Why Do I Do This to Myself?
I've been pondering a new reality lately about suffering. It's not simply an idea that struck me one day. Who intentionally decides to ponder this subject? I have been forced to consider it as several people and families close to mine are experiencing real suffering. In all the difficulties I've had in life, I still cannot say that I have truly suffered in a similar way. I haven't had to go without food, eat dirt to survive, or dodge bullets on a daily basis. Suffering in middle-class America is often defined as the restaurant being out of what we want to order. It's having to walk to work instead of drive. Suffering is having to live in an apartment rather than a house or not having the latest smartphone.
Some of us do know what suffering is, but many of us really don't. We do everything we can to avoid it like the plague, except when we cause it to ourselves. Psalm 107 talks about a kind of suffering that is self-inflicted. It involves the attitudes, actions, and choices that can cause physical, mental, or emotional problems and put us in bad situations.
But doesn't God promise to not let us fall? Doesn't he say that he will sustain us? How is it then that God would leave us to ourselves, our wants and desires? How is it that people who love God could wake up one day to find out he's letting them experience suffering? The psalmist seems to think that this is so we can know what life is like without God.
The Attitude of Self-Inflicted Suffering
Many of us have experienced some form of God's rescue or deliverance and yet become dissatisfied with the direction, counsel, or wisdom God then gives us. We're not exactly seeing eye to eye with God. This was the case with the Israelites coming out of slavery in Egypt. They weren't getting what they wanted, and they grumbled and rebelled. The psalmist says that they were in darkness. Because of their attitude, God allowed them to suffer with no one to help them.
Israel didn't like the food God provided on their journey through the wilderness. Anyone who has children can identify with this. Getting children to eat healthy is always a challenge. The food that is good for us is not always the food we want. What we want might light up our taste buds but destroy our bodies. Put another way, we want what feeds our enthusiasm but leaves the soul famished. Dissatisfaction often drives us away from what is good to a place of darkness where we struggle to find encouragement.
Self-inflicted suffering can feel as if we're adrift in a boat during a storm, caught in rough seas, tossed around and powerless.
While our expectation may be that God will rescue us, he seems to do just the opposite. The psalmist puts it this way: “He turns rivers into deserts, and springs of water into dry, thirsty land. He turns the fruitful land into salty wastelands, because of the wickedness of those who live there” (107:33-34, NLT). He leaves people alone. Ever wonder what life would be like without God? This is it.
Is this abandonment by God, or does he love us enough to allow this experience of life without him?
God Is Good in Spite of Us
The way out begins when we realize our ways, wants, and tastes aren't working and we turn to God for help. It's a simple attitude change from dissatisfaction to surrender, accepting what God gives despite what our tastes crave. Here's what he does:
- straightens the way and re-routes our course;
- leads us to the place he has chosen for us, where we are supported and can once again stand;
- provides emotional, physical, and spiritual shelter and the kind of nourishment that fuels us; and
- gives us a community so we are no longer alone.
Anne Lamott, a writer and writing teacher, describes what happens when God is good in spite of us in her book Traveling Mercies. She was an addict, had aborted a child conceived in an affair, was watching her best friend die of cancer, and was occasionally visiting a small church. Disgusted with herself after her abortion, she went on an alcohol and drug binge. Lying in bed, she saw someone sitting in the corner of the room. After a while, she knew it was Jesus. In the morning, he was gone.
A week later, still shaken by that experience, she went to church hungover. This time she stayed for the message. She writes that the lyrics of the last hymn were "so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me."
Rushing out of the sanctuary in tears, she made her way home. Standing at the door of her houseboat, she breathed deeply and told God he could come in.
If you're caught in the web of self-inflicted suffering, may your dissatisfaction become surrender. And may your heart be content with where he leads.