Have you noticed we live in a “fix-it” culture? Each problem is screaming to be solved. We are exhorted to overcome pain through motivational speeches and the well-intentioned words of a friend. Each victory is exalted as the highest good to which we should strive. This message is forced down our throats, and so many of us have learned to swallow. Somewhere along the way, weakness became our shame, suffering an imposter, and each problem unattractive to be heard unless accompanied by a fairytale ending. In raging messages of victory regaling the triumph of the human spirit and miraculous resolutions to overwhelming odds, those in a state of prolonged suffering are unintentionally taught to suffer in silence. Even for those in the walk of faith, there can be a proclivity to celebrate God’s saving power and avoid stories that “merely” speak of His sustaining power. Oftentimes, we find no room to share stories of struggle unceasing. We internalize these messages, attempting to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and save ourselves from our messes. There is a narrative we must follow, one in which trying hard enough and long enough enables us to overcome anything. And if you do not overcome it, your faith is too weak. Or perhaps your sin is just too great.
This message is forced at us, both intentionally and unintentionally by well-wishers who think there must be a clear-cut triumph to the struggle. For them, pain must be wrapped up with a neat little bow. As K.J. Ramsey writes, “We feel ashamed of our suffering and confused about its role in our lives because the story we’ve been handed disowns grief and minimizes weakness. We struggle to accept and cope with suffering because our culture tells us to deny or hide it. Our silence and pretending is the inheritance of Christians who have so swallowed the American Dream we have lost sight of our suffering Lord.”¹ Rest easy my friends, for this message is not the truth.
“God, hold on to me, because I can’t hold onto You.”
There are few words that accurately articulate the acute sorrow of my soul in the nights I have faced. Horrid. Dark. Thick. If you are like me, you feel ashamed that the weakness of your faith has brought you to such a horrid spot. You wonder whether there is something wrong with you, something deeply broken, and if you knew how to fix it then everything could be better. You wonder if God is a cruel and relentless teacher waiting with a checklist in hand; waiting for you to check every box and learn your lesson before He comes in and “saves the day.” On a night when the darkness was suffocating and I feared the God I loved had left me, there came a cold, long-dreaded realization: I could not do it. The dark shadows that danced around my room and in my mind were overwhelming. All I could do was cry out, “Hold on to me; I can’t hold onto You.”
Unfortunately, there are undertones of the “fix-it” culture in the American church, specifically in cases of mental illness. It is a thing that must be cured, and fast, for what sort of God would allow suffering? They think it simply cannot be God, and that mental illness indicates something wrong with the individual’s faith. They exhort the mentally ill that if they were to simply do all the right things – checking every box – then they will be restored to a state of mental well-being. While this perspective may see immense value in steps toward mental health such as therapy and exercise, viewing them as beneficial and important, its emphasis often exalts these steps to be the salvation to our struggles. Too often it seems, God’s goodness becomes intertwined with the amount of flourishing we experience.
Please, my dear friends, know that this is not the Gospel.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9
The truth is that a message that preaches we must save ourselves and that God is only good if we are successful is a message deeply undermining God and His abundant grace. Expecting each story to be told through a lens of victory oftentimes allows us to forget our suffering Savior. A Savior who is able to empathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) and emptied Himself by “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7). God knew we could not save ourselves from our sin and suffering. Faith has never been about our ability to fix our own mess.
Starting with Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3, the biblical narrative consistently speaks to our need for a Savior. The world is full of injustice, suffering, and rebellion against God. Yet, God so loved the world that He sent His Son, Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Jesus entered into our brokenness, our sickness, our suffering, our sin, and He changed everything through His death and resurrection. He has freed us from the chains of sin (Romans 6:22) and our hope is everlasting as we place it in the One who is eternal (Titus 1:2). We are redeemed and we will be restored, whether on this side of Heaven or the other. This is the beautiful triumph that the well-wishers water down with empty words that ring of self-help.
Is this to mean that God will save us in our way, in our timing? By no means! My dear friends, the battle is hard and the road long. Each journey is different for the one who takes it. Yet through His sacrifice, we are no longer bound to a “fix-it” model. We have the freedom to engage in practices and methods that enrich our mental well-being while trusting Him to guide and be with us in the process. And while we strive toward healing, we should feel no pressure to hasten our journey to declare God’s goodness and be used by Him. It is His grace that saves and sustains. Because His power is made perfect in our weakness, when we are weak, we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Thus, our frailty meets His fullness in the grandest display of love and grace.
So my dear friends, bring before Him your wild sobs, your unshakeable rage, your racing thoughts, your deep insecurities, your seething remarks, your deep sorrow, your longings, your doubts. Bring Him all that is within you, and He will bring you grace.
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26
- Ramsey, K.J. This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers. Zondervan Reflective, 2020.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.