I looked into the face of my friend as she exhorted the woman across from us in French. We had brought a homeless lady in and sat around my table in the early afternoon, searching for answers for the crisis she was in. I picked up parts of the conversation as my friend physically demonstrated how to cling desperately to the robe of Jesus, even if life drags you through the mud behind Him.
My friend knows. She clung desperately to the robe of Jesus for twenty years of abuse and torture, infertility and rejection. She is the one who often reminds me in the thick of the suffering we encounter that Jesus loves us with excess love as she sits with tears streaming down her face listening to the words of an Nigerian worship song.
“Your love is kind
Your love is patient
You fill my life
With so much peace and joy
You make my life feel brand new
Jesus you love me too much, ohhh
Too much ohh, too much ohh, excess love ohhh…”
I look at her face as she sings and realize that she knows Jesus in ways that I never have. Desperation has driven her to cling desperately to that which is good and perfect. Desperation has forced her to overlook the elements of this temporal existence and to fix her gaze on something (Someone!) eternal.
Most of us never learn this art of worship because we have too many other distractions vying for our attention that promise quick comfort and easy healing. We strain for joy in creativity and community and long for it deeper with family, spouses and team mates. Somehow we always come up empty handed, still searching and desperate…still reaching for pleasure and joy, still grasping for the good in a world of suffering.
I feel the desperation keenly some days as I run my hands over bullet and knife scars and doggedly punch the keyboard as I document another life ravaged by torture and abuse. I document in hopes that one program or housing unit will have one space to take in the most traumatized. The emails and phone calls usually bounce back with a replies I have grown accustomed to…”Due to the extreme nature of this case we are unable to provide assistance.”
I have knelt sobbing on my kitchen floor, weeping for answers that didn’t come.
I have stood morning after morning as the pale light rose over the apartment buildings across the square and searched desperately for God. I’ve run out of the house and up to the roof in my attempts to leave it all behind me and find God in the peace of twilight after the sun set brilliantly on the city below me. Some days I have become so accustomed to sadness, so befriended with suffering, that I have sat overwhelmed with grief and anger at the state of the world.
Desperation leaves you running somewhere.
You run away, or you run through.
Running through means you hang on for dear life to something or someone that overcomes it. I’ve been with my friends in tunnels so dark none of us saw any light. Sometimes I believe in hope for them, and sometimes they believe it for me and together we press on, desperate. Most days we just want a rest from the reality of what we know.
We stand in our Gethsemenes, asking God to let this cup pass from us because all of us would rather run away from suffering than run towards the God who overcomes it. It’s much easier to keep it at a safe distance on a computer screen then to invite it into your home, around your table, into your heart. When you invite suffering in like that the sufferer becomes much more than a victim you are helping, but a sister you are fighting with. The evil they have suffered becomes a part of you somehow. The story they have navigated becomes what you think about wide-eyed in your bed at night.
There are a lot of very professional ways we are taught to keep suffering at a distance. We can run away from evil with the quick excuse that “I’m burning out.” We have a free ticket to selfishness with modern programs and trauma focused care that distances us from the ones that need us the most. Our knowledge of evil does not naturally have us entering well into the lives ravaged by it. Our default is a desperate response to something that will fix it, instead of learning of the Someone who overcomes it.
I have found no other answer than that Someone.
Some years ago I started asking myself how I would stay convinced of goodness and radiant with joy when I was called to face gang rape, trafficking, deception in the church, and other sexual perversion.
“Those who look to Him are radiant.” Psalm 34:5
I didn’t realize then how desperate I would become for the goodness that overcomes. I didn’t realize that my desperation would drive me to become an avid studier of Jesus.
“Paul Bloom, a Yale professor with a Phd in cognitive psychology, specializes in pleasure research, the study of how we as humans develop the ability to derive pleasure from people, experiences, and things. He has discovered through his research that pleasure does not simply occur, it develops. And how it develops is a point worth noting. People ask me, “How did you get more pleasure out of life?” and my answer is extremely pedantic: “Study more. The key to enjoying wine isn’t just to guzzle a lot of expensive wine, it’s to learn about wine.”
Paul Bloom has found that pleasure results from not experiencing something good over and over, but studying something (someone!) good. Therefore finding greater pleasure in God will not result from pursing more experiences of Him, but from knowing Him.”
-Women of the Word, by Jen Wilkin
There are a thousand very good reasons to distance ourselves from evil and suffering. There are even more reasons to run from it when we are surrounded by it. Hundreds of excuses keep us from repentance when it’s found square in our own hearts. Women of faith tend to be lured by these very good reasons and in their desperate quest for goodness and joy, get swept away by vain hopes.
“Those who look to Him”, not “look to perfect relationships, coffee talks, and homes”, are radiant. “Delight yourself in the Lord”, not “delight yourself in all of you deepest wishes and inclinations.”
Our delight, joy, and radiance is often lost in the quest of finding it in a thousand wonderful excuses to run from Jesus. The extent to which I will not budge in the battle, but stand fixed with my friend who while enduring years of life in an African brothel said, “ I don’t care if worms eat my flesh, this I know that my Redeemer liveth,” will be the extent of my joy.
We can not learn to delight in something we do not know. The pursuit of knowledge about that something (Someone!) uncovers the riches of pleasure. Sometimes we will be grasping hands trembling with fear, or sending yet another homeless women out the door without answers, and looking desperate into a sky devoid of a quick fix yelling, “Jesus! Where are you here?!” Sometimes we will be searching heaven for answers and they come in ways we didn’t pray for.
Jesus shows up in ways we didn’t pray for because we need to see Him in ways we didn’t know Him. Are we ready for that? Do we want to know Him? Or do we want to know in detail the thousands of ways evil touches humanity every day and the terrible ways our fellow humanity is responding?
We can become addicts to suffering, familiar with evil, and every day we grow a little bit more weary. We can run from suffering altogether, and talk about it from platforms and computer screens refusing to invite it in because it’s easier to discuss evil and be angry at evil than to invite in the God who overcomes evil.
Or, we can become avid learners of Jesus, familiar with His goodness, and every day we grow a little more like Him. We can plant our stakes in the ground in every suffering, proclaiming who we have found Him to be. We can wrestle all night like Jacob with the God who overcomes, and come through with a limp and a greater honor of Him. We can hold hands and weep tears into a dark tunnel of questions, lifting hands in His honor because we know beyond a shadow of a doubt He will come.
We know Him, because we walk with Him. We know Him in suffering because we walk with Him into suffering. We delight in Him in trials, because He becomes absolutely beautiful in suffering. We find pleasures forevermore at His right hand, because knowing Him in tribulation is the deepest pleasure the human heart can muster. Our faces become radiant with the glorious beauty of who He really is. The God who overcomes. The Savior who has come! Emmanuel, God with us.
Our question, “Where is God?” then becomes, “Where am I? And how can I show His beauty close to this pain?” When Moses got all obsessed with all of his weaknesses God just replied with, “I AM.” When we get all obsessed with evil and complain relentlessly to heaven, He shows up the same. “I AM.” Who He is becomes much more important than who we are or what evil is.
We may have done well at becoming learners of pain. We may have become comfortable with suffering. But if we want to be women of delight in a world of suffering we will need to feast on, study about, and lean into the pleasures forevermore at the right hand of the Father. That’s Jesus. Cling to Him, groan to Him, question Him, and find Him in the darkest midnight of the soul. There is no other way to be women of delight in a world so ravaged by evil.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and I will give your rest. Learn of me, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matt 11:28