. However there came a point where desperation ultimately brought me to Him - I had such a deep hatred for myself, and I had started to feel that I didn’t want to be alive anymore. At my lowest point, I cried out to God - and from that day, something changed. It’s hard to explain, but that deep hatred for myself simply lifted. For 13 years, these thoughts never crossed my mind. God had brought an incredible depth of healing that I could not have worked out for myself.
However, towards the end of 2017, something of how I used to feel began to creep back. It was very gradual and probably triggered by a number of different situations, but by February 2018, although functioning well on the outside, I was crumbling on the inside. I don’t think anyone would have known - perhaps not even my husband, had I not told him. Feelings of depression are hard to explain. The best way I can describe it is - intense, almost unbearable emotional pain, that descends seemingly without reason, like a dark cloud. I remember a very physical feeling as if they were weights on either side of my head that were so heavy, that my skull was being pulled apart. I experienced feelings of total loneliness and isolation, despite the reality of the situation. And, in my lowest point in February 2018, I started to genuinely believe that no one cared for me in any way that mattered, and that it would make no difference to anyone if I were no longer alive - if you catch my drift!
But...THANK THE LORD for JESUS! I think it’s important to say that my experience of these kind of thoughts was very different to how I experienced them before I gave my life to God as a teenager. Even though these thoughts were completely irrational and unwarranted, they were very real - and yet because of Him, I knew deep down that this was not something I wanted - or needed - to act on. I couldn’t have said that as a teenager. And in His wonderful grace and wisdom, He worked in this situation to bring a level of freedom I could not have ever achieved for myself! I can say I have come out of the other side of this time, and with a deeper understanding of His grace. Like Much-Afraid, sometimes our journey to the High Places involves difficult terrain and attacks from the enemy, who tries to make us retreat. However, these times do not mean that we are going nowhere. It means the opposite. That terrain makes up the path that leads to those High Places, and the purpose of those attacks are to make an attempt at persuading us to retreat because we are moving forward.
Romans 5:3-4 says “I can glory in my sufferings because it produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope” (emphasis added). Suffering ultimately produces hope! Sometimes God instantly changes our circumstances - like He did when I first gave my life to Him. However, when He doesn’t, I believe that it is His purpose to work something beautiful and precious in us - if we will allow Him to! We are jars of clay - but in the hands of the maker of the universe!
Paul says in 2 Corinthians that:
“I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away. BUT He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in your weakness.” Therefore I will boast more gladly in my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me...For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (New International Version) emphasis added
This is an incredible verse! The enemy may torment us, and we may ask God to take the torment away. However God may allow it to remain so that we may depend on Him and His grace. Paul understood that the thorn in his flesh was in fact a gift - by which he might receive the all-sufficient and perfect power of God. What a change of perspective, to see that thorn in our flesh as a gift, and to truly be able to boast in our weakness! But how can we start to do this?
I mentioned earlier a time in February 2018, when I had perhaps one of the lowest days I have had since before I gave my life to God. I felt completely crushed by what I was feeling. I was overwhelmed with that irrational but, nonetheless, incredibly intense feeling that I was not truly loved, that I was alone, and I always would be so. And as I mentioned earlier, my thoughts went down the path that if I was not here, the world would be no different. Perhaps it would be easier.
At that moment, I knew I needed Jesus to break through. Some might say this is the moment they pressed into God. Well, I’d say I more flopped into God. It took most of the day and all my strength to simply turn on some worship music and weakly ask Jesus for some help. And I was hit by a wave of His presence, His love, and His comfort so strongly - in a way that I had not experienced for some time. Suddenly, where thoughts of despair had filled my mind, I found my mind flooded with different scriptures, almost too quickly for me to process, and some scriptures that I would not usually have been able to recall. And although I was still in pain, I knew I was not alone. He was with me.
That day I realised something - that when I am crushed and walk with sorrow and suffering, yet choose to draw close to Him, He draws so much closer to me. He is close to the broken hearted and to those crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). He draws close when we are grieving. I began to find that at my lowest points, when I chose to flop into Him, His presence was so much stronger, so much sweeter, so much more powerful than any of my high points! A friend of mine wrote a song a few years ago that I still love - my favourite line is in the chorus: “If in the depth of chaos thrown, it’s here we taste the choicest wine. God’s overwhelming presence flows, so with joy we’ll reap the tears we’ve sown.” This painted a beautiful picture in my mind: that when we are thrown in the dark, damp and cold cellar of life, if we look around we will find that His choicest wine is kept there!
I remember reading the following verse whilst in one of these low points, and it gave me strength to get through the day.
“The God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast”
1 Peter 5:10 (New International Version) emphasis added
I then began to understand Much-Afraid’s journey in a deeper way. She started to realise that her companions, Sorrow and Suffering, need not be feared - but that their presence would actually guide her to the High Places if she allowed them to. The realisation hit me: I do not need to fear or dread Sorrow and Suffering. After this, when that dark cloud descended, I began to feel genuine joy. Because I knew I would call Him, and He would come.
I learned from Much-Afraid a practical way to do this. Firstly, I began to think of the feelings and thoughts that would start to overwhelm me as Much-Afraid’s relatives. For example, I would think “Dismay is saying to me, ‘you have no one to turn to, no one who cares about you. You are alone.’” Or “Resentment is saying to me, ‘no one appreciates you.’” This helped me to acknowledge that these thoughts were from the enemy.
And then, I would simply speak Jesus’ name, wait, and listen for His voice. And He always speaks. The enemy might say “you are unloved,” but Jesus would say “Katherine, I love you. That is more than enough to sustain you and overflow to others, too.” Or the enemy might say “you are inadequate,” but Jesus would say “I made you fearfully and wonderfully. Seek not to be loved but to love.” Or the enemy might say “things are hopeless”, but Jesus would say “I won’t let you fall or stray too far. Trust Me on this journey. Trust Me in the desert. Trust Me to lead you to the right place at the right time. I am making your feet like hinds’ feet, and I use every opportunity to mould and shape you to that you can climb higher and higher.”
To finish, I’d like to share with you Alexander MacLaren’s exposition of Isaiah 61. MacLaren was a Baptist minister in the late 1800s, a contemporary of Spurgeon and Meyer. His exposition puts what I am trying to say into words so perfectly - I could quote all of it! So I’d recommend having a read of the whole thing. But here are a few highlights (and I’ve saved my favourite quote until last!):
He affects these not so much by an operation upon our circumstances as by an operation upon ourselves, and transforms sorrow and brings gladness, because He transforms the man who endures it.
And every Christian man, especially when days are dark and clouds are gathering, has it open to him, and is bound to use the possibility, to turn away his mind from the external occasions of sadness, and fix it on the changeless reason for deep and unchanging joy - the sweet presence, the strong love, the sustaining hand, the infinite wisdom, of his Father God.
Brethren, “the paradox of the Christian life” is, ‘as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.’ Christ calls for no hypocritical insensibility to ‘the ills that flesh is heir to.’ … But He also means that whilst thus we suffer as men, in the depths of our own hearts we should, at the same time, be turning away from the sufferings and their cause, and fixing our hearts, quiet even then amidst the distractions, upon God Himself. Ah! it is hard to do, and because we do not do it, the promise that He will turn the sorrow into joy often seems to be a vain word for us.
In a like depth of calm and central tranquillity it is possible for us to live, even while the storm hurtles its loudest on the outermost coasts of our being; ‘as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,’ because the Joy-bringer has opened for us sources of gladness independent of externals.
We shall never understand life if we class its diverse events simply under the two opposite categories of good-evil; prosperity-adversity; gains-losses; fulfilled expectations-disappointed hopes, Put them all together under one class - discipline and education; means for growth; means for Christlikeness… we learn that the same hand is working in all for the same end, and that all that contributes to that end is good.
I’ll finish by sharing my favourite quote from this exposition:
Sorrow, as some of us could witness, is the forecast of purest joy. I have no doubt that there are men and women here who could say, ‘I never knew the power of God, and the blessedness of Christ as a Saviour, until I was in deep affliction, and when everything else went dark, then in His light I saw light.