One crucial teaching that must be deep in our gut in order to journey as a radical follower of Jesus is God’s grace disguised, a healthy theology of pain and suffering.
Does that sound strange, wrong, morbid?
It’s not because God’s abounding grace (His action love) often disguises itself in trials with problematic circumstances and difficult people.
Jerry Sittser, in A Grace Disguised, transparently shares wise life-lessons and perspectives he learned…and is learning. Rather than give fixed answers, he deals more with values and perspectives. This is superb for those who have gone through crushing tragedy in their past. God is watching how we handle failure and pain as well as favor and pleasure.
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”
(Philippians 1:29, emphasis).
And also Jerry lays out an approach for individuals and groups to process any change, especially the difficult transition period between the loss of the familiar and the fuller experience of the “new norm.” Here are a few summary thoughts, mostly adapted from his book. I hope this whets your appetite to read his book to prepare you in advance for tough life circumstances. I highly recommend “A Grace Disguised” by Jerry Sittser
- Ground ourselves now in healthy, relational Christianity. Then we will be prepared to navigate significant loss. Begin where God does, with His unchanging Eden-intent in Genesis 1 and 2.
- We live in a post-Genesis 3 world. The seeming randomness of loss makes the universe seem like a cold, unfriendly, capricious place with no predictability. Don’t naïvely expect a perfectly fair world? Life is now a constant succession of losses and gains.
- Living means change. Change requires letting go of one thing in order to gain something else. Few of us want to be stuck where we are today with the wonderful possibilities available before us. So change is actually a golden treasure with unimagined value since God’s great love can reframe evil events into good gifts for His people. Our story emerges as part of a greater story authored by God Himself, like Joseph. Treasure hunt with “hello.” Most of our metaphors for loss are “saying goodbye ” metaphors, focusing on what we leave behind. Some truth lies here. However, what would happen if we changed our primary metaphors to a “saying hullo again” metaphor. Deliberately re-incorporates into our lives the good, noble, and life-impacting experiences that we have gained in the past from the loss on which we are focusing
Please stop and read the last, longer paragraph. It’s crucial for LifeChange.
Change depends on our choices. Victims have no power to change. “Response involves the choices we make, the grace we receive, and ultimately the transformation we experience in the loss [so] we will actually become healthier people.”
- Therefore, the “Why?” question brings little comfort. As we ask the “Who? question, we treasure hunt and come to know God in a fuller way. We discover afresh that our good God Himself is the answer to our pressing questions, like in Job 42:5.
- Loss is like the fading light at sunset. We can frantically chase the loss by running west in our futile attempt to outrun the darkness. Or we can accept and embrace the loss of daylight, turn east and plunge into the darkness with rising expectations focused on the new dawn of tomorrow (transition). Take ownership. We have the power to face the dawn and to be transformed by this experience.
- The process of dealing with loss has three essential aspects. First, acknowledge that the past will never be the same again. Feel the pain, specifically name what has been lost, and grieve it. Second, identify possible gains that could be part of the “new norm.” The last one bridges both of these. Transition is that suspended time between the familiar past and the expected future, the most difficult and challenging part of the process.
Reflect a bit. Sittser writes “must remember” stuff in “A Grace Disguised.”
- “Loss turns life into a snapshot. The movement stops; everything freezes.” This may lead to a simpler life, less cluttered with nonessentials. This time-warp exposes how much of our identity is improperly tied to what we lost. Churches are full of people subtly tying to earn their identity or prove their worth. During transition, invest in the “sacrament of the present moment” (since God is here, Psalm 139:7-12). Take inventory of our life. “Failure to take stock almost ensures that we will repeat patterns that became chiseled into our lives before we suffered the loss.” When we explore our own personal loss, a new world of meaning opens up, which sows the seed of future possibilities, the “new norm” (Philippians 3:13b-14).
- Each person is a one-of-a-kind-treasure, so every loss is unique. Avoid both deserts: “my loss is the worst ever” and “my loss is inconsequential compared to yours” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- Loss deprives us of our illusion of control, which is a good thing. If our expectations remain tied to what we lost, then disappointment will assault our inner being. This imprisons us in our past. Our creative God has something different, yet exquisitely good, possibly leading to a profound spiritual awakening. So hunt for treasure in the loss.
“Our feelings do not determine what is real, though the feelings themselves are real. We cannot ignore these feelings, but neither should we indulge them. Instead, we should acknowledge them without treating them as if they were ultimate truth. [God] is the center of reality.”
- Recovery is a misleading and empty expectation. We recover from broken limbs, not amputations. There is no going back to the past. We can, though, reach forward toward the “new norm.”
- Although loss is a solitary experience we must face alone, it does not have to isolate us or make us feel lonely. Loss is also a universal experience that can lead us into deeper koinonia.
- The experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. We can choose to partner with God to use this as a springboard for our transformation. We can define our lives by the good that God will bring out of bad (Romans 8:28).
- The legitimate emotions in the midst of loss and pain, like anger and anguish, despair and depression, expand our capacity to feel deeply. Once enlarged, we are now also capable of experiencing greater love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and gentleness. Our capacity now increases to know God more intimately, to love others more deeply and to live life well.
Here are two others that I have added to understand grace disguised.
- Live without regret. Regrets constantly picks at the wounds of pain and loss, preventing them from healing. Receiving and asking for forgiveness, making choices to love people in the moment, all help us to live life without lingering regrets, which deal with our feelings of revenge or bitterness.
- In times like this, nothing comforts, even traditional remedies, like emotional fervor, spiritual discipline, rational analysis, worship, prayer, or ministry. God is calling us to lean in more deeply to rest on His bosom.
In Summary: Three concepts are essential for me to process my past.
- “Treasure hunt,” that is, find valuable nuggets in the loss, “extract the precious from the worthless” (Jeremiah 15:19). Because grace often comes as grace disguised, we must hunt for it diligently
- Say “hullo” to those nuggets. Intentionally welcome them forward into our journey.
- Then “reframe” the loss with God’s presence and the specific good He brought into your life through the tough time. Now when you remember the event, God stands center-stage.
I have incorporated many of these thoughts into my book, Cultivating DiscipleMaking Communities. This walks us through 1 Thessalonians. Chapter three is on a healthy view of trials, called God Is a Big But!” You may find this on my book page.
If you want a website that lists a number of selected quotes drawn from the book, this is excellent: Click here.