Tears streaming down my face, I wanted to scream at God. Never in my life had I felt such overwhelming desperation, fear and loneliness. In this torrent of emotions, Satan whispered, How could God be good if He takes from you the one thing you love most?
When my husband left our marriage last year, I was crushed and heartbroken. This wasn’t supposed to happen — not to me. As a teenager I watched my parents divorce, and I vowed to choose a different path. I sought godly counsel, didn’t jump into a relationship, and prayed and waited for over half a decade before walking down the aisle. And then my carefully planned dreams shattered into a million pieces. It felt like my life was over.
Where Is God in This Pain?
I know others have experienced this. Maybe your relationship fell apart, and the person you love most walked away. Maybe you grieve over a life snuffed out too soon or an unexpected diagnosis that left you shell-shocked. Maybe the door slammed shut on your career, and you feel stuck in a job you hate with student loans hanging over your head.
The idealism of our college years usually gives way to the painful reality that life rarely turns out quite like we hope. We plan and dream, but not every dream comes true. Even if we get what we think will make us happy, it’s tainted by this imperfect world and can leave us feeling confused and disillusioned.
Where is God? And what does it mean to be in relationship with Him as we walk through hardship? How do we make sense of good dreams being ripped out of our hands?
When my life fell apart, I did the only thing I knew to do at the time: I bought a 30-liter backpack and booked a ticket. Among other places, my quest for answers led me to the Roman Coliseum, where countless early Christians were torn apart by lions. I felt pretty torn apart, too. Looking up at the towering walls of nearly 2000-year-old stone, I imagined a jeering crowd of onlookers who viewed death as sport, and it made me wonder.
What does God promise me, exactly? Whatever God promised me in the midst of this suffering was also true for these men and women as they faced wild beasts. What did they cling to? The Apostle Paul’s words echoed through my mind:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39).
I can’t pinpoint the day or moment I believed the lie of the “Christian American Dream,” but a thousand moments shaped my expectations for God and what He owed me. Somewhere along the way, I mistakenly came to believe if I do the right thing (obey God’s commands, surrender my life to Him, etc.), God will give me what I want and bless me with ______. I filled in the blank with my desire for a godly husband and children to love and nurture (although a white picket fence wasn’t essential).
We want it to be true, and we can proof-text countless verses to back it up — passages about God’s blessing and abundance and God giving us the desires of our heart. However, this incomplete theology twists God’s Word and reduces the Creator of the Universe to a vending machine who exists, like Coca Cola, to open happiness.
None of us are exempt from the struggles of living in a broken world. Life happens, and following God doesn’t mean you will be “protected” from pain and loss.
I see the evidence of living in a fallen world in my single friends who long to be married, and among those who are single again after a tragic death or divorce. I see it in those who ache to be parents but struggle to conceive, and those who hold a beautiful newborn in their arms, only to bury their child a few days later. I see it in my friends who marry into blended families, suddenly taking on the responsibility of parenting unruly teenagers. I see it in my friends who embrace the challenges of adoption and among those who must set their own dreams aside to care for a chronically ill family member.
Messy. That’s what life is. Whether you follow God or forsake Him, it’s messy. After all, Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have trouble,” and Peter admonished early believers, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” One way or another, disappointment and suffering are inescapable. I looked for God’s promise that “If you love Me and obey Me, I will make all your dreams come true,” but I couldn’t find it — because this world isn’t Disneyland, and we don’t exist to be entertained and happy and safe.
Here’s What God Does Promise You
Along the winding streets of Italy, somewhere between strong espresso and sore feet, I began to embrace an uncomfortable but life-giving truth: God doesn’t promise us a pain-free life, a happy marriage, a healthy body, a house full of kids or a job we love. These are good dreams, but they’re not guarantees. God doesn’t promise us a certain outcome; He promises us himself.
And where my heart bucks up against that truth and pushes back and says that’s not enough, it’s because I don’t fully comprehend and live in the abundant reality of who Jesus is. How easy it is to view Him more like a vending machine — mechanistic, distant, and impersonal — forgetting “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:19).
How do we untangle our expectations of what we think God owes us from what His Word actually promises us? We can cling even tighter to our dreams, trying frantically to piece back together the broken shards of glass, or we can release them into our loving Father’s hands. We can pour our hearts out to God and invite safe people into the struggle with us, to be a witness to our pain and tangibly embody the love of God that feels so abstract. To grieve with us and hold out hope when we’re on the edge of despair. To believe for us when our faith is shaky. To help us make sense of suffering, and when there are no answers, to rest in the rock-solid truth of what we know: God is here. Right now, in these moments of desperation and pain and longing.
You may feel like your life is over, that you will never be whole again. You may have a lot of questions for God. I did. Some days I still do. But I’m learning, bit by bit, to loosen my grip on the things I kept so close. Instead, I’m holding my dreams loosely and holding tightly to my loving Father’s hands.
My shattered marriage has revealed how many things I was expecting and even demanding of God and how easy it is to use our relationship with Him as a means to the end of “the good life,” rather than realizing He is the ultimate dream, the end, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
God may not always give us what we want, but we can rest in knowing that He is at work, even, and perhaps especially, in the midst of darkness and loss. Shattered dreams aren’t just something to survive. Recent research by Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte suggests that the most life-shaping moments are often those that involve pain, trauma and loss. Tragedy disorients us, often resulting in posttraumatic stress, but it also provides the opportunity for posttraumatic growth. Pain rips open wide our souls to God, so He can shape us into men and women we otherwise wouldn’t — or couldn’t — be.
One day, “Everything sad will come untrue,” Samwise Gamgee reminds us in The Lord of the Rings, but it may not be today or even in our lifetime. God may not restore things exactly like they were before, but He will be there — He will meet you in those desperate places where your worst fears come true.
So next time you find yourself facing lions — perhaps even standing by helplessly as they rip your dreams to shreds — remember the story isn’t over yet. There’s beauty even in the midst of loss. There’s hope even in the midst of pain. I can’t guarantee you’ll get a fairy-tale ending, but what I can tell you is this: Jesus will be there. He will sustain you. And He will birth new dreams out of shattered ones. This is the metanarrative that gives us courage and strength in the midst of suffering.
Copyright 2016 Laura Captari. All rights reserved.