I love fall. It is my favorite season. It contains the perfect temperature, the most beautiful colors, the richest smells, and the most brilliant light. When I think of fall, I can imagine a warm hug from my Creator.
But personally, fall has also been a season of great loss. It has become a time of year that good friends have moved away. This could appear as some great cosmic prank. But with the right perspective, I am beginning to understand that God often uses dichotomies like these to teach me more about His holiness and my humanity.
Love and loss. Joy and suffering. The tree cannot bud again in Spring without losing its leaves in Autumn.
I just finished reading Vaneetha Rendall Risner’s book The Scars that Shaped Me. I’ve been following Risner’s writings on her blog and the Desiring God website for a few years now. So when I saw that she had written a book, I bought a copy right away. It is a phenomenal work of wrestled faith. And I find such encouragement from her writing. Not only is her story compelling, but her renewed perspective is truly a gift the Lord has given her.
Multiples times throughout the book she refers to our need for two kinds of grace: delivering grace and sustaining grace. She says, “they are both essential for the Christian life. And they are interconnected” (p. 164). I want delivering grace in many areas of my life. So much so, that sometimes I forget that I am being showered by a grace that is intended to sustain me.
It is this kind of grace that we often complain about. Risner quotes a Bible study teacher who once said, “You never hear anyone in the Bible complaining about the parting of the Red Sea. Everyone loves the grace that delivers us. But the Israelites, like us, were dissatisfied with daily manna.” Yet that is literally what sustained them in the desert for forty years. I echo Risner’s question: “Were there times when my prayers for deliverance were answered with the gift of sustenance?” (p.161).
There are so many ways to approach the concept of God’s “No’s” and “Not yets.” But one way is to look for the sustaining grace in God’s closed doors. The times when He loves us enough to say “no” to our desires or requests to be rescued, in order to administer the sustaining grace of His presence.
As Risner encountered pain after pain (in the form of a crippling disease, the loss of a child, and a painful divorce), she learned the very important lesson that seeing God’s glory was a far greater gift than being rescued from her suffering. And she began to see that God’s “no’s” in her life were actually His mercies—for they were what shaped her.
I can take great comfort in that. And I too am beginning to see—with the perspective of “Jesus colored glasses”—the truth that I would not trade my sufferings for ease. They are gifts. For God meets us in our pain, and He draws us close to Himself in our needs. “Suffering and sorrow,” Risner says, “are God’s invitation to know him better” (p. 49).
Paul refers to this when he talks of the thorns in his side. In 2 Corinthians 12, he says,
7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In that same vein, Risner refers to George Matheson, a Scottish hymn-writer and preacher, who admonished with these words about his sufferings: “Teach me the glory of my cross; teach me the value of my thorn. Show me that I have climbed to Thee by the path of pain. Show me that my tears have made my rainbows.”
I read these words months ago. Yet God has an amazing way of hammering home an idea when it has begun to burrow into my mind. Last Sunday evening I was pretty much ready to post this article on my blog when something (and pure exhaustion) prompted me to hit pause. I could finish it later. The next evening at Bible study, the group was discussing Philippians 1:12-26, and I found myself very glad I had waited.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents another perspective on suffering. In verses 19 and 20, from prison, he says, “for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Paul understood that the grace being bestowed on him daily might not be physical deliverance. He was most concerned that he would maintain the ability to honor God with his whole life (or death).
Our Bible study group spent some time pondering Paul’s revolutionary mindset. What would it look like for us to live like Paul, with God’s heart forefront in our minds? And aside from the thorn passage from 2 Corinthians, do we ever catch ourselves asking to be delivered from something that Paul wouldn’t? I honestly haven’t thought much about the great apostle, but this week, these aspects of Paul’s character and faith have astounded me. I can safely say that Paul had and embodied a beautiful theology of suffering. I have much to learn.
So back to what I’ve learned as God keeps nudging me towards this topic:
A few months ago, some dear friends encouraged me to listen to podcast from the Allender Center. I’ve had the page bookmarked on computer ever since, but when I began commuting out to Des Plaines every day for an internship, I knew I needed some good podcasts and sermons to listen to during the ride. One particular podcast, “Restoration of the Heart, Part 1,” stuck out to me. Referring to the shame of our brokenness, the speaker said,
“There is this idea that there’s a point in your Christian walk where you get better and better... but the Christian life is actually a life of greater need and dependence. It is so counter intuitive. We can’t do anything without God. It is not shameful that we need God more—that we haven’t gotten this ‘Christian thing’ down. That is the design. Deeper and deeper need. And in that, we find restoration. We are becoming more and more what we were intended to be.”
I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me before. Maybe the wording just came at me from the right direction. But it was if lightning had struck. My need for God’s grace will only increase as I continue to walk as a Christ follower. Seeking God for the same things over and over again is not a sign of spiritual immaturity, but a recognition of my continual need for Him and His presence.
And this is also a reminder that I need both types of grace. “Both [graces] showcase God’s glory,” Risner says, “but in different ways. In delivering grace, we see God’s glory. Everyone can see the miracle he has wrought for us. And usually our lives are easier as a result. . . but with sustaining grace, people can see the miracle he has wrought in us. Our lives are easier because our perspective is different. With sustaining grace, we must continually go back to God. It is not a one-time thing.”
God is continually humbling me with His sustaining grace. While I yearn for deliverance from the pain of loss, loneliness, and fear—these things all hold a purpose. Just as the leaves must fall in order to bring new life, God’s power is made perfect in my weakness. It is in the asking, the seeking, that I am sustained by grace, to press on with the presence of my living God.