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The Thorns of Life

Title: The Thorns of Life
Materials: Digital painting
Artwork by: Jessica Wang
Description: Have you ever felt far away from God’s love? Sometimes as humans, we can easily feel locked up in all thorns and difficulties of this life that we forget about God, who is our Friend. We forget His unique love for us.

 

When we are going through trials in our lives, we may feel stuck, lost and alone. However, He is with us; in fact, He is closer than ever. Although we may not see Him physically, His presence is always with our lonely souls as we struggle in this world. Every day, He waits patiently for us to see Him and turn to Him.

 

Life can be likened to a rose. It is beautiful to look at but has thorns that can prick us. Such thorns are like the struggles and difficulties that God allows us to go through. But thorns have their unique purpose—to prevent the rose from being harmed. In the same way, God uses our difficult circumstances to protect us by strengthening our faith and helping us grow.

3 Ways Discomfort Discomforted Me

Not again. I was at my wit’s end. A good two and a half weeks had passed since I had finished my second course of antibiotics, but as I gazed at the ceiling that night—awake, alert, and anxious—it felt as though I was back to square one.

For weeks, I had been experiencing a mild case of urinary tract infection (UTI). It was not the first time I had it; but unlike the first time, when a round of antibiotics easily cured it, the symptoms were relentless this time.

In most cases, UTI manifests as a frequent or intense urge to urinate. On some nights, I would go to the toilet as many as seven times before going to bed. On other nights, anxiety about having to visit the toilet in the middle of the night would plague me the moment I lay on the bed. I would end up tossing and turning for a couple of hours—and on some occasions, the entire night.

That night, I had just made five trips to the toilet within two hours. As I flopped onto my bed for the fifth time, I could feel my heart racing and a sense of dread setting in. I couldn’t help thinking about what else I should have done to ensure a faster recovery.

Take antibiotics, probiotics, and cranberry juice? Check. Drink a lot of water? Check. Pay a visit to the doctor? Check. Twice. Seek divine intervention? Big check. I even “formalized” my plea to God on three separate occasions by recording my prayers in my journal when the symptoms seemed to much for me to bear.

But none of these things seemed to work.

“Maybe this is the thorn in your flesh God has given you,” my brother finally said on one occasion after hearing me lament for the umpteenth time and trying unsuccessfully to cheer me.

That’s when it hit me. What if God had no intention to remove this “thorn in the flesh” from my life for the time being? What if the whole reason why I was going through this was that God was trying to teach me that His grace was sufficient for me—but I had just been too preoccupied to see it?

When I finally turned to scripture to read about Paul’s struggle and response to his thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), I felt rebuked by my own less-than-ideal response. That’s when I discovered three things about myself.

 

 1. I tend to rely on myself.

As much as I know my life is in God’s hands, I almost always resort to human means to address my problems. If I’m falling sick, I make sure I get enough rest and eat the right food. If I don’t achieve positive results at work, I try to put in more effort. If people don’t respond to me, I look at what I should or shouldn’t have said, and try to make up for it. Everything in life can be “fixed” with the right solution, and so can my health.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with these actions, I realize that it’s only when I exhaust all human means that I turn to God, delve into scriptures, and pray actively and fervently for relief. This is exactly what happened in my recent case of UTI.

 

2. I tend to focus on myself.

In the grand scheme of things, I knew that the physical discomfort I was experiencing wasn’t that bad. For one, it would hardly constitute the kind of suffering the Bible talks about (Romans 5:3-5). Also, aside from having to make frequent toilet trips, I didn’t feel any physical pain and could function perfectly well. I could eat, work, sleep, and play. As long as my mind was distracted by something else, I wouldn’t even feel the symptoms.

But I certainly made a big deal out of it. Whenever the symptoms became more pronounced— especially in the evening when I was resting at home—I would throw a pity party for myself and invite my family members to be a part of it. I also made sure those around me—my colleagues, church friends, and close friends—knew I was “suffering” and would never fail to request for their prayer.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t always remember to pray for friends the same way, especially if they share about their “minor” problems like cough and cold. In fact, I even secretly frown on those who keep harping on the same issue, such as when my mother kept asking my brother and I to pray that God would remove the itchy sensation around her neck. It was only when I had to go through a prolonged period of physical discomfort myself that I realized how “non-issues” like these could so easily affect and discourage me.

That realization made me more sympathetic to others going through similar discomfort. I decided to consciously pray for others every night as I prayed for my own relief. And that’s when God really put my problems in perspective. Compared to the aunty at church who was having a relapse of lymphoma and a friend who had just suffered a serious viral attack that almost took her life, what did I have to complain about?

 

3. I tend to focus on this earthly life.

Though I know that this world is not my final destination, I tend to live my life as though I’m going to be here for eternity. It’s only in moments of helplessness that I’m reminded of the truth that I should not be holding on to anything in this life.

Discomforts and setbacks of any magnitude or nature serve as reminders that we live in a transient—and broken—world. Our physical bodies are not built to last; over time, they will naturally wear down and malfunction. How comforting, then, are the words of 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, which tell us that the suffering we go through in life now is preparing us for eternity: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Though we see trouble and suffering on every front, we know that these are but signposts that there is something so much better ahead of us; difficulties and suffering in life will come to an end. And while there’s nothing we can do to escape problems in life, we can certainly change how we choose to respond to them. American pastor Charles Stanley once said that nothing attracts the unbeliever like a saint suffering successfully. Based on how I had been responding, I’m pretty sure I looked more like a saint suffering sorrowfully. Still, I thank God for using this episode to correct the way I have been viewing and responding to “suffering”.

As I write this article now, I’m thankful that God has stopped my UTI from flaring up in the past week. I’m not sure it will recur, but this experience has given me the determination to do these three things the next time I’m faced with any form of “discomfort”:

  1. Commit my discomfort to God and ask Him for strength and wisdom to respond to it.
  2. Remember that there are many others around me who are facing similar discomfort—if not worse—and pray for them.
  3. Thank God for giving me the discomfort, because it is a reminder that this earthly life was never meant to be a comfortable one.

What if I Can’t Accept My Suffering?

Written By Dorothy Norberg, USA

For years, I had struggled with health issues. Plagued by auto-immune problems, anxiety, and OCD, I had to accept physical limitations and challenges with schoolwork, but I could not make peace with the mental disruption and chaos in my life.

My mind was constantly in overdrive, full of overwhelming anxiety, inappropriate thoughts, and interfering noise. I almost never felt calm. While I managed to act composed in public, my thoughts were always raging.

The strain of combating this unceasing, vicious stream of intrusive thoughts left me unable to deal with other life challenges or interact well with family members. There were good moments, but overall, when I wasn’t sobbing on the floor, I was tense, irritable, and on the verge of exploding.

 

Why, God, why?

I could present nuanced and detailed arguments for why God lets His children suffer. I knew that evil entered the world because of sin, that God ultimately defeated it through the cross, and that He allows suffering in our lives for our growth and His ultimate glory. I also trusted that one day, God would welcome His children into a kingdom with no more tears.

However, as it became increasingly difficult to function each day, this knowledge no longer gave me peace. Captive to my unwanted thoughts and irritable behavior, I grew increasingly resentful.

Through my suffering, God produced greater compassion, humility, and gospel dependence in my life, and I knew that I should rejoice. But couldn’t God have accomplished the same good through a litany of other—less painful, more acceptable—circumstances? If I had to be sick and crazy just so that I would see my helplessness apart from Christ and worship Him, wasn’t God twisted and terrible?

I couldn’t hate God, so I hated myself, chasing these thoughts in circles with no hope of resolution.

 

Why can’t I stop?

My physical problems were morally neutral, but I equated my wild thoughts with sin and felt incredibly guilty. My anxiety, anger at God, critical thoughts about others, hate-filled emotions, and the stream of inappropriate, unwanted thoughts were unacceptable. But no matter how hard I fought to preempt or discard negative thoughts and feelings, I could never stem the tide.

Over time, I began to understand that neurological issues were the root of my conflict and disorder. This realization comforted me, but even though I did not feel responsible for the thoughts entering my head, I still had to fight them. I engaged in a constant tug-of-war between wanting to pardon myself and wallowing in guilt. Much of my anguish stemmed from the fear that every awful thought I had was documented, and that I would face that record on Judgment Day. As I worried about how God would measure my extenuating circumstances, I lost sight of the fact that my record was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:13-14).

As I heard my pastor preach each week, studied Scripture, and engaged in Christian community, God used these ordinary means of grace to deepen my belief in the gospel and expand my understanding of its power. I saw that my sin and brokenness are both dead and that I don’t have to obsess over my guilt or innocence, because I am free from sin and alive in Christ. How can I rail against God for allowing me to suffer when He has saved me from my sin and credited Christ’s righteousness to me? How can I be angry with Him when His Son has taken the crushing weight of sin and death for me?

 

God answers

Over time, my life circumstances improved. I still struggle with my health, but I no longer deal with the type of intrusive thoughts that made my life miserable. I received the resolution that I wanted and have seen my growth through suffering. But for a long time after, I continued feeling that God was unjust. More often than not, my grateful reflection over spiritual growth gave way to yet another internal argument over whether or not there was any justification for what God had required me to endure.

I can neither understand nor explain why God designed my life the way He did, but I know that He is good, that He is powerful, and that He is loving. Because of what I have suffered, I know that my faith is real. God took away what I valued and depended upon most—the self-righteous morality and dignity that I had worked so hard to maintain—and drew me nearer to Him.

My happy ending didn’t arrive when I experienced relief or got an explanation. Rather, resolution came when I grew to love my Savior more than my desire to dictate my own life. Charles Spurgeon, the English preacher, once said, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” I have used this quote to reframe my perspective, accepting that God calls me to something greater than my ideas of what goodness is: He calls me to Himself. My only boast is Christ, not what good I’ve done or what sin I’ve fought victoriously against. I will accept the goodness and value of whatever leads me to cling to God.

SUFFERING | Themed Contribution

People sometimes say that the God in the Old Testament (OT) is very different from the God in the New Testament (NT). In the OT, He’s unloving, angry, and violent, but He’s loving, peaceful, and caring in the NT.

I’ve been reading the Bible from cover to cover this year and I don’t see this disparity. God’s character is consistent the whole way through. On many instances, God showed His people compassion when they suffered and reached out to Him. When unfaithful Israelite kings repented and pleaded with God, He was merciful. When prophets begged Him to not destroy the cities, He was abundantly compassionate.

I know for sure that God understands suffering and responds to it with compassion. He did so most powerfully through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus, in his compassion, mercy, and love, suffered in a way He didn’t deserve so that we wouldn’t have to suffer the eternal separation from God.

Suffering exists everywhere around us. I don’t think I’ll ever understand suffering but I’m grateful that God does, and He responds to it with His compassion.

July - lettersbychrissy