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Suffering Expands and Cleans the Heart

February 6, 2012

“You are not the same person you were a few years ago.” I wish I could have a dollar for every person who has told me this. Although I don’t see it as clearly as others do, I know that what I have been through, and what we have been through as a family, has profoundly impacted me. I struggle to articulate exactly how I am different, but I have a sense that most of the change has to do with my heart. I believe that suffering expands and cleans the heart.

Expands the Heart

There have been so many faithful people in our family and in our community who have supported us and cared for us through this time. However, there are some who, in their own ways, have demonstrated an unusual amount of compassion, perhaps far greater than one would expect given the relationship before Sydney’s diagnosis. It is not always true, but a theme I have noticed time and time again is that these people have compassion because they too have experienced some sort of personal tragedy. Often they don’t explain this, and I’m not sure they even make the connection themselves, but I can’t tell you how frequently it comes out. Just last week, I was having a beer with a faithful friend who reminded me of two deaths, very close to him in his life. I recently learned that some of our most faithful neighbors lost their father as children. This is especially true of older folks. They have experienced loss, time and time again, and they understand it. My grandparents, for example, have extraordinary compassion for my situation.

I notice this with myself as well. A few weeks ago I got emotional speaking to a friend who recently learned that their newborn has significant special needs. Even listening to less tragic, but still significant struggles with marriage, job, or health, I find that somehow I care more than I have in the past. This even plays out with my kids, especially the girls, who desperately need a dad with compassion. This compassion carries a weight to it as well. The giving, sharing, or caring for others doesn’t feel like an effort, it is more like a privilege – something you want and are almost compelled to do.

There is something about loving someone in a desperate need situation, especially when you know how they feel. Interestingly, this is the crux of the Gospel as well. In John 7:37-38 Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” So as we receive him, one who has compassion for us in our place of desperate need, this love has to go someplace, and it should flow from our lives. And we should not forget that he has been in our shoes and he knows how we feel.

Cleans the Heart

A while back, I watched a TV program recounting stories of people who had ridden over Niagara Falls, either accidentally or on purpose, and had survived. In some ways, my story represents this. The recent tragedy in my life represents many people’s worst nightmare. So what happens when your worst nightmare comes true?

The first thing that happens is you pick your head up from the rushing foaming water that is choking you, and are surprised to find that you are still alive. You are badly bruised, cold and traumatized, but you are still breathing. And as the recovery process moves forward, you see healing and regeneration that is almost surprising. You are amazed to find that though you are different, there is life beyond your tragedy.

The second thing that is apparent is that fear has lost its power over you. Your worst fear has already been realized and you stand beyond it. There is an incredible gift in that. In this respect, I can say that I have a freedom now that I have never possessed in my life. I am considering career paths that I never would have chosen in the past, simply because I am not afraid. I am taking risks relationally that I never would have been able to stomach without fearing a negative outcome. There is this sense that life is short, and living is worth the risk.

Also, I am no longer afraid to ask for help. I have gotten comfortable with the fact that as a human being, I am not capable of functioning healthily completely alone. I need friends and family from time to time and I appreciate it when they need me. I no longer see this dependence as a negative, but rather an important part of being healthy.

Aside from fears, suffering reveals the true colors of many of the comfort and relational idols we tend to hold most dear. Whether its the hope of an awesome vacation, a guilty pleasure, a new car, or reputation, these things tend to shrink against the backdrop of suffering. While we can turn to them in a desperate attempt to relieve suffering, I have found that it is also incredibly evident how very incapable these things are. When your wife has died, you realize how insignificant a new car really is. Not that I am not still prone to reach for these things, but it is a gift to have the perspective that grounds us to reality.

It feels like God has taken a chisel to the outside and a powerwasher to the inside of my heart. I am no doubt different in many ways, and my story is probably not that different from yours. Although my tragedy is more obvious and recent than most, we all have or will have suffering in this life. And I believe this is part of God’s romantic pursuit for our hearts; he wants them completely, fully and clean.

From → Stories

  1. Anne Albright permalink

    There are so many positive lessons to take away from this post (I plan on reading it several times)! I especially loved the part about your new perspective on fear and just want to say…Go for it!

  2. wendy permalink

    Please write a book, memoir, or novel! I love to read your writing, you have a gift….you have the potential to reach millions of people through your eloquent writing style and share the message of Jesus’ love.

  3. Margie permalink

    I just love this! Thank you, Thank you!

  4. Hallie Lyon permalink

    I love the way your words seem touch my heart so much. Only through the love of Jesus could this be. Thanks you so much for continuing to share with us.

  5. Anna Scott permalink

    This is excellent! Thank you for sharing.

  6. Sadee permalink

    I too keep thinking what a good communicator you are…..I would love to read a book you’d write….especially about Sydney’s life and legacy.
    And this is just a thought….because my mom died so young, and I was just a little girl, I so wish I knew her stories about growing up, dating, young adulthood, life in general…..I wish people would’ve recorded them for me. I hope people will record stories of Sydney’s for your kids to read as they get older…..perhaps they already have.
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with so many of us who only know you through your writing. What a gift!

  7. Todd, this may be your best yet! You demonstrate true courage to share the depths of your heart so openly. Your mother and I love you and are so proud of you, Dad

  8. Renee Wade permalink

    Todd, You have such a gift in your writing that can only come from God. I too agree this one is one of the most thought provoking. I will continue to pray for all of you and also plan to reread your post. I don’t know if you knew I lost my dad while pregnant with my daughter Lyndsey. I was not a child, however this affected my life profoundly. I understand the suffering cha

    • Renee Wade permalink

      I understand the suffering changes you. I felt guilty when after a few years a day might sneak by and I hadn’t thought of him. God will carry you when you aren’t able to stand. May God continue to guide your words that do touch so many.

  9. Amanda Steele permalink

    Hey Todd: Just reading this. I can’t believe how perfectly you capture grief and compassion in words. Wow. Im forwrding along to a few of my friends who could really use your encouragement today. What an amazing account. I agree, you must write a book. I’ll edit it for you.

  10. Christin Kirby permalink

    Amanda Steele sent me a link to your post. We lost my father to leukemia on January 6th. You have great godly insight and a way with words that describes exactly some of the vague thoughts that have been trying to work their way up in my mind. Thank you for sharing your experience and your reaction to suffering. It is a comfort to me, and I will send it to my mom, who I know will find comfort in your thoughts on suffering as well since her experience more closely relates to yours.


  11. Melanie permalink

    All deeply true. Especially “There is this sense that life is short, and living is worth the risk” and “The second thing that is apparent is that fear has lost its power over you…There is an incredible gift in that.”
    What I take away is: one mysterious piece of His ways – tenderization of the heart strengthens it.

    I’m picturing an empty balloon with crusty butter on the outside (?! exactly, it makes no sense how that junk got caked on our hearts either) and balloon factory powder on the inside… God has to melt the outside and clean and stretch the inside with the water of fearlessness before it can be launched in the best waterballoon fight of our life. This goofy visual made Heath laugh; mission accomplished.

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