Published in Connections Magazine (September/October 2015)
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faith and family
by Marcus J. Carlson
The theme of this issue is faith and suffering. It is an important theme, one worth revisiting on a regular basis as suffering is a reality we all face this side of heaven. It is also important because our understanding and response to suffering is often flawed, as is our understanding of faith. Our intentions are good, but the depth of these topics requires consistent reflection.
As I reflect on family, children and adolescents, these topics are all the more important. In the midst of child and adolescent development, suffering is exponentially more complicated. It is during childhood and adolescence the vast majority of people come to faith and build a foundation of faith. Suffering and faith are deeply connected, and it is in our most painful of moments that we need God the most.
Suffering is hard. Obvious, right? Maybe so, but it is important to say it out loud, to recognize the difficulty of suffering. In fact, one of the greatest challenges in overcoming suffering is simply vocalizing and accepting our feelings about it, knowing that God can handle all of the emotions He created in us.
While suffering is hard, there is something even more difficult than suffering: watching those you love suffer. I would much rather face suffering myself than to have my family and those I love face it. As a parent I never want my children to suffer, and when they do it is deeply painful. Honestly, there is nothing worse than seeing my children suffer or to be in pain of any kind. Naturally I want to prevent and fix any suffering or pain in the lives of my children. I want to protect and save them from pain and suffering. Every loving parent feels this way, and yet every parent knows it is impossible to prevent, fix, protect and save our children from all the pain and suffering they might face.
As I reflect on how difficult of a reality this is for me, I can only begin to fathom how hard this must be for God. In the midst of suffering and pain we hope our children can learn from the difficulties we face. We desire to teach them and walk with them in a compassionate way as they process through suffering, pain and loss. This is one of the most holy, humbling, meaningful and challenging tasks we face as parents.
In attempting to make sense of suffering with my children, I recognize there is one important value, quality and concept I must instill in and teach my children: trust. The most valuable asset, tool and approach to suffering is a healthy, persistent and deep trust of God. In suffering, it is hardest to trust God because fairness and justice are often absent.
As we try to make sense of something that cannot be logically understood, it is difficult to feel the presence of God. We develop catchy cliches that at best represent poor theology, doing little to sustain us in the midst of suffering. Well intentioned—but often unhelpful and inaccurate Biblically and theologically—these sayings do not help us to trust God more or to process our pain and suffering in a meaningful and life-giving way. “God never gives me more than I can handle.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God must be testing me.”
While I do not believe any of these to be true (or Biblical), I do believe God is with us in the midst of suffering, perhaps most profoundly so. Whether the cause of our suffering is life, sin or the evil one, God is with us in the midst of it. Our pain and suffering breaks the heart of God. God desires, can and will make good of the suffering and pain we face, which brings me back to trust.
The word faith as it is used in the Scripture in many cases (both Old and New Testament), and especially in Paul’s usage, literally translates to trust. We often think of the word faith as belief, which is not necessarily wrong, but is a limited understanding of the word faith. Faith at its core is trust. I can believe in almost anything, but to trust something (or someone) is so much deeper, more meaningful, more powerful and more difficult.
Trust is vital, not only as the definition of faith, but in every aspect of our lives. Trust is the center of all of our relationships: at work, home and beyond. Trust is the cornerstone and the determining factor in the health of our marriages, friendships and other important relationships. Trust is essential, especially in parenting.
When it comes to our relationship with God, our faith and our Christianity, we recognize trust is the one thing we do. We trust God, and God does the rest. It is God who calls us, invites us, adopts us, saves us, sanctifies us and transforms us. We simply embrace what God has done, is doing and will do by trusting.
Trust is our one great act. It is the very foundation and definition of faith. Trusting God in the midst of suffering is extremely difficult, but it is the only way. It is the only way to survive, make sense of and see God’s redeeming work in the midst of suffering. In this way, we must learn to trust, teach our children to trust and model trust for them.
Brennan Manning, in his powerful book on this subject, Ruthless Trust, states: “The splendor of a human heart that trusts it is loved unconditionally gives God more pleasure than Westminster Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony”, Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, the sight of 10,000 butterflies in flight, or the scent of a million orchids in bloom. Trust is our gift back to God, and he finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it.”
Our call as Christ followers, the church, adults and parents is to teach and mentor our children. It is a commitment we make in birth, baptism and more. Jesus was passionate about children and indignant when they were slighted and ignored. This is a high and challenging call for us all, a great responsibility, but also a humbling gift.
Teaching, mentoring and caring for our children may be the most difficult in the midst of suffering, yet we know that it is in these moments God can take the difficult situations of life and turn them into powerful moments of deep faith. The best thing we can do for the faith of our children is to teach them to trust God, help them to trust God, and model a trust of God for them. We must avoid the temptation to shelter, explain or fix the pain and suffering they face and walk with them so their trust of God may grow.
Faith is difficult. Pain and suffering are overwhelming, dis- couraging and heartbreaking, especially when experienced by our children and adolescents. In these moments our rela- tionship with God and our relationship with our children and adolescents is very important.
May we trust God in the midst of suffering and in all aspects of life.
May we trust God with our children and may we model trust for all the children and adolescents God has put in our lives..