More Than You Can Handle // Suffering & Faith

As some of you know I’m currently working on a unit of the Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer. I have the privilege of visiting with patients in Halifax, learning from some amazing spiritual care providers, and doing a lot of reflection. This piece has come out of a number of conversations I’ve had with very similar themes. So, without further ado, let’s talk about suffering and faith.

There is a harmful adage that has been floating around forever, and it goes as follows:

God will never give you more than you can handle.

I was visiting with a patient in the hospital who parroted that to me when we were talking about how overwhelming her diagnosis was. I asked her “Do you really believe that?” She stopped for a moment and laughed, she said: “No, I don’t”. I told her “I don’t either. I think that’s bullshit, frankly.” We both laughed together at that, and she turned to her roommate, who sat in his chair by the bed next to her, saying, “I like this girl.”

I have a whole list of problems with this adage, which I believe promotes just plain-old bad theology. Some of them I’d like to share with you.

God gives you the suffering, pain, heartache and horrors that you need to endure.

How did we get from the God of love to this god? A god that doles out horrors to his children? Who is this abusive, vengeful God who punishes? It seems so inconsistent with the parent Jesus speaks of.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[f] to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13, NRSV)

The pain you’re experiencing should, and can, be endured.

This particular part makes me furious and leads to comments from others about how weak someone’s faith must be if they are overwhelmed. As if God did not hear the cries of the afflicted. As if God did not see fit to end people’s suffering because it was too much.

Part of the reason why folks end their lives, why they kill themselves, is because they are trapped in worlds they cannot endure. The same goes for self-medication and other escapist coping strategies. By believing this adage we minimise the suffering of others, trivialise their experiences, by claiming that the situation–one that is not our own–was endurable.

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When we quip about “all things being possible” through God, we seem to forget that Jesus, in Matthew, was speaking about how we are able to enter into the sovereignty of God despite our humanity (Matt. 19:16-30). This wasn’t a teaching on suffering quietly, but one about people who claim piety. It is not a call to suffer unbearable pain happily, but for those who live in privilege to truly sacrifice in the name of God’s vision for creation.

The fact of the matter is, people across the globe are given more than they can handle. Earnest people of faith across the globe are given more than they can handle.

Hearts fail. Lives are taken. Minds break under the weight of trauma.

So, let’s stop trivialising, minimising and erasing the very real experiences of people–ordinary people–who are suffering. Let’s stop using grotesque clichés that warp our theology and lead us to victim blaming.

Instead, let us respond to one another in kind. As reflections of the God of steadfast loving kindness. A god who does not bring suffering, but comfort to the afflicted, and rest to the weary. Let us be God’s hands and feet, helping to alleviate the suffering of others; offering our companionship so that they not to carry their burdens alone.

Amen.

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Adulthood // My Life as I’ve Known It

Most of my life, as I supposed many others have done, I’ve pursued the evolution of myself. This is an idea that is deeply ingrained in North American culture, the continually pursuit of bigger and better. Some might call it the ‘grass is greener on the other side’ phenomenon.

For myself, this idea took its greatest form in my obsession with growing up. Now, I truly believe all children should have a healthy amount of ambition for growing up, lest we all fall into grotesquely imbalanced personas like Peter Pan’s. We should all look with some hope towards our futures, towards our personal growth and the exciting challenges it will bring. Yet, hoping towards a future and desperately believe all my 8-year-old problems would be solved by turning 13 are completely different ideas altogether. One, a healthy developmental tool, and the other a logical fallacy.

Grade One, I believed Grade Six was the pinnacle of life and success, and Grade Six brought dreams of Grade Seven. Grade Seven, similar to being in Grade Six was absolutely rotten so of course Grade Nine would be excellent–though I always knew in my heart of hearts University would be the crowning achievement of my life, as a put-together adult in an environment of my peers. My parents had fostered a healthy admiration for University, reinforced by 90’s and 2000’s culture of the awesome college experience cliche in sitcoms and movies.

Sadly, Grade Nine led to Grade Ten and a promotion into High School, which brought my angsty self into a weary three years of pain and torture. Laying in my bed at night I ran the gauntlet of existential crisis: Why am I here? What is the point of life? Do I even exist? What if faith is a lie? What will happen if both my parents die in a car crash and my 18-year-old brother has to raise me? To say the least, I slept very little in those days, but during these periods of introspection, I realized no matter how old I was getting nothing ever seemed to get better!

I made a couple decisions then, that when I went to University I wanted to be really open, experience a trial-by-fire (metaphorical fire), date a guy (maybe, but definitely not get married just yet), and figure out who the heck I was right then, and not who I’d be in five years. If this was to be the pinnacle of my life, and my entrance into adulthood then it would be as epic as I could muster!

And, honestly, I did more or less that. I lived in community (St. Stephen’s University) with an incredible group of people who pushed me to question myself in healthy ways that did border on self-inflicted existential crises. I experienced diversity in faith traditions and belief. I traveled. I grew. I fell in love with myself and my now husband. I also lost my mother to illness. I lost the dignity I had constructed for myself based on my rightness and my strength. I cried a lot, and my community members helped me grind down some of my sharp, and dangerous, edges. (I still have lots, of course, but we’re getting there.) Giving myself over to the life I had in the present was an incredibly rewarding experience, and my only regret is that it took 18 years for me to start figuring that out!

I left that place as someone, instead of a half-person always looking forward to being something. I had firm ground underneath me, and a keen new understanding of what being an adult could look like. With all the idealism I mustered I jumped into a new universe that I thought I was prepared for I realized. Yet, once again I learned that the world was a difficult place to exist in. I thought I had found myself as an adult, and I had, but that person was then asked to stretch farther.

Finding yourself is an exercise that must repeat constantly, however exhausting it may be.

Marriage, moving, finding and losing work, unemployment and bad bosses broken me open toreexamininge the person I was becoming, this newly discovered being that wasn’t finished forming. Being an adult, or a human being, is more than sanding down edges. When I began deconstructing my obsession with rightness and strength I had forgotten to discipline myself to grow in personal strength and self-knowing. Being an adult wasn’t just about learning to discern healthy paradigms from childish ones, it was also about setting yourself up in a space where you can grow. As the world changes around you, you need to be able to foster the skills and qualities that will help you thrive.

I was a child who had learned what being an adult meant, but I hadn’t realized how to grow myself into that person–appreciating where I was and where I could go.

Now, after a difficult two years out in the “real world” things are looking brighter. I’m trying not to obsess about where I’ll be next year or in five years, but appreciate where I’m at. I’m also trying not to be too hard on myself for not living the life I want in this moment, and instead filling my week with people and activities that will grow and sustain me.

I am content ‘here’; I am curious about ‘there’.

It’s exciting to reflect on, in a way. Looking back we can see how much the tree has grown and the shape it is taking. Maybe I was too young to do that before, only ever seeing the smallest growth. Right now, I feel like a sturdy sapling. There is something to me: a quality of strength, a direction, a genre. I think I would make Sixth Grade me proud, only I wish I could tell her how proud I am of her–that she’s getting here/there, one day at a time, and there’s no shame in that.

The Reverend Quiet // Self-Medication

At the end of this day, at this particular second, held between a mug of beer and a cigarillo, I feel like the moment I’m experiencing was made for another person–a quieter self.

On Sunday the Minister at First United talked with the kids about playing dress up, how playing other selves can open us to new experiences and perspectives.

I think, tonight, that is what I’m doing. Playing dress up in the hopes of feeling like someone else for a moment. Stepping away from my melancholy to indulge in some beautiful quiet. These are the sacred moments for me–my deck, the darkness, soft music, beer and a cigarillo–these are my holy moments, sparse but powerful.

My Reverend Quiet; my closest minister. I am relearning to breathe between all the chaos of anxiety and duty, expressed through daily life’s simple tugs: chores, work, friends, study…etc.

I think a lot of people might judge the way I’m choosing to escape, telling me I’m self-medicating. And, I am, I know I am. But, at the heart of it that’s what I believe sacred stillness is. It is opening oneself up to the healing and peace that comes from resting in the rich beauty of the world around us. A beauty that is painful and raw and soothing in all of its realness; a realness that assures us we are one part of a greater tangible whole.

I may be getting a little abstract, but Reverend Quiet does that to me–we meet far too little, at my own fault and detriment. Unfortunately it takes a wounded heart to bring me here, and an excuse like a mug of beer and a smoke (did I mention there’s chocolate?) to set aside the time. As an extravert I almost need an excuse to bring myself to a place of intentional quiet and stillness.

So, I happily self-medicate on music and quiet, removing myself from a den of over-eating and obsessively watching Netflix. I sit in my peace and hope towards this different self, that when tomorrow finally comes I’ll wake up as one part more of her.

That is my prayer.