In September of 2004 my first husband died suddenly while working on a construction site at an orphanage in Guatemala. On a not-too-hot day, during a not-too-stressful moment, Brad dropped over, dying instantly at the age of 47. He had no prior signs of heart conditions, no pre-existing health issues, and no family history of coronary concerns.
He was literally serving Jesus one minute and standing in his presence the next; a great way to go home to glory, but a shocking way to become a widow. I spent months and months journaling (I call it prayer on paper) with my Bible nearby.
One week into the journey I stumbled across this verse in Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (NIV 1984). The Message version says, “There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting.” Really? The suffering is as much a gift as the trusting? How can that possibly be?
I wrestled with this text for quite some time. The imagery that came to my mind reminded me of Christmas, when someone hands you a gift then says, “As soon as I saw this I thought of you” while you’re thinking, “Why on earth would you have ever thought of me when you saw this? I don’t like it, I don’t want it, I’ll never do anything with it.” Then you look past the gift to the heart of the giver, realizing it is from someone who loves you dearly.
On October 25, 2004, one week after Brad’s death, I wrote:
Jesus what hits me so strongly here is that this suffering has been granted to me. It is a gift from You, that You are handing to me and saying, “Connie, I want us to go deeper in our relationship. I want us to grow past you believing IN me, to you believing ON me.” What does that look like Jesus? What does it mean to believe ON You?
The dictionary describes on as, “in contact with, supported by, covering, near to, connected with, engaged in, in a direction toward, forward, continuously, into operation or action” … “I am asking you, inviting you, to suffer for Me.”
And Lord, I have to be honest with You, I don’t know what it looks like, I don’t know how to do it, but I will trust in You. I will go through this, no, GROW through this, with You. Resting and relying fully ON You, continuously in contact with, supported by, covered, connected with, near to You! I know that apart from You I can do NOTHING! I know that I cannot do this; not only is it that I cannot do this, but I don’t want to do this. I need to honestly confess to You that I don’t want to do this; I don’t want to be in the position that I am in right now.
But You, in Your sovereign timing, sovereign planning, and sovereign purposes have chosen otherwise. I must trust IN You. I must believe ON You. Apart from You I can do NOTHING!
I did not believe God caused Brad’s death, but I did believe he longed to use it in a redemptive way if I would turn toward the Lord rather than walking away from him. Writing my Just for Today prayer, I would pray it multiple times a day (or hour!) to help me cling to Jesus:
Just for today I need to see Jesus.
Just for today I need to seek Jesus.
Just for today I need to serve Jesus.
Just for today I need to submit to Jesus.
Just for today I need to surrender to Jesus.
In her book, Let Me Grieve but Not Forever, Verdell Davis writes, “The pain, the heartaches, the losses of our lives can become the altar on which we offer up to God all the things that keep us relying on our own strength. It is then that God can truly do a new work in us and show us Himself in ways we have never seen before.”
For me, one of those ways was the beautiful gift of the Trinity; coming to know the triune God in a new way. God really IS the Father of compassion and God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:4-5). Jesus really IS willing to help us know him in suffering (Philippians 3:10). The Holy Spirit really IS closer than our own skin and available to comfort us (John 14:16) if we turn toward them.
Sometime later I embraced God’s invitation in Deuteronomy 30:19-20, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that … you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life!” My life took a different course from that moment forward.
I consciously chose to be more present in the present. I actively initiated outings with friends. I engaged with events I never selected before (like going to an art exhibit alone, taking a cooking class alone, and looking for new interests alone). At each step I was meeting new people, making new friends, discovering new likes and dislikes, and enjoying life.
In meeting the mystery, welcoming the unknown, being open to the unexpected, several years into the new journey I was given the opportunity to say, “I do” once again to the gift of marriage with Greg and first-ever gift of parenting. A decade later, I still choose to be grateful for the past, present in the present, surrendered to the future, and ever-thankful for the “gift” of suffering.
I would not be the woman I am today had it not been for the pain and the way the Triune God has been with me through it all.