So, I’ve been hurting over something we do to each other. I say we because I’m guilty too, we because we’re in this together, we because it takes all of us to change our culture.
In my life, the repetitive strategy of the enemy often looks like this, just with different supporting details:
Flashback nearly twelve years, and he says this: Please, don’t have the baby in the car.
That’s what he says, because he knows me, because he can see the way I grip the car door with my hand, the way my knuckles whiten with the pressure. His voice is grave. He’s seen into the heart of me; he knows the sheen of hurt in my eyes. But this baby coming is my smile, she’s the light cracking through the storm clouds now flooding the road. The wipers smack fast, sloshing rivers away, and he strains to see. Waves of body-splitting pain sear through my abdomen and back. It hurts so much I can’t even breathe, much less speak, but joy wraps me up, just the same. I’m in labor, that’s a fact, and labor hurts tremendously. It feels like being torn apart from the inside, or at least how we barely imagine such an atrocity would feel. Still, I can’t stop smiling. I know God is using this pain to accomplish something glorious. Today, I will see Him bring forth new life. So, that’s what I say out loud, that last part. The rest of it hardly feels worth the words.
And Kevin smiles at me, from across the seat, and for a moment we both break free of the urgency. “I know,” he says quietly. “Isn’t it great?”
Tell me, how can we know scripture and discount a believing woman for her smile?
See, I honestly want to do this thing the way God has told me. I want to share the facts about my life without complaining. I want to give thanks in all circumstances. I want to say what is mutually beneficial for all, the things that build, and all while being completely open about my own struggles. I want to be transparent about my weakness while being completely clear about the tremendous awe I feel everyday over what God has accomplished. I want to tell the truth about the hope that I have and be ready to give a reason for it. I want to be joyful always. I want to do everything with love. I want to live by faith. I want to offer others as much grace and mercy and compassion and forgiveness as God has continually offered me. I want to fix my eyes on what is unseen, because what is seen is only temporary. I want to live for a greater glory. This thing is 1000% real for me, more real than any present detail. But ever since I became a warrior for joy and a truly yielded Christian, one thing has continually discouraged me: Together, we fail to respect that it’s hard to live this way. It’s hard to follow Christ. These are not the elements of “fluffy” thinking.
It has been my experience that as God succeeds in bearing this fruit in me, other people—often other Christians—minimize the difficult facts about my life. They interrupt my testimony with the assertion that obviously I haven’t suffered as much difficulty as they, as though we were meant to wear hardship as some sort of badge. If I want to wear His righteousness instead, if I want to point to His victory, well, then I don’t really know difficulty. And listen, more and more I’m okay with minimizing me. But please, let’s not minimize what He’s accomplished in me—in you. I’m honestly in awe of His power to transform this soul, and it’s dishonoring to make less of what He’s done.
Flashback 12 years, and Kevin counts the minutes between contractions and times the space at just three. She’s our third child—only in this moment we don’t even know she’s a she, though I suspect, and we both know we don’t have a lot of time to spare. I have an appointment scheduled today anyway, so I call ahead to tell them I am in labor. I tell them the fact, right out loud, but the receptionist doesn’t believe me. She immediately discounts both my experience and the pain I feel. Yes, well, just come on in and we’ll check you out at your appointment, she says. I sound so pleasant, grateful, happy, that she assumes I am overreacting a bit about the labor.
Tell me, how can we understand the truth about our future and discount a believing soul who still knows how to laugh?
I stand at the reception desk in the doctor’s office, holding on to the counter with one hand, because I know that if I let go, I will fall down.
Sign in please, the receptionist says, glancing only briefly away from her computer screen to acknowledge me. Her monitor-lit cheeks move up and down, up and down. She’s chewing gum while she works, and the smell of spearmint turns my already vulnerable tummy.
Okay, but–well, I called ahead? I’m in labor? I can almost feel the light in my face when I say it—the joy—the exhiliration that overwhelms the agony sweeping over me as I reach up to cling to the molding at the edge of the reception window. Another one of those, and I’ll not be able to stand at all.
The nurse looks at me momentarily, scanning my face. She offers me a slight smile, setting aside my testimony. They’ll be with you shortly. Just have a seat.
Tell me, how can we believe ourselves observant enough to understand at a glance the suffering of another soul?
Kevin loops his arm around me. Just hold on to me now, ok? Slowly, we find our way to two chairs against the wall, though patience for us comes in shorter supply with every gripping pain. I run my hand hard against the rough tweed beneath my thigh. The minutes gather with the ripping strength of each contraction, until at last, just before Kevin makes his way again to the desk to insist, a nurse opens an adjacent door and calls my name. She watches me carefully, taking her time with preliminary questions, until Kevin says, Listen, she’s in labor, and finally she looks beyond her suppositions and sees—the way my words catch in my throat, the way I dig my fingers into Kevin’s palm.
Let me just get the doctor, she says.
And when the doctor comes, she discovers that I am just moments away from delivery. I’m not even certain they’ll be able to get me upstairs before it happens. The doctor peels off her exam gloves and searches my face. You’re about to have this baby, she says, incredulously. Why are you still smiling?
See, there’s something all mixed up about the way we measure each other’s difficulty by the pain we wear on our faces and the things we say out loud. Tell me, why is it that unless I live in defeat the ones who should understand my joy most of all minimize the reality of my journey? This is a horrible problem for a People who have been called to joy; who have been commanded to gratitude; who have been told: Rejoice.
Because I’m about to hold my baby in my arms, I say, and I know I’m beaming. It’s as though I can feel the light shooting out of my eyes, my smile, my fingertips. Because he–or she–is coming. And I want to say, but don’t because a contraction catches my breath and I have to dig my fingers into Kevin’s arm, that every time the pain threatens to knock me to my knees, I feel this verse roll through me:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
I have, since the contractions began, worked to focus on the joy coming beyond the pain. The choice to fight for joy is not a choice that erases present suffering. It’s a choice to do the hard work of reframing current events into their true and larger context. But there’s no time for explaining this. The doctor leads me to a wheelchair sitting empty in the hallway, and pushes me herself until she’s seen me safely to the labor and delivery floor. She needs to be in a room as soon as possible, the doctor says, turning on her heel to go back to her patients. But the receptionist looks at me and immediately discounts even the doctor’s urgency about the situation. She asks me for my name, my social security number, by insurance card, slowly typing data—click, click, click—to avoid breaking her long, carefully sculpted fingernails. I grip the arm of the wheelchair, and Kevin shoots forward. “Excuse me, he says, urgently, “she is going to have this baby in the hallway if you don’t hurry.” And his tone clearly flusters the receptionist, who believes us rude and impatient. She pushes back from her desk, muttering something about how she “will have to get this information as soon as possible.”
I know I’m young, but in my forty-something years I’ve learned that there are no charmed lives. Every life is difficult. Every person suffers through waves of pain. And If despite the heavy we all carry daily, despite the difficulty we all suffer right here, right now for which we see no immediate solution, we can live real joy in the midst of heartache, that’s something we should respect and celebrate in each other. God has given us a magnificent, overcoming gift: an inheritance that never spoils or fades, a hope that remains securely held. We can smile over that great joy when we have no other reason to smile. We can laugh at the days to come, but only because absolutely no difficulty could ever tarnish what God has done for us. We can live abundant life even so because we know He comes. Very soon, we will get to see Him.
This particular day, I marvel that despite the clear facts, no one seems to believe that I’m about to have a baby. Even the attending doctor expects to whisk in and whisk on out for a while. He snaps his exam gloves in place, takes one look at the state of things, and flies into a fluster, calling for nurses and the bassinet. And within a few, painful, body-ripping moments, I hold my baby girl against my own skin. And I cry, for the fulfillment of real joy.
Here’s the truth, and I think it’s one we’d do well to honor in each other: Real joy is hard fought, sliced and carved deep. It’s a heartwrenching, tear-drenched fight. It isn’t that a joy-filled, resplendent person has not breathed their way through pain, but that God has done what He promised to do and birthed something better in them. Something lasting and brand new and unvanquishable fills up their open spaces. So don’t be fooled by the enemy into spewing along with him that a person who still knows how to smile, who remembers how to laugh, hasn’t hurt as much as one who wears life like grave chains. This surrendering isn’t a flower-decked devotional thought.
So let’s not minimize what God has accomplished.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves… For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all (Romans 8:18-24).