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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.

Stop Choosing “Dirty Thoughts”

“Why are you so stu . . . ”

Even though my math tuition teacher failed to finish her sentence, the small class of six pupils knew what she was about to say (stupid) and whom she had aimed it at (me).

She had spent a good half an hour explaining an algebra equation. My fellow classmates had no trouble understanding her, but I still could not make any sense of it. Numbers boggle my mind and I’d rather spend my days writing or reading instead of solving big mathematical problems.

However, math was a compulsory subject, and so my parents had me attend tuition in hopes that it would help me pass my exams. Clearly, it didn’t help: I had tested my teacher’s patience to the limits and eventually, I did take home a dismal math mark despite the extra classes.

My family eventually moved to another country where I had the option of dropping maths if I wanted. But I can still remember the deep humiliation that washed over me that fateful night 16 years ago. Even today, every now and then, the words my former tuition teacher uttered would find their way back into my mind.

“Well, maybe because it’s true. You are stupid,” the little voice would begin. It doesn’t take a lot to trigger that thought—burning my dinner, not being able to drive a car after three lessons, or choosing an arts major when I should have probably done a science major (the fact I have zero interest in either the sciences or math is irrelevant).

I would try to shake off the thoughts, but they have an annoying habit of lingering longer than they should. These negative thoughts also have a bad habit of dropping in without any notice.

The good thing is, I have since learned that I have the power to choose my thoughts. These days, I am getting better at identifying if a particular thought is biblical or not.

If you’re finding yourself in a similar situation where unwanted thoughts drop in without your permission, these few pointers may help you.

1) Think Positive Thoughts

In the 2003 animated movie, Finding Nemo, Gill (the black-and-white striped fish that was trapped in an aquarium with the rest of his fish pals and was planning an escape) ordered the school of fish to “be as gross as possible. Think dirty thoughts. We’re gonna make this tank so filthy the dentist will have to clean it.”

In a cartoon setting, it’s easy to see how “dirty thoughts” can actually pollute a fish tank. But Gill’s words work in reality too—our “dirty thoughts” can affect our lives. If we entertain negative thoughts such as, “I can’t do this”, “I’m too dumb”, or “No one likes me”, we will eventually believe those thoughts to be true and it can be disastrous.

For example, if I were to beat myself up every time I burned my dinner and think I’m “stupid” for failing to serve up a decent meal, I’ll eventually give up learning how to do a proper dish and probably miss out on the joy that can come from creating delicious food.

The good news is that the Bible says we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), and I believe this means we have been equipped to act and think like Him. Instead of sitting around entertaining our “dirty thoughts”, we are called to re-focus our thoughts on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (Philippians 4:8). For example, in the midst of suffering, trials, and tribulations, we can swap thoughts such as “I can’t do this” with God’s truth, such as “I can do all things through Him [Christ] who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

It’s only when we start filling our minds with God’s truths that we’ll be able to break away from the chains of negative thoughts.

2) Bring Every Thought Into Obedience

“You know, I sometimes feel like the village idiot. That one person who, you know, means well and tries to help everyone, but is just a little . . . simple,” I told my sister one evening. She looked at me in surprise and asked what made me entertain such a thought.

I explained that the thought had popped into my head when I was showering after swim practice. It was a particularly long Friday. I had a very busy day at work and I felt like I hadn’t done my best at swim practice. I had to ask my coach to repeat the sets to me twice and I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do after I had set off.

To top it off, a group of eight-year-olds were actually a lot faster than me. That’s when those words from my math tuition teacher crept into my mind, and I started believing that was the reason the kids had beaten me. I was too stupid to even swim properly.

I was held bondage to the lies that I was “stupid” and was therefore incompetent when it came to completing tasks set before me. To overcome the lies said to me, I had to first fight against any negative thoughts which came free-falling into my head.

In 2 Corinthians 10:5-7, we are told to “refute arguments and theories and reasonings and every proud and lofty thing that sets itself up against the [true] knowledge of God: and we lead every thought and purpose away captive into the obedience of Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One)”.

I sometimes picture my negative thoughts as a wild beast running through my head, like a bull in a china shop, shattering my self-confidence and everything in between. Then I imagine myself rushing toward the bull like an animal officer would, with a tranquilizer in hand, in a bid to calm the bull and have it dragged to God because it’s not welcomed.

3) Spend Time with God

The Bible says we are not fighting against “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

This means we can’t fight these thoughts with our own strength. We need to spend time in prayer, asking God to equip us for battle. We need to put on the “full armour of God” which consists of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:13-17).

When we gird ourselves with His armour, we can stand against the fiery arrows of negative thoughts fired at us by the devil.

Admittedly, I don’t spend as much time praying and being in fellowship with Him as much as I want to. And I only run to Him in times of trouble. But as we spend time with Him, we begin to discern His voice and learn if the thoughts that come floating into our heads are of His or mere rubbish. Just as Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Would God call me stupid, useless, good for nothing? No, He wouldn’t. God tells us He loves us because we are “precious and honoured in His sight” (Isaiah 43:4) and He has purchased us with “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).

So therefore, the next time the sentence, “You’re pretty useless” or any form of negative thought comes drifting into your mind, you can tell it, “No, you’re not of God”.

Ultimately, we have the choice to choose our thoughts and the little thoughts we process and accept will affect our future. As a famous quote goes, “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny”.

ODB: Snapping, Snarling Thoughts

Many years ago, my father and I hiked through Big Bend in Texas. It’s a national park now, but in those days it was rough country.

One night we were rolling out our sleeping bags when a couple with a dog asked if they could camp nearby. We welcomed their company and turned in for the night. They tethered their dog to a stake beside their tent.

Some hours later my father nudged me awake and turned his flashlight into the darkness. Illuminated by the light, we saw pairs of yellow eyes peering out of the shadows. A pack of snapping and snarling coyotes were closing in on the dog. Although we chased them off and our neighbors put the dog in their tent, we slept fitfully.

I think of that night when I read Psalm 59 and David’s twice-repeated imagery: “At evening they return, they growl like a dog” (vv.6,14). David was thinking of Saul’s army that was closing in on him. I think, however, of the thoughts that return to menace us. They come back at nightfall, snapping and snarling: “You’re stupid.” “You’re a failure.” “You’re useless.” “Who needs you?”

When we have such thoughts, we can revel in God’s unconditional, unending love. His steady devotion is our refuge in the dark night of self-doubt and fear (v.16).

— David H. Roper

August 1, 2013 

READ: Psalm 59 

You have been my defense and refuge in the day of my trouble. —Psalm 59:16 

Many years ago, my father and I hiked through Big Bend in Texas. It’s a national park now, but in those days it was rough country.

One night we were rolling out our sleeping bags when a couple with a dog asked if they could camp nearby. We welcomed their company and turned in for the night. They tethered their dog to a stake beside their tent.

Some hours later my father nudged me awake and turned his flashlight into the darkness. Illuminated by the light, we saw pairs of yellow eyes peering out of the shadows. A pack of snapping and snarling coyotes were closing in on the dog. Although we chased them off and our neighbors put the dog in their tent, we slept fitfully.

I think of that night when I read Psalm 59 and David’s twice-repeated imagery: “At evening they return, they growl like a dog” (vv.6,14). David was thinking of Saul’s army that was closing in on him. I think, however, of the thoughts that return to menace us. They come back at nightfall, snapping and snarling: “You’re stupid.” “You’re a failure.” “You’re useless.” “Who needs you?”

When we have such thoughts, we can revel in God’s unconditional, unending love. His steady devotion is our refuge in the dark night of self-doubt and fear (v.16).

— David H. Roper

Dear Lord, I am so thankful that You love me
unconditionally. Please chase away destructive thoughts
that keep returning to take away my confidence in You
and Your work in me. I want to rest in You and Your love.

Knowing that God loves us can dispel doubt.