Faithful Obedience by Hannah Grieser

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.

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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.

Trial Envy

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.”

Pop quiz

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.

Custom-made trials

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.”

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You can find the index to the series here.

God Always Gives Sufficient Grace

We are back from church and ready to face a new week by grace through faith. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring and Jesus explicitly commanded us not to be anxious about it. And yet, we ought be ready for what tomorrow may bring.

J.R. Miller write this devotional that I have found very helpful to help us get ready for worried week-days. I hope you find it helpful too.

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We have only successfully acquired the art of living a Christian life—when we have learned to apply the principles of true religion, and enjoy its help and comfort in our daily life. It is easy to join in devotional exercises, to quote Bible promises, to extol the beauty of the Scriptures; but there are many who do these things—whose religion utterly fails them in the very places and at the very times—when it ought to prove their staff and stay!

All of us must go out from the sweet services of the Sunday—into a week of very real and very commonplace life. We must mingle with people who are not angels. We must pass through experiences that will naturally worry and vex us. Those about us, either wittingly or unwittingly, annoy and try us. We must mingle with those who do not love Christ. We all meet many troubles and worries in ordinary week-day life. There are continual irritations and annoyances.

The problem is to live a beautiful Christian life—in the face of all these hindrances! How can we get through the tangled briers which grow along our path—without having our hands and feet torn by them? How can we live sweetly—amid the vexing and irritating things and the multitude of little worries and frets which infest our way, and which we cannot evade?

It is not enough merely to ‘get along’ in any sort of way, to drag to the close of each long, wearisome day, happy when night comes to end the strife. Life should be a joy—and not a burden. We should live victoriously, ever master of our experiences, and not tossed by them like a leaf on the dashing waves. Every earnest Christian wants to live a truly beautiful life, whatever the circumstances may be.

A little child, when asked ‘what it was to be a Christian,’ replied, “For me, to be a Christian is to live as Jesus would live—and behave as Jesus would behave—if he were a little girl and lived at our house.” No better definition of practical religion could be given. Each one of us is to live just as Jesus would—if he were living out our little life in the midst of its actual environment, standing all day just where we stand, mingling with the same people with whom we must mingle, and exposed to the very annoyances, trials and provocations to which we are exposed. We want to live a life that will please God, and that will bear witness on its face to the genuineness of our piety.

How can we do this? We must first recognize the fact that our life must be lived just in its own circumstances. We cannot at present change our surroundings. Whatever we are to make of our lives—must be made in the midst of our actual experiences. Here we must either win our victories—or suffer our defeats. We may think our lot is especially hard—and may wish it were otherwise. We may wish that we had a life of ease and luxury, amid softer scenes, with no briers or thorns, no worries or provocations. Then we would be always gentle, patient, serene, trustful, happy. How delightful it would be—never to have a care, an irritation, a cross, a single vexing thing!

But meanwhile this fact remains—that our aspiration cannot be realized, and that whatever our life is to be made, beautiful or marred, we must make it just where we are. No restless discontent can change our lot. We cannot get into any ‘paradise’ merely by longing for it. Other people may have other circumstances, possibly more pleasant than ours—but here are ours. We may as well settle this point at once, and accept the battle of life on this field—or else, while we are vainly wishing for a better chance, the opportunity for victory shall have passed.

The next thought is that the place in which we find ourselves is the place in which the Master desires us to live our life.

There is no haphazard in this world. God leads every one of his children by the right way. He knows where and under what influences each particular life will ripen best. One tree grows best in the sheltered valley, another by the water’s edge, another on the bleak mountain-top swept by storms. There is always adaptation in nature. Every tree or plant is found in the locality where the conditions of its growth exist, and does God give more thought to trees and plants than to his own children? He places us amid the circumstances and experiences in which our life will grow and ripen the best. The peculiar discipline to which we are each subjected—is the discipline we each need to bring out in us the beauties and graces of true spiritual character. We are in the right school. We may think that we would ripen more quickly—in a more easy and luxurious life—but God knows what is best; he makes no mistakes.

There is a little fable which says that a primrose growing by itself in a shady corner of the garden, became discontented as it saw the other flowers in their mirthful beds in the sunshine, and begged to be moved to a more conspicuous place. Its prayer was granted. The gardener transplanted it to a more showy and sunny spot. It was greatly pleased—but there came a change over it immediately. Its blossoms lost much of their beauty and became pale and sickly. The hot sun caused them to faint and wither. So it prayed again to be taken back to its old place in the shade. The wise gardener knows best where to plant each flower, and so God, the divine Gardener, knows where His people will best grow into what he would have them to be. Some require the fierce storms, some will only thrive spiritually in the shadow of worldly adversity, and some come to ripeness more sweetly under the soft and gentle influences of prosperity, whose beauty, rough experiences would mar. He knows what is best for each one.

The next thought, is that it is possible to live a beautiful life anywhere. There is no position in this world in the allotment of Providence, in which it is not possible to be a true Christian, exemplifying all the virtues of Christianity. The grace of Christ has in it, potency enough to enable us to live godly, wherever we are called to dwell. When God chooses a home for us—he fits us for its peculiar trials. There is a beautiful law of adaptation that runs through all God’s providence. Animals made to dwell amid Arctic snows are covered with warm furs. The camel’s home is the desert, and a wondrous provision is made by which it can endure long journeys across the hot sands without drink. Birds are fitted for their flights in the air. Animals made to live among the mountain-crags, have feet prepared for climbing over the steep rocks. In all nature this law of special equipment and preparation for allotted places prevails.

And the same is true in spiritual life. God adapts his grace to the peculiarities of each one’s necessity. For rough, flinty paths—he provides shoes of iron. He never sends any one to climb sharp, rugged mountain-sides, wearing silken slippers. He always gives sufficient grace. As the burdens grow heavier—the strength increases. As the difficulties thicken—the angel draws closer. As the trials become sorer—the trusting heart grows calmer. Jesus always sees his disciples, when they are toiling in the waves—and at the right moment comes to deliver them. Thus it becomes possible to live a true and victorious life—in any circumstances. Christ can as easily enable Joseph to remain pure and true, in heathen Egypt—as Benjamin in the shelter of his father’s love. The sharper the temptations, the more of divine grace is granted. There is, therefore, no environment of trial, or difficulty or hardship—in which we cannot live beautiful lives of Christian fidelity and holy conduct.

Instead, then, of yielding to discouragement when trials multiply and it becomes hard to live right, or of being satisfied with a broken peace and a very faulty life—it should be the settled purpose of each one to live, through the grace of God—a patient, gentle and unspotted life—in the place and amid the circumstances He allots to us. The true victory is not found in escaping or evading trials—but in rightly meeting and enduring them. The questions should not be, “How can I get out of these worries? How can I get into a place where there shall be no irritations, nothing to try my temper or put my patience to the test? How can I avoid the distractions that continually harass me?” There is nothing noble in such living. The soldier who flies to the rear when he smells the battle is no hero; he is a coward.

The questions should rather be, “How can I pass through these trying experiences, and not fail as a Christian? How can I endure these struggles, and not suffer defeat? How can I live amid these provocations, these reproaches and testings of my temper, and yet live sweetly, not speaking unadvisedly, bearing injuries meekly, returning gentle answers to insulting words?” This is the true problem of Christian living.

We are at school here. This life is disciplinary. Processes are not important: it is results we want. If a tree grow into majesty and strength, it matters not whether it is in the deep valley or on the cold peak, whether calm or storm nurtures it. If character develops into Christlike symmetry, what does it matter whether it be in ease and luxury—or through hardship? The important matter is not the process—but the result; not the means—but the end; and the end of all Christian nurture is spiritual loveliness. To be made truly noble and godlike—we should be willing to submit to any discipline.

Every obstacle to true living should, then, only nerve us with fresh determination to succeed. We should use each difficulty and hardship, as a leverage to gain some new advantage. We should compel our temptations to minister to us—instead of hindering us. We should regard all our provocations, annoyances and trials, of whatever sort—as practice-lessons in the application of the theories of Christian life. It will be seen in the end—that the hardships and difficulties are by no means the smallest blessings of our lives. Someone compares them to the weights of a clock, without which there could be no steady, orderly life.

The tree that grows where tempests toss its boughs and bend its trunk, often almost to breaking—is more firmly rooted than the tree which grows in the sequestered valley, where no storm ever brings stress or strain. The same is true in life. The grandest character is grown in hardship. Weakness of character, springs out of luxury. The best men the world ever reared—have been brought up in the school of adversity and hardship.

Besides, it is no heroism to live patiently—where there is no provocation, bravely where there is no danger, calmly where there is nothing to perturb. Not the hermit’s cave—but the heart of busy life, tests, as well as makes character. If we can live patiently, lovingly and cheerfully, amid all our frets and irritations day after day, year after year, that is grander heroism than the farthest famed military exploits, for ‘he who rules his own spirit—is better than he who captures a city.’

This is our allotted task. It is no easy one. It can be accomplished only by the most resolute decision, with unwavering purpose and incessant watchfulness.

Nor can it be accomplished without the continual help of Christ. Each one’s battle must be a personal one. We may decline the struggle—but it will be declining also the joy of victory. No one can reach the summit—without climbing the steep mountain-path. We cannot be borne up on any strong shoulder. God does not put features of beauty into our lives—as the jeweler sets gems in clusters in a coronet. The unlovely elements are not magically removed and replaced by lovely ones. Each must win his way through struggles and efforts—to all noble attainments. The help of God is given only in cooperation with human aspiration and energy. While God works in us—we are to work out our own salvation. He who overcomes, shall be a pillar in the temple of God. We should accept the task with quiet joy. We shall fail many times.

Many a night we shall retire to weep at Christ’s feet—over the day’s defeat. In our efforts to follow the copy set for us by our Lord—we shall write many a crooked line, and leave many a blotted page blistered with tears of regret. Yet we must keep through all, a brave heart, an unfaltering purpose, and a calm, joyful confidence in God. Temporary defeat should only cause us to lean on Christ more fully. God is on the side of everyone who is loyally struggling to obey his divine will, and to grow into Christlikeness. And that means assured victory, to everyone whose heart fails not.

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Thanks be to God for the way His grace strengthens our hearts!

Under His sun and by His grace,

Becky Pliego

Thanks to the editor of Grace Gems who encourages all Christians to freely distribute all the content on their website.
Photo by Brett Jordan via Unsplash