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Exchanging Beauty For Ashes

It is an unfortunate truth of my job that I spend a tremendous amount of my week sitting with wounded and broken people. They attend sessions needing to share their stories with someone who will listen attentively and offer support, but who can also help explore some of the really big questions of life. Their stories tend to begin in positive or even hopeful ways like a new relationship, a new job, a promotion, the birth of a new child or grandchild, or some other new stage of life that’s full of promise. Then the story begins to change.

They speak of disappointment, regret, hurt, grief, unmet expectations, or even devastation and bewilderment. It is around this time that I start getting asked the big questions, like, “Where did I go wrong?”, “Where did I miss God’s will?”, and “What did I do to deserve all this pain?” When you add these questions to the pain and stress of the event itself, and then compound both with the well-intentioned, but often highly misguided offerings of “wisdom” from friends and family, it is easy to see how many people find themselves overcome by anxiety, depression, and disillusionment.

 

It's not 1–2–3

When we’re talking about enduring pain, suffering, disappointment with God, and other significant life trials, I lose patience quickly and get very frustrated by plans that promise to “relieve your pain and misery” or “remake your life” in some simplistic one – two – three format. Whatever follows below, please do not hear me offering such an oversimplified approach to what is a deeply painful process.

I do want us to dig into the Word of God, however, and I cannot help but outline a few points that jumped out at me as I began to think through this topic. As our passage of focus, I would like for us to look at the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, verses one through three. I believe there are some important things we can glean from this passage that will help us understand and experience times of trials in a healthy and healing way. 

The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the Lord to glorify Him.” (HCSB)

 

Trials are common to all of us

The first thing I’d like for us to consider is the concept that difficulty, or times of trial, is a universal phenomenon, common to all people.

Notice the first verse, and those who are addressed in it. The people who are said to be in need of good news are the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, prisoners, and all who mourn. And there is no indication that any of the people in these positions are in such positions exclusively due to sin. Though obviously, many of us struggle with sin in our own lives, or potentially are impacted by the sin in others’ lives, and when we are thus impacted, these situations often lead to suffering like that mentioned.

But I’m afraid that in our modern church culture we often do this math backwards. I’m afraid that we too often assume that all suffering of any kind must mean somebody somewhere messed up or did something wrong and is being punished for it.

I know the questions I am often asked in the counseling room, those that focus on what the person may have done wrong or where someone may have missed God’s will, are often searching for some misdeed, mistake, or sin on which to blame this current time of trial. I believe since Adam and Eve sinned, we have all lived in a fallen world in which bad things happen to all people.

Though it is an important step in the process to be certain that our own sin is not causing ourselves or others pain, it must also be said that we live in a world where there will always be poor, brokenhearted, captives, and those in mourning. And we need to be quick to offer ourselves and others grace; accepting the truth that we can go through suffering that is not of our own causing.

 

Waiting on the silver lining

The second thing from this passage is another mistake I think well-intentioned Christians tend to make when dealing with others and when dealing with themselves. These three verses and others like them can often be read in a matter of just a few seconds. However, if I am speaking with a person who is in a time of extreme trial, the last thing I need to do is to attempt to help that person transition from a time of pain and suffering into a time of celebration or “seeing the silver lining” in this same short time frame.

We must recognize that trials and suffering take time to work through. The loss of a job, loss of a spouse, loss of a dream, or any other major stress must be given the proper time it will take to get through. We cannot, no matter how much we wish we can, rush through it for ourselves or for others. We must, when dealing with our own grief and pain, or when attempting to support and care for loved ones in their times of suffering, pace ourselves and give time and space for God’s work to be done in our hearts or in the hearts of others.

 

Focusing on the Who

It is Who is at work in this process that I’d like to focus on next. We must note here that these verses are Messianic in content—they are about the work Christ would have in His earthly ministry and the work He would do in his mediatorial role of reconciling God to man.

What ultimately brings “beauty for ashes” and healing to those who mourn, is the ultimate healing of reconciliation with God. The actions taken in this verse are taken by God toward man. As we look for application of these principles to our current time, I think we must pay very close attention to the fact that much of the healing work that happens in the life and heart of the Christian as they go through times of trial are the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual.

Surely we have responsibility in how we process our own grief and in seeking help from others. And certainly, we have responsibility as believers to help support others in the Body who are wounded or in a time of struggle. But we do ourselves and others a disservice when we forget the all-important role of the Holy Spirit in the healing process. We have within us the indwelling Spirit of God at work to bring change and healing to our hearts and minds. We must cultivate within ourselves the ability to rest in that work and trust in it with all our hearts.

 

Becoming Trees of Righteousness

We also need to recognize the concept that growth almost always requires pain. As mentioned earlier, I think we are often all too quick to start trying to minimize pain. C.S. Lewis once said, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).”

At the end of Isaiah 61:3, we are told that those who have formerly mourned, and those who have been in despair, “will be called trees of righteousness.” This means that times of suffering are intended to accomplish significant spiritual growth in us. We only learn to trust God in deep and meaningful ways when we have been required to walk through incredibly difficult times in which we must, in order to survive, trust only Him, and trust him completely.

 

The Big Story

And, finally, the last and most important point we have to take away from these verses is the truth that we are only part of the story. The difficulties that we may face, these times of trial, times of loss and mourning and grief are part of our individual stories. But our stories are only small parts of the Big Story. Look at the last phrase of the verses; all the things described in the first two verses will happen, and Christ will bring healing and blessing in all these situations, so that we will bring glory to God.

We must be comforted during these times of trial by the knowledge that what is happening to us, and in us, and through us, is a part of God’s great plan that ultimately brings glory to himself. All these events of our lives are for our best, according to Romans 8:28, but are also for the greater good of the Kingdom and for the glory of God.

 

This article was written by Pathways counselor Rod Campbell, MAMFT, LPC-S. 

This article was originally published in The Alabama Baptist newspaper as a part of their Faith and Family series.

 

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