I set out that early morning, so many years ago, convinced that by the end of my hour bike ride, I would have prayed THE prayer. How hard could it possibly be to pray a one sentence prayer, but I still hadn’t uttered a word when that hour was done. I tried again the next morning. Day after day, I tried. No luck. I felt like a wrung dishrag whose courage had been squeezed out. I rode my bike for miles and miles that summer. I rode it through the rain. I rode it under blazing sun. I rode it up steep inclines that broke me half way up. I rode my bike along the flats and watched the sun set along the distant horizon. Still, I couldn’t say the words. And then one day I said them: “O Lord Jesus, do whatever you must to draw me closer to you.”
That’s the hardest prayer I’ve ever had to pray in my life. Why? Because I had to decide whether to cherish the illusion of my relative self-reliance and comfort or brave whatever I must to get closer to the Lord where Joy is found. It is a prayer of vulnerability and vulnerability is a key initial step toward finding joy.
Unfortunately, I run from vulnerability even though I know that my richest fellowship with the Lord and my deepest sense of joy have unquestionably come when I was utterly broken and helpless. Suffering left me vulnerable and that vulnerability opened me to the possibility of more pain, but also more grace. Grace and joy seem to me to be inseparable. Joy grows, therefore, in proportion to my vulnerability.
I’m under the delusion that suffering and joy are antithetical, but God’s purpose for suffering is to create fat souls (Jeremiah 29:11).
As Matthew 5:3-4 so clearly promises, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” You cannot be comforted if you don’t mourn and you can’t mourn if you’re always running from pain.
Evangelical Christians, more than most religious people, are adept at avoiding negative emotions. We reason that we should be happy, not sad, because we know that God is in control. So we stigmatize fear, anger, and depression because God is love, but a brief glance at our spiritual fathers and mothers shows a chronicle of people strapped to sorrow. The Psalmist alone wrote more songs of mourning and crying out than hymns of joy. Most of the psalms are songs of bewilderment, doubt, and heartache. I find that fact a great comfort.
Solace is found in verses like Psalm 34:15 which says, “They eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.” Or Psalm 84: “Blessed is the man whose strength is in you, whose heart is set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a spring.”
The problem is this: I want joy without vulnerability and without pain, but God seems intent on giving his saints joy by means of tribulation. The solution to the problem? Practices that foster vulnerability and dependency.
Here are just some ideas I want to pursue more diligently:
- Count to a hundred before rushing to alleviate pain: my first impulse is to fix the problem instead of sitting in my suffering and listening for what God might be saying. Don’t be opposed to fixing the problem, but make sure it’s not the first impulse.
- Remember the simple means of grace which God has ordained: Scripture reading, prayer, communion, fasting, and corporate worship. They’re not exciting, but God has promised that they are effective and all of them can be done during times of pain.
- Say prayers of dependence: This one, for example is a prayer that I have said ever since my health collapse and want to continue praying. It reminds me of some of those key lessons I learned during those desperate days: “Speak, therefore, Lord, for your servant listens. You have the words of eternal life. Speak to me for the comfort of my soul and for the amendment of my life, for your praise, your glory, and your everlasting honor” (The Imitation of Christ, Thomas A Kempis).
Joy is not antithetical to suffering, so claim the joy promised in and through suffering by praying, “O Lord, do whatever you must to draw me closer to yourself.” Pray the prayer each morning. At night, while climbing into bed, pray this prayer by Thomas A Kempis: “If you wish me to be in darkness, I shall bless you. And if you wish me to be in light, again I shall bless you. If you stoop down to comfort me, I shall bless you, and if you wish me to be afflicted, I shall bless you forever.”
Here is a final self-reminder. Risk is central to finding Joy in suffering. Risk your comfort, all your pseudo self-reliance, all your posturing and manuevering, all your time honored practices of selfish ambition cloaked in a holy cause.
O Lord, do whatever you must. Smash my small glass castle and leave me vulnerable under the starry sky, vulnerable enough for joy.
[painting by Stanislaw Debicki, 1887]