Hannah is a precious friend of mine, and having her share with us in this series of Faithful Obedience is a gift. I enjoy her conversations because they are always rich, thoughtful, and fun -always infused with the Scripture and the sure hope we share in Christ. Hannah has walked through some deep valleys and in all of them she has seen how in the hardest times , when the clouds we most dread are heavy on us, we can always see God’s kindness leading us all the way through.
Coveting Cancer and Taking Pride in Pain
by Hannah Grieser
When my oldest son, Jonah, was diagnosed with cancer at age 10, the blow to our family’s predictable way of life was sudden and severe. We ended up having to divide our family between two different cities for months, trying to figure out what to do about school, about money, about transportation, about housing, and about our sanity. With one forceful gust, our tidy little map for the road ahead blew out the window and sent us speeding toward the Great Unknown through back roads and precarious switchbacks, sometimes plunging us up to our axels in despond.
But as hard as those new struggles hit us, new blessings came at us just as hard. Overnight, we went from living an utterly unremarkable existence to standing at the center of a swirl of attention from concerned family members, kind friends, and generous strangers. People I’d never met started following our story on social media. My blog traffic spiked. Boxes of gifts arrived from churches on the other side of the country. Opportunities arose for us to meet famous people and travel to exotic places. And everywhere I went, acquaintances would stop to find out how we were doing, ask how they could pray for us, and tell me what an encouragement we were to them as we were walking through this trial in faith.
And this second list is where some truly unexpected temptations arose.
Obvious and not-so-obvious temptations
The trial was very real, it’s true, and all the goodness and grace we experienced throughout that time were very, very real, too. But the temptations that accompanied both experiences were real as well, and some of the temptations were not the most self-evident.
In a sudden crisis with an uncertain outcome, fear and worry are all-too-natural temptations. They certainly were for me, and I—and many others—have spent a great deal of time and ink on the topic, urging people to lay aside their fears and to find their joy and rest in God as they endure various trials. The Bible is full of such admonitions, and so these are things that need to be both said and read. But as yet, I have said and read much less about the more subtle temptations that can sneak in during times like these—the temptations to envy and pride. The Bible has more than a few words to say about these sins, too, so we must not forget them just because we have entered a period of suffering.
I’m sure the temptation to envy does make some sense because enduring a trial clearly means not enjoying the easy, painless lives that our friends seem to be living. Suffering can mean comparing our plight with others and resenting the chapter we are in. Why me? Why not the other guy? What did they do that I didn’t? And envy can gradually take hold when we turn our focus on those who appear to have a better lot in life. Envy is always an ugly and destructive sin, but these are not the objects of envy I’m most concerned with here.
The envy I want to highlight is the envy directed not at those who are better off but at those whose stories appear to be worse than our own. Yes. You read that right.
On the face of it, this may sound crazy. (And it is. Sin is always a kind of madness.) But here’s the thing: if you’ve suddenly gained a kind of small-time notoriety, a freshly minted identity, and a heroic new status as She Who Has Suffered Well, then oh, how it can sting when somebody else suddenly comes along who threatens to topple that hard-earned title.
Here she comes (How dare she?)—with her bigger, newer, sexier trial and (Oh-ho! Well, lah-dee-dah!) a godlier, wiser, more long-suffering response to it all. When we’ve gotten comfortable with the attention, the pity, the respect, and the perks that can come from a period of suffering, we really do need to take care that we don’t start to find our identity and sense of worth in those experiences, or things may get ugly the minute something or somebody threatens to take them away.
There are women (and I’m afraid it very often is the women) the world over who must constantly and forever imagine themselves in the role of the martyr. They cannot bear to allow that anyone else has suffered more or could deserve more pity. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis paints an awful picture of self-centered and destructive grief when he introduces a bereaved mother who has turned a family tragedy into a form of tyranny to which all others must submit. She has destroyed lives by forming her entire identity around the pain of her loss. And in The Four Loves, Lewis also gives us Mrs. Fidget who makes sure that everyone sees how she suffers, working “her fingers to the bone” for her family—and thus drives them all away.
But suffering should not grant a free pass for selfishness, and grief should never be a weapon to hijack the joy of those around us. God has told us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Th 5:18). God has told us to look to Him for our peace and to supply all our needs (Mat 6:25-33). And the risen Christ told Peter, even as He prophesied Peter’s martyrdom, not to concern himself with how the other disciple was to suffer or not: “What is that to you? You follow me” (John 21:22). This is a good admonition to all of us as we face the prospect of suffering: follow Christ. Fix your eyes on Him.
So when the next person comes along with her own trials, believe that the grace of God is big enough to fill both your needs. Do not take her story as an invitation to complain more and worry louder, lest the world forget you. God does not require our melodrama or Mrs. Bennett pity parties (“Nobody can tell what I suffer!”) in order to remember our needs. The one time that God tells us to outdo one another, it is in showing honor (Rom 12:10)—not in griping about our troubles and trying to steal the honor of others away.
One-upmanship as old as dirt
Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. We humans have a tendency as old as Cain to want to out-do the other guy, to turn the spotlights that shine on others back onto our own sorry selves—and in ever escalating ways: “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:24). All of us are born with glory hunger, but in our fallen state, we would rather not pursue it the way that Christ commands: through humility and service and a cross (Mk 9:35). Instead, we settle for cheap substitute glories or attempt to steal the real thing from others. And, in the grip of envy, when we cannot steal glory, we attempt to destroy it—sometimes very subtly.
Some of my friends living down south have joked that they can never mention cold weather without some northerner suddenly appearing to inform them that “until you’ve spent January on the windward side of the Canadian Rockies, you don’t know the first thing about cold!” It reminds me of that old comedy bit about grandparents boasting, to their whining grandkids, that when they were young, they had to walk to school—barefoot!—through the snow!—uphill!—both ways!
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.” Sounds about right. As egocentric sinners, we really do hate it when our Story of Great Suffering—our conversational trump card—gets beat by the other guy’s Tale of Unparalleled Woe. We hates it, we does.
And we hate it because it strikes us where it most hurts—our pride. It’s amazing how the human heart can turn just about anything into a reason to puff ourselves up and to feed our arrogance, all the while deceiving even ourselves about what we’re doing. Am I really “just asking for prayer”? Or am I using my “prayer request” as an excuse to publicly complain about my situation and to draw everyone’s attention and pity back on me, basking in the accolades for what a suffering saint I’ve been?
I’ll tell you what. I’ve asked for prayer from both motivations, and both can look very much the same from the outside. God didn’t give me X-ray vision to see into the hearts of others, so this is not a call to presume the worst the next time your suffering friend shares a prayer request. Not at all. This is a call for those of us who are facing trials to examine our own motives. Consider the possibility that you’re deceiving even yourself about what you’re doing when you “ask for prayer.”
A good self-test is this: Does it annoy you—even just a little bit—when somebody else announces that they are now facing a trial that very much resembles your own? Or one that is more socially acceptable than your own? Or more acute and attention-grabbing than, say, your own slow, chronic struggle? Are you bitter because the people with cancer get all the perks, while people dealing with Lyme disease or slander or abandonment are forgotten? Are you upset by women who talk openly about and receive pity for their miscarriages while nobody knows how you’ve quietly endured your own? Does all the fuss over that crippling car accident really bug you because nobody seems to care about the years and years of steady decline that are crippling you?
Does the outpouring of attention and care toward other people’s suffering and not your own bother you? Anger you? Frustrate you? Keep you awake at night? Then very likely, the word for what you’re dealing with is envy. Envy, impure and simple.
But here’s the truth of the matter: God has tailor-made your suffering just for you. Your devastating diagnosis that everybody on the internet knows about was made for you. Your silent struggle is the test that God hand-wrote just for you. Your lonely hours in bed with that chronic affliction are a trial that God put into your story for His own glory and your good. Death of loved ones, false accusations, debilitating illness, quiet grief, and public pain are given to each of us in turn because God knows each of us by name. He knows what we need. He knows how to refine us and prune us, even if we may not always understand what good will come from it as we feel ourselves melting or as we watch precious branches fall to the ground.
Sisters, some of us need stitches, and some of us need open heart surgery. But whichever lot is ours, it is ours because the Great Physician knows our exact diagnosis, body and soul, and intends, in the end, to make us whole—to make us perfect, just as He is perfect.
He has promised to be with us in our suffering—not in the suffering of that guy over there. He has promised to equip us to bear up under our trials—not under the trials we wish we had or under the trials we worry we might one day have. We are to concern ourselves with being faithful where God has placed us, not imagining how we would be faithful if only we were where He has placed somebody else.
Even we may not understand our own hearts in these things, but God does see the heart, so ask Him to root out any self-deception, pride, or envy that may have crept in during your season of affliction—however long and however severe it’s been. If we have been called by God, then all things—even my trials and your trials and the trials of the believers around us—truly are working together for good. Let us live as though we believe it. And when we’re tempted to both envy and downplay the trials of others, let us turn again to Jesus and remember His words: “What is that to you? You follow me.”
You can find the index to the series here.