I’ve been thinking a lot lately about submission, particularly in the area of submitting to God’s will for me in the pain that I experience. As you and I wrestle with pain as believers, our desire (ideally) is to be submitted to God’s will for us. We pray for a heart that is submitted to His perfect plan for our lives, and we long to have peace about that plan. Some days, even sometimes for weeks or months at a time, we experience that sense of peace, and believe that we have “finally” submitted our will to His, and can move past the sorrow and grief over what has become our lives.
But then, as it happened for me this week, something new or different comes up. Our pain increases or our disease progresses, and the increased suffering refreshes the grief, and makes us wonder if we were ever really submitted at all. Perhaps that was a false peace that was produced, merely by getting used to the pain or having some sense of control over it. I am back in physical therapy, trying to overcome the regression in my condition since the last round of PT. Scar tissue has thickened, and my knee has stiffened considerably since the last time I was in therapy. The practitioner is working hard to get me back to a more functional range of motion, but the process is extremely painful and I have been struggling with contentment and submission these last few weeks.
This morning, I talked with a friend about my frustration: “Why do I still get such a deep sense of grief and sadness about this physical situation? When will I ever finally make peace with God about it, being totally submitted to Him in the circumstance? At this point, I am almost more frustrated about what seems to be an unwillingness to submit my heart to His will for me, than I am about the pain and dysfunction of the leg!”
My friend asked me some very good questions, which had me thinking and wrestling for the rest of the day with this: What does submission look like? Is it walking around all the time with a big smile on my face, never feeling sad about the losses I’ve experienced because of this pain? Does it mean that I would never revisit the grief of knowing that things could have been different “if only” I had known in the early days after that surgery, what I know now? Does it mean that, when these things do come up, I can bounce back in ten minutes or less? I believe the answer to all of these questions is no.
I do not believe that the Lord expects us to turn some kind of spiritual corner, after which we never feel sad about our loss again. Paul asked the Lord three times to remove the thorn in his side. Some believe this thorn was a physical problem, while others say it was persecution. Regardless, Paul clearly desired to be rid of it. I don’t believe he asked only three times, either. Maybe up to the point of that writing he had only asked three times, but there’s nothing that says he never asked again, or that he never grieved over that particular thing again. Even a cursory look at the Psalms confirms that committed followers of God ache, grieve, and cry over their pain. Our dear Savior Himself also grieved much. He lamented over Israel; wept over the death of Lazarus; and cried out to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, that he might be excused from His ultimate suffering.
So, if the evidence of submission is not a complete forgetting and never feeling sad again, then how are we to know whether or not we are submitted to God in our pain? As I have pondered this, the Lord has brought to my mind three questions that might help us sort through the many emotions and responses that our pain produces, and figure out if we are submitted sufferers or recalcitrant rebels:
1. Do you desire contentment in pain, and do you long to be fully submitted to God’s will, or is there a part of you that is still nursing resentment toward God about your situation? You will need the Lord’s help to discern the thoughts and intents of your heart, because it is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). If you’re not sure, commit yourself to prayer, asking the Lord to reveal to you the truth about your heart. He is faithful, and will do it.
2. Where are you taking your feelings of frustration and sorrow? Are you complaining to friends and snapping at family, or are you crying out to the Lord for His help and comfort? Again, examine your life lately. Think about your relationships. If you’re not sure, ask your friends and family what they are experiencing as they relate with you. Give them permission to be honest, and ask the Lord to prepare you to humbly receive their answers.
3. Have feelings of hopelessness begun to creep into your heart? This is a sure sign of two things: Your focus has shifted from Christ to your pain, and you have planted your hope in physical healing instead of in Christ. Colossians 3 tells us to think on things above, not on things of the earth. I believe that God inspired Paul to write this passage because He knew that we would be tempted in exactly this way. There is nothing like a painful condition to tempt us to fix our minds on earthly things, and if we are consumed with our pain, then we are not submitted in it.
I’m sure there are other heart tests to diagnose whether or not we are submitted to God, but the bottom line is this: Even if we are fully submitted to God’s will for our lives, we are still frail, human creatures with weaknesses of which our Creator is fully aware. His expectation of us is simply that we look to Him in our pain, and trust Him in the process. He does not require plastic smiles, emotionless suffering, or complete self-forgetfulness. He wants us to want to submit to Him in all of our circumstances, both happy and otherwise. The good news is that even that desire to submit is a gift from Him, not something that we can muster up on our own.
So, take heart, my dear sister. Even if our little submission test today has revealed sin issues, remember that it is God who grants repentance and hope. Take your pain, your sorrow, and your grief to the Lord in prayer. Never hesitate to beg and plead for healing, but if physical healing doesn’t come, never doubt that He can heal your heart, soften your stubborn will, and bring you into joyful submission to His plan.
But remember, joyful submission may look like tears, sadness, and sorrow at times. Get rid of the misconception that, once you are submitted, you will never cry over your loss again, and embrace the truth that you are human, with feelings and emotions that will sometimes spill over when pain brings them to the tipping point. And when that happens, trust the Lord to collect those tears in His bottle, and to offer you the comfort and love of His gracious heart. Hallelujah! What a Comforter! What a Savior!