By Kristen M. White, Psy.D., Director for Master of Arts in Counseling.
“One of the main ways we move from abstract knowledge about God to a personal encounter with him as a living reality is through the furnace of affliction.” ― Timothy Keller
I’ve read this quote before, but it seems to take on a whole new depth of meaning as we live together, as an entire world, through a furnace of affliction. Our lives are full of losses and uncertainty seems to mark our future. Several great articles have helped us to name our experiences as fatigue, grief, and even trauma. Even with these helpful words though, sometimes it still feels like all of creation is still groaning, my soul right along with it.
In this suffering, one of our default reactions is often to ask why this is happening—is God punishing us? Testing our faith? What?? We are meaning-making creatures, and we want to understand and make meaning out of this crisis. While these are fair questions, I question their helpfulness; ultimately, even if we could answer them, we would still be left with our pain and suffering. An abstract answer tied to an abstract God does little to comfort our souls.
As we groan with creation, we need a personal encounter with the living God. We need a God who comes down to live among us and carry our pain. Amazingly, that is exactly what we find in Jesus. But how do we encounter Him during this crisis, when our souls feel overwhelmed with loss and our bodies feel sluggish with fatigue?
The arena of spiritual formation may help us here. Spiritual formation is about “being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others” (Robert Mulholland). It is about encountering God in the midst of actual lives. It is about entering into the intimate dance of our Trinitarian God, allowing that dance to move us into “whole-life alignment with God’s redemptive story” (SoulFormation).
Spiritual formation provides us various tools we can use to encounter God in the midst of lives—whether they are full of suffering or joy or anything in between. These tools are called spiritual disciplines, and they give us ideas for what we can do to make space for God’s presence and the movement of His Spirit in our lives. Here are some specific examples that may be helpful during this time:
Learn to lament
In many of our American, Protestant churches, we have replaced lament with the hard work and problem-solving of a Protestant work ethic. While those are good skills too, it is Biblical and appropriate to let our souls cry out before God. He is a safe person to whom we take all of our big feelings, whether they involve tears or shouts or anything in between. Consider writing your own Psalm of lament to express your heart to God in this time.
If you find you have no words (or you reach the end of them), allow yourself to simply “be still” (Psalm 46:10) with God—the God who knows you intimately (Psalm 139) and loves you completely (Ephesians 3). Practices like centering prayer and breath prayer, where we repeat a simple phrase or name for God while sitting quietly before Him, are great ways to engage this practice.
Learn to be present with your soul throughout the day, and invite God into that space
If you attend to your heart and body, you will likely find that you go through a huge range of emotions in a single day, from sadness to boredom to anger to gratitude…and back again; these “mood swings” may feel even more pronounced during this season. Welcoming prayer, where we open to ourselves and invite God to be present with us in that, is a great tool for this.
Invite God to be present with you and be willing to lay down parts of your false self
Our false self is the part of ourselves that we project to the world—the masks we put on in childhood to protect ourselves and to control our world. This is the part that Jesus wants us to lay down (Matthew 10:38-39). Whether these are parts that want to control or avoid, achieve or reassure, understand or challenge, God can grow us into His image as we identify them and bring them to His love. The Enneagram is a great tool to identify and lean into these parts of ourselves.
Try to embrace the uncertainty
There is so much we don’t know right now—not only why this is happening, but when it will end and what the world will look like at that point. Ugh. I am a planner, and I hate uncertainty. I am trying to remember right now that it is a gift—a gift that reminds me that I am not God. But I can be certain of God, certain in God, certain that He is still present and at work. Amen. Intentionally unplugging and encountering God through worship or a meditative reading of scripture, like Lectio Divina, might be great ways to be in the space of uncertainty without attempting to control or fix it.
Connect with others
No, it probably won’t be in person, and that may bring up some of these feelings we keep talking about. But isolation is one of the ways we can get stuck in our suffering. Whether we like it or not, we were created for relationship. Let yourself reach out—whether it is for a virtual grief group or a virtual happy hour with your friends.
Look for the light
While this process of being present with ourselves and God in the midst of suffering is hard, it isn’t the end of the story. As we just celebrated Easter, we were reminded that Good Friday was only the beginning; it was followed by the Easter resurrection. He is risen indeed! Practices of celebration, gratitude, and play may be especially helpful right now.
As we sit in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis, it can feel like the end of so much. On the one hand, this sucks—suffering sucks. Period. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the grief is not just an end. It may also be a beginning, an invitation, a place where we can encounter the living God in new and profound ways. Indeed, He promises to bring beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61) and work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).
It turns out that as Christ-followers, we can be focused on more than just how to survive suffering. We can be focused on more than just how to survive COVID-19. We can actually be focused on where God may be at work and what I can do in response—what I can do to invite His grace into my life, where I can allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through me, in this crisis. Thank God that He specializes in meeting us in brokenness and suffering; may we have the courage to open to Him there, even if we have to feel our pain in the process.