Toy Story 4 released in movie theaters last week. I have not seen the newest film, but my favorite character in Toy Story has always been Slinky, a dachshund with a metal slinky that connects his front to his rear.
The ability of Slinky’s torso to be contorted and stretched to its limits yet return to its original shape amazed me as a child. I was reminded of Slinky’s resilience as I looked up different definitions for the word and began to wonder what godly resilience might look like in the middle of seasons of suffering.
The dictionary’s first entry for the word defines resilience as “the capacity to recover from difficulties; toughness.” I’ve always wanted to be a person of “resilience” in the face of suffering, even when it’s largely outside my control. But this kind of resilience associated with “toughness” and self-reliance quickly dissipates when hardship leaves us spiritually, mentally, and physically depleted and vulnerable.
Slinky embodies the second entry for “resilience” in the dictionary: “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.” Slinky’s resilience has less to do with displaying his toughness and more to do with returning to his shape.
When Slinky is stretched, his body knows to spring back to a foundational pattern. This image of Slinky is helpful when thinking about ways we can face seasons of suffering with resilience–not the kind of resilience that says we have to be “tough” or “bounce back quickly” but the kind that requires us to return to foundational practices of our Christian faith when little else is in our control.
Today I want to share six practical ways we can endure changes, surprises, and suffering when they come our way. I think of them like a slinky’s original form. When I am stretched, these provide a basic shape or framework I can return to so that I am able to gain some footing and perspective.
1. Pray and read scripture.
Prayer can be especially difficult in the middle of suffering, either because we do not know where to begin or feel a sense of betrayal that God is allowing our circumstances. But God can handle our honest prayers.
In fact, he cares so much about our prayers that his indwelling Spirit acts as a kind of “translator” when we don’t know what to pray. Scripture says,
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”Romans 8:26-27
We will not always approach prayer and scripture cheerfully or perfectly, especially in valleys of suffering. What matters is that we simply do it. We know the Enemy of our souls would love nothing more than that we break communion with God, our Source of purest light, in our darkest moments.
2. Reexamine your beliefs about God.
Suffering has a way of exposing what we truly believe about God. I shared in my first blog post how a season of suffering in my own life revealed untruths I had adopted about God. At The Gospel Coalition’s National Conference this year, Paul David Tripp spoke about our tendency to allow suffering to distort the truth about God, and it’s worth quoting him at length:
“Human beings made in the image of God do not live life based on the facts of their experience but based on their interpretation of the facts… I am afraid this sets up a difficulty for us because often it means that your confessional theology (your formal, systematic theology) does not agree with you functional theology (your spontaneous interpretation of life).
Paul David Trip, “Suffering: Gospel Hope When Seasons Don’t Make Sense”
“Listen, I think the Enemy of our souls will gladly give us our formal theology if he can capture our hearts. Your spontaneous interpretations are actually the theology that is shaping your life… It’s tempting when you’re going through dramatic things that you cannot escape to let those function in your mind and heart as a way of understanding God. Danger. Danger. Danger. You don’t ever allow your experiences to interpret who God is. You let who God says he is to interpret your experiences. And that’s [spiritual] warfare.”
Seasons of suffering often expose where our “lived theology” doesn’t line up with our “confessional theology.” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” When we are immersing ourselves in the truth about God revealed in scripture, we are better able to “take every thought captive,” examining our beliefs about God and ourselves and discarding those that don’t align with his character and our identity.
3. Reign in your elephant.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has this brilliant metaphor of a rider on an elephant to illustrate how our emotions have much more control over our reason than we realize. The rider represents the controlled processes of our brain like our reasoning, and the elephant represents the automatic processes of our brain like our emotions. He chose an elephant instead of a horse because he wanted to stress how difficult it is to steer the “elephant” of our brains.
Emotions are God-given. When processed in a healthy way, they can provide important insights into suffering. However, in the same way that it is dangerous to allow our experiences to determine the truth about God, it is dangerous to allow our emotions to determine the truth about reality. In a new book called Mama Bear Apologetics, the authors write,
“The problem with using our emotions for determining truth is that they have to first be conformed to truth in order to tell us anything useful. For a compass to work, it must first be magnetized. Otherwise, it won’t point to true north. Disciplining our emotions with truth is like magnetizing our emotional compass. We can follow our emotions, but only after we have made sure our emotional compass is pointing in the right direction.Teasi Cannon, Hillary Morgan Ferrer, and Hillary Short, Mama Bear Apologetics: Empowering Your Kids to Challenge Cultural Lies
“Too many people today determine truth by their emotions yet have not bothered to magnetize their compasses. They say, ‘Let’s go north!’ and proceed to walk in all different directions, trying to convince everyone else to follow them. Instead of disciplining their emotions to match reality, they are trying to make reality match their emotions. When they feel scared, they assume that they are in danger—instead of perceiving real danger and then feeling scared.
“In this way, emotionalism mistakes feelings for facts. But there’s little assurance that those emotion-loaded opinions are indeed facts unless Scripture, wisdom, and reality are fact-checking those feelings.”
When things go awry, I have been prone to “catastrophizing,” or interpreting the facts of my circumstances in the worst possible light. I am now learning that, while it is important to name and process my feelings, I cannot stop there. As the saying goes, feelings make excellent servants but tyrannical masters.
4. Focus on what you can control.
When hardship is largely outside of our control, it can feel as if nothing is inside our control, but this is a lie from the Enemy that keeps us paralyzed and isolated.
To be sure, there are things we can’t control. For example, we can never control other people. As much as we might try to control others, a permanent boundary exists between their choices or reactions and our own, and we only have control of the latter.
In seasons of suffering, one question can help us move forward with our days: “What is in my control?” Sometimes, the first step we can take is to return to a simple, structured routine. A written-down, detailed routine might sound boring but can be life-giving when all around us seems chaotic.
We might also need to shorten our window of time when planning for the future, and I think there is biblical precedent for this. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34). Instead of thinking about what is in our control over the next year or month or week, we might need to ask, “What is in my control today?”
5. Absorb the pain without passing it on.
Suffering is sometimes brought about by the sins of others. Remember, we cannot control others, and sometimes they deeply hurt us. Their words and actions might be out of our control, but our responses to them is in our control. The suffering inflicted on us by others can easily morph into justification for retaliation. Before we know it, we are taking part in the very sin that wounded us because we want them to feel the pain we feel. (Do you see now why it is so important to reign in your elephant?) Jesus said,
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either… And as you wish others would do to you, do so to them.”Luke 6:28-29, 31
Jesus is not saying that we never have boundaries, but, in the words of Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice in Reconciling All Things, he is advocating that we “absorb the pain without passing it on.” We cannot avoid the pain and suffering inflicted on us by others, but we can choose not to compound it.
6. Do not isolate yourself.
I vividly remember last summer when I finally admitted to someone besides Will, “I feel alone in what I’m going through right now.” I can be independent to a fault, but relief came after saying those words out loud.
In her book None Like Him, Jen Wilkin points out that God is the only self-sufficient One. We are incredibly reliant on him and others because we were made this way:
“We were created to need both God and others. We deny this to our peril. We are not needy because of sin; we are needy by divine design. Certainly, we can need in sinful ways, and we habitually confuse needs with wants, but we were not created to be self-sufficient. Nor were we re-created in Christ to be so.
Sanctification is the process of learning increasing dependence, not autonomy.”Jen Wilkin, None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different From Us (And Why That’s a Good Thing)
Forty percent of all Americans recently said they were lonely. If you feel alone, well, you’re not alone. In the valley of suffering, we are tempted to adopt the first definition of resilience that has to do with “toughness” and autonomy. We go full speed ahead with our rugged individualism, all the while feeling isolated and alone.
But what if our sense of loneliness was never meant to be suppressed? What if it was meant to point us to our God-given need for communion with him and others?
The Enemy of our souls would love nothing more than that we drown in our isolation, and our self-help culture that tells us “everything we need is inside of us” does little to help. As Wilkin writes, sanctification for the Christian is the process of learning increasing dependence, not autonomy.
Reliance on others is not a surrender to weakness but to divine design, especially in the midst of suffering. After all, this is part of God’s purpose in giving us the church. He has provided brothers and sisters to come alongside us in our hardships, so don’t be afraid to ask a member of your spiritual family to babysit your children, cook a casserole, or meet you for coffee.
This is not an exhaustive list, but these practices in the midst of suffering have helped me, like Slinky, return to a basic shape–the foundations of truth about God, others, myself, and my circumstances–when seasons of hardship linger.
This is Part 4 of a blog series on suffering. Click the links below to read the rest of the series:
Part 1: The Prosperity Gospel We Don’t Talk about Much
Part 2: Can We Know the “Why” for Our Suffering
Part 3: “Will I Ever Find Joy in This Season?”
Part 4: What Slinky’s Resilience Teaches Us about Suffering