I have come to learn that in the spiritual life there are plenty of ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys, crosses and resurrections call them what you want, but what I struggle with is why? Why can’t there just be peaks, why does there have to be valleys?
This week has been tough. This month we have had the opportunity to go out and do a lot of meals on wheels routes. We go and pick up food from the senior center and then drive around and give them to people on this list who are homebound and have a difficult time cooking for themselves. It has been a great opportunity to get out and meet and serve our neighbors. The tough part though is we encounter a great deal of poverty on the routes, both material and spiritual. This last week it caught up to me.
Living as a missionary you see a lot of poverty, whether that is in the “rancho’s” of Mexico, the landfills of Nicaragua, the outer villages of Ghana, or in the hills of North Georgia. It doesn’t seem like it gets any easier the more you encounter it either. You want to help them, you provide for their material needs as best you can, but most of the time you feel like you are putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. We went and delivered a meal to a woman this week who looked like she was seconds away from death. She was suffering with pneumonia, she could barely talk, she couldn’t get out of bed, and all you could see on her face was death and a complete absence of joy. I wish I was exaggerating but the reality is I’m probably sugar coating it a little. I felt helpless. I knew the meal I was delivering to her wasn’t going to do much for her situation. I felt horrible, I didn’t know what to do, so I asked her if we could pray, and she obliged.
Often during these times, I think about the woman at the well, when Jesus says to the woman, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks from the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) What I have realized is the “water” I provide to those we serve whether that’s food, clothes or shelter they will still “thirst” again, but if I lead these people to this fountain of love to drink from what Jesus has to offer, they will never thirst again, “it will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life”. I’m never going to fully meet their physical needs, but I can lead them to this truth, that their suffering is only temporary, and when they drink from the fountain of His love, Heaven meets earth and we can live that promise of eternal life now and the hope and joy that comes from that.
In order for us to understand the magnitude of His glory, we have to experience the struggles and pain of this world. That’s why I love living in places where you can experience the four seasons. In the fall we get to see the beauty of death with the vibrant colors and the changing of the leaves. In the winter we experience the coldness of death, the absence of life, the barren trees, the dead grass, no flowers, no birds. But you know the spring is coming, when the green grass will begin to grow, the trees will re-gain their leaves, the flowers will bloom, the birds will come and sing and the sun will shine! Without the cold and ugliness of death, the spring would not seem as glorious.
The same goes for the spiritual life. Without experiencing the cross, we will never know the glory of the resurrection. We are called to suffer, to unite it with the sufferings of the cross. It is here that we grow, and it cannot be a one time thing, it must be continual. The ups and downs must go on, but we can rejoice because we know that with every cold winter comes the warmth and beauty of spring, and with the pain of the cross comes the glory of the resurrection. It is through this continual process of ups and downs that we become Saints. Here’s how.
Suppose I was working out, if I continued to lift the same amount of weight I would never grow stronger. In order to get stronger I would have to increase the amount of weight which would cause my muscles to work harder. The cool thing about muscles is they grow bigger by being literally damaged or torn. With rest, the muscle heals and actually becomes bigger and stronger then before. The same goes for our hearts. When we are faced with trials and struggles are hearts are stretched and torn. It is through this stretching that the Lord increases our capacity to receive His love, which in turn allows us to pour more out upon others. The same goes with virtues. In order for me to grow in virtue, the Lord permits me to be tempted, for the muscles to be strained, so that they will grow bigger and stronger. This is where the joy in suffering comes in.
When seen in this light, I know now that when I go through suffering I am being stretched and that through all of it the Lord will strengthen me to be better used by Him, which gives me joy. Recently God has also been placing on my heart this idea of redemptive suffering. When I unite my suffering with His on the cross and offer it for someone, He has shown me the grace that flows not only upon that person but me as well. It has almost come to the point where I invite suffering, because I am seeing the power of the graces that comes from it when I offer it up for someone else. We are called to not run from suffering but embrace it, just like Christ did on the cross. Look at the grace which flowed from that one moment, we are called to follow His example and have confidence in His grace when we unite our sufferings with His on the cross. With this perspective, God has helped me get through those lows, those valleys and embrace those crosses with a more joyful heart because I know the grace that flows from it and He is transforming me to be a stronger soldier and servant for him!