It is a cliché that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
To me, this cliché felt like a gross oversimplification of everything I had felt. How could pain be productive when all it ever seemed to do was tear things apart? As I struggled through high school and into college with this question, I became more and more familiar with suffering. I lost my godfather when I was thirteen, my grandma when I was sixteen and fought with depression followed by anxiety that landed me in therapy my freshman year of college. I remember sitting in my car outside a friend’s house after a party one-night last February, on the verge of a panic attack. As I sat there, my brain unable to get my body to move or calm down, I asked myself how I could possibly get stronger from this. What could I possibly gain from something so debilitating? It was in my weakest moment that I finally asked God the very same question.
As I fell apart over and over again, I always found myself turning back to prayer. I wasn’t quiet or calm. I would plead for help, teary eyed and uncertain of how I would possibly get past each hurtle. Christ urged us to persevere in prayer, to petition God again and again. This kind of persistence requires a lot of faith. Consistently asking for help, when you feel unworthy or don’t feel like you’ll ever get it is not an easy task. But talking is far easier than listening.
I had been raised in the Church and had spent a fair amount of that time making petition after petition to God. I always wondered if I wasn’t praying hard enough or if I just hadn’t asked for the right thing yet. There were moments when I asked for something and seemed to get the opposite. I asked God to relieve my depression for four years, only to have it replaced by anxiety. I asked God to heal that and I had to see a therapist a month later. I asked God to repair my dysfunctional relationship only to watch it fall apart. It can be extremely disheartening to feel like God is contradicting us at every turn. But we so rarely ask for answers and we are even less inclined to listen for them.
I stumbled upon this dilemma by accident. Encouraged by the leaders at my youth group, I decided to dig a little deeper into my faith. I committed to reading scripture for ten minutes every night. I didn’t have a revelation or a vision but God still shifted my heart in a drastic way. Even when I was exhausted after a long day of classes or a late night at work, even when I was barely paying attention, God still used that time. I wasn’t focused on everything I lacked, all the hurt, telling God about everything he needed to fix. For the first time in my life, I listened. I didn’t just find answers, I found the answer.
Christ does not make us suffer. He does not want us to hurt. He died on the cross so that we could have salvation, so we could be free of suffering. God does not make us suffer as a punishment. In fact, he doesn’t make us suffer at all. He allows us to hurt because it is one of the most effective spiritual tools in his arsenal. We do not grow when we are comfortable. We do not learn when we are content. We don’t change when we are happy. Pain has the capacity to do something happiness and comfort can never do. Pain makes us spiritually resilient.
Our suffering is not random, it is not pointless and God does not abandon us to it. Prayer does not always relieve the hurt. But God will never hesitate to send us the tools we need to grow stronger in our times of suffering. Christ will never hesitate to console us and walk with us through our trials. He carried his own cross, he is more than familiar with ours. As I’ve dug deeper into my faith, the more I have been able to use the pain I’ve experienced. Pain can bring empathy; it can bring clarity and it can absolutely make us spiritually resilient. Suffering makes love possible and love does not exist without pain. If Christ did not love us, he would not have hurt for us. And if we don’t allow ourselves to hurt, we cannot love him back.
God will never allow you to bear a cross you cannot carry, no matter how big or small. He will never allow you to suffer meaninglessly. The pain I have felt drove me to change, it shaped my heart and my understanding. If I never suffered, I would never have searched for deeper answers, I would never have grown spiritually. It led me to prayer, to scripture, community, friendship and a kind of strength I never could have gained on my own. Accepting and embracing suffering frees us from the fear that seeks to contain and control us. When we trust in Christ, there is no obstacle he will not teach us to overcome. He invites every one of us to pick up our crosses and trust in him to give us the tools we need. Not always to relieve the hurt, but to be the people we were meant to be and go where we are meant to go. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “I’m not sure God wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to love, and be loved.” God knows your heart, he knows your hurt and he will not waste any of it.