While we were dating, my husband and I talked and thought a lot about marriage. We knew we wanted to get married and we wanted it to be successful, so we talked through many of the issues that come up with married couples: our personalities, our needs, how we communicate, what we expected from one another, what our dreams were for our relationship. Once we tied the knot, we put the pedal to the metal and had to live out all those thoughts and conversations. We then began talking about having children. We knew we wanted kids, so we talked about the issues that come up with raising children: our goals as parents, discipline, decision-making, schooling, even things like toys and TV. We have two babies now that give us plenty of practice working out our talks.
Just the other day, in fact, my two year old had an incredible melt-down. He is usually very sweet and mild-mannered, but some perfect storm of hunger and fatigue had him smacking his head into the floor and screaming. We tried our usual interventions, but he was not responding to us in the least and often we only made it worse. I persisted with him, being firm but gentle, not wanting to be manipulated by him but also wanting to help him overcome his emotions. His fit lasted for close to an hour and by the end of it, I felt exhausted and emotionally spent. As I sunk into the couch while my son happily squealed and played with his toys like nothing had ever happened, my husband said, "You really handled that very well." I look at him, eyebrow raised, and laughed. "Seriously?" "Yeah," he said, "You were really great with him." I thought he was insane. I felt like I was going crazy, having no idea how to help this screaming beast, and my husband thought I was being a good parent. As I thought about it later, trying to figure out if I had handled well or what I would do the next time around, I realized that I had played out our conversations about what we do in the event of something like that. We had talked about it, I had thought about it, and when the time came to face the situation, I didn't have to think about it in the moment; I just reacted. Not out of anger or emotion or frustration, but out of a reasoned place, a place we built in quiet, childless moments that I could walk back into in the storm.
Everyone needs to build a sanctuary for a time of suffering. Just like my husband and I thought about marriage and parenting before we were in the trenches, we also thought about suffering. It sounds morbid; why would you want to imagine yourself in a terrible situation that may never happen? Because one day, it might happen, and you need to be prepared.
I wrote yesterday about the charge of another parent acquainted with pain, a charge that helped me start thinking about God and suffering, how God could still be good in a world full of bad. He was by no means the only one who spurred me on to think about this. The community we enjoyed in times of happiness was also the community we linked arms with in times of trial. And in all of those times, we learned from our brothers and sisters. We learned about how to have faith when facing cancer. We learned about how to fight back from denying God after the death of a loved one. We learned about how to find joy in the blessings we had when God wasn't giving us more blessings. Our pastor often addressed these issues in his sermons, teaching us God's words as they spoke into these pains. He also never shies away from preaching through difficult portions of scripture as he meets them. Passages that make me squirm to read, our pastor digs into and shows us how instead, those passages should make us praise.
We thought a lot -- a lot -- about suffering before we ever really encountered it. My husband and I enjoyed five years (to the day before our daughter was born) of relatively carefree, happy marriage. Sure, we worked through the usual "why are your socks everywhere, please don't give me the silent treatment" issues every married couple encounters, but we hadn't really had to face anything very difficult. We welcomed our son who was one of the easiest, sweetest babies that ever was (still is). We had fun being parents together and we were excited to do it again! We had no idea anything was wrong with our daughter, so in anticipation of her birth, we did not know to be preparing for heartache and fear and the sting of illness.
But God knew. God knew to prepare us, and He did. He put it on our hearts to seek to understand His love and the existence of suffering. I wish I could go into all of it here, but it is so very big. We thought about it for years. He brought people across our paths who could teach us from experience, who could show us how to walk through fire and not be burned. We walked with friends who experienced loss and raged against God for what had happened, and we walked with those friends as they returned to the light. We considered all the complexities and difficulties, pushed into all the hard parts and really sought to understand.
I think back often to my labor. It started very quietly; I wasn't sure I was even in labor for hours. I think back to the moment I really knew, and it baffles me to think that I had no idea about any of the problems we were about to face. I sat on my exercise ball in my bedroom and bounced through the pain. Pain brings you into the moment, so I wasn't thinking about what I did yesterday or what was coming tomorrow. If I thought even an hour ahead, it make me feel sick, thinking of the physical pain to come, so I didn't. I just bounced on my ball, moaned, and took the contractions, one pang at a time. I operated very well in those moments because I knew what was happening, I knew what to expect, I knew that my body was built for this very thing, and I knew I had done it before, so I could do it again.
It is crazy to me to think that up until then, I still didn't know what was coming. There was a time when I didn't know anything about thrombocytopenia or cytomegalovirus or ganciclovir or cochlear implants. I had no idea that the fire had already started, that the flames would come licking at our home, and that we would be choked on the smoke. I didn't know it was coming, but I was prepared. God had prepared me and I had sought to learn, even when it didn't seem important. And when the time came, I had a sanctuary, a haven I could escape to while I watched my home burn. I didn't have to think about whether God was with me; I knew He was. I didn't have to think about whether God was still good; I knew He was. I didn't have to think about whether God was in control; I knew He was.
The time to consider all these things is not when it all comes crashing down. God knew the trials we would face and He prepared us for them beforehand, but we also sought out that wisdom and didn't shy away from fear of discomfort or seeming morbid. Just like marriage and parenting, we considered the issues and talked about how we would respond. When the time came, our responses weren't made from a place of pain and emotion. They came from our safe havens, and often, involved us reminding ourselves of the truths we knew even when the smoke made it hard to see. Sure, it was very different to walk through the fire than to watch from afar. Yes, we struggled sometimes to hang on to what we knew was true. No experience is ever like you think it will be. But -- here we stand, (mostly) on the other side, not a heap of ashes. Instead, we shine a little brighter, a little more like the gold we will one day be.
He knows the way that I take;
when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back?
What he desires, that he does.
For he will complete what he appoints for me,
and many such things are in his mind.