I went to the ER in June with a 103-degree fever two days running. It was the same fever I had contracted when I ate some food in my travels to Bolivia a month earlier. I had visited Bolivia for one week to work with our good friends who live, work, and serve at their local church. I enjoyed my friends, and I worked along side my buddy and his neighbors and church members to develop their community together while I was there. Bolivia is a developing country. It’s the most impoverished Latin American country from years of warring nations stealing their resources, blocking them from trade on the coast, and regime after regime of extreme corruption oppressing their own people for personal gain. I entered into that poverty for one week and got the sickest I’ve been in my life from eating salad. It was no unexplained mystery or “boogie man”. Bacteria got in my blood and made me so sick I was delusional. I was seeing star bands across my field of vision, hurt all over, and was extremely dehydrated to the point that I would have died without medical attention of some sort. I needed an I.V. and some antibiotics to kill the malevolent bacteria. I also experienced the grace of God during this low point.
Most people want to experience grace, or unmerited favor from someone they’re connected to: friends, family, a mentor, a higher power of some sort, or, in my case, I’ll refer to God. People want to do well. People want to have nice things. And people want meaningful relationships of varying degrees. At the root of relationships, I believe people want to feel loved and know they are favored. I believe people can experience God’s unmerited love and favor at all points in life. In times of celebration, challenge, and even suffering.
Some people know the grace of God. They have experienced it. Grace in real life. Some people have endured so much in their life that they know they couldn’t have made it day by day without the grace of God. Some people depend on God’s grace to make it through today, and will need it to make it through tomorrow. Others have had a pretty good life and perhaps have less of a need of grace. I wish a good life for us all, but if we have all we need, have no trials to speak of, and have no loss or suffering, then we may have little felt-need for grace. I often feel like I have a pretty good life and don’t have a lot to complain about. I might even be so bold (or honest) to say I don’t always feel my need for grace. If I have a good day, maybe I didn’t feel I needed God’s grace to make it through. I wager many of my friends, neighbors and countrymen have pretty good lives overall compared to many others in our world. I wonder how much we all feel the need for God’s grace in our lives? Absolutely, there are story after story of how we have endured trials, challenges, and problems. Assuredly, we can share stories of hardship, loss, and suffering. I do sense a feeling that many of us wish and pray to never go through these things so we can continue on in our good life that works out all the time.
So what do we do when we experience real life challenges and suffering? We can experience grace in the midst of suffering. Psalms is the great book of hymns and prayers written by King David of old as well as his seers and priests. Psalm 119 is the longest poetic prayer-hymn with many stanzas and a total of 176 verses! This psalm contains a familiar and encouraging verse: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path (v.105).” The psalmist only recites these words after proclaiming this: “Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope. My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your good news. The word from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant. Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your ways are my delight (vs. 49,50,71,72,75-77).” Obviously, the psalmist is talking about more than the verses I’ve selected, but I’m looking at a certain element of this prayer. Whoever is praying these prayers to God is thanking God for suffering! They’re saying it was good to be afflicted, but moreover God was faithful through the affliction.
This is astounding to me, but I recently heard a similar authentic prayer from a man in Bolivia. He started his prayer by thanking God for his family and church and God’s provision in his life (which was pretty meager compared to an American standard of living). Then he prayed something like this: ”Heavenly Father, thank you for times of trial and suffering in our lives. It is these times when we know we need you most. It is these times that we experience your grace and goodness so that we may be drawn closer to you. We experience your grace through your living words in the Bible, through your words of life spoken by our pastor, and through the encouragement and fellowship of our brothers and sisters in our church.” I wept as he prayed this authentic, grateful prayer. I’ve never heard anyone thank God for suffering like this man had. I knew of some of his suffering. He almost died of a severe illness the year before! He had truly experienced the love and grace of his heavenly Father. He was thankful for the awful experiences that lead to that point because of the richness of God’s grace he experienced, and because he felt like he got to know God in a more intimate and real way. What a testimony to share!
I hope more of us continue to experience the goodness of God and receive his grace. I hope more of us might learn that trials, hardships, and suffering can actually be an opportunity to receive God’s grace ourselves, and may present an opportunity to reflect the quality and character of God to others enduring such circumstances. Our mission at CCC continues to be, “Expressing the love of God by equipping the Church to help people.” My prayer is that our neighbors experience a concrete expression of grace each time we are together. For those of us enduring suffering, hear the words of the psalmist once more, and may we pray this together for one another: ”Defend my cause and redeem me; preserve my life according to your promise. Great peace have they who love your ways, and nothing can make them stumble. I wait for your salvation, O LORD (vs.154 & 165).”