We moved our daughter into her freshman dorm last week, and the operation went surprisingly smooth if you were to ask me. If you ask my husband, he would say otherwise. Perhaps you heard him after he carried four gigantic bins up nine flights of stairs in 95-degree weather. He was the angry father repeatedly threatening a heart attack, exclaiming, “If I die, I want you to sue the school!”
He didn’t die.
In his defense, things like stairs become tricky when you reach your fifties. Right around floor five, my own heartbeat spiked, and I vowed to be reunited with the treadmill when I returned home. Despite the heat and exhaustion, I never felt anger or desire to sue the school. It’s not because I am holier or in better shape than my husband. It’s because I knew things could be worse, because things have been worse.
Being told that “things could be worse” while suffering is annoying and not helpful. I prefer the biblical way of saying “things could be worse,” which can be found in Hebrews 12:4 : “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Remembering what Jesus endured while we are in pain does not disregard our suffering; it gives us perspective, and perspective changes everything. Easier said than done.
Why is keeping our eyes on Jesus so difficult when faced with an obstacle?
The human tendency is to focus on our circumstances, to keep our gaze inward and downward. Not the best posture to run the race set before us, is it? The world grows very small, and our vision fatally narrows when we do this. If we remain looking down, how will we see the finish line? If our focus is on ourselves, how will we see that great crowd of witnesses over us? The bottom line? When we lose sight of the finish line, there is no good reason to keep running. Why keep fighting if there's no prize at the end of the fight?
And yet, we know that there is a prize, and better than a prize, a promise. As Saint Paul exhorts, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). Now, I don’t know about you, but I want a share in all the holiness, so starting right now, I need to prepare for the race. And let me just say, it’s going to take more than buying a new pair of Adidas sneakers and a Lululemon sports bra to get into shape. It’s time to get serious, strip down, and start running.
But where to begin? Using Saint Paul’s exhortation in Hebrews 12:1–4 as a guide, I have narrowed my training down to four questions.
What weighs me down?
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
Saint Paul is clear. The cheering section of the stadium is packed with the saints who have run and finished the race, but that’s not enough. We also need to lose whatever sins and distractions cling to us so closely. In other words, we must lay down those things we refuse to let go of. Is it an inordinate affection and concern for your body? Are you consumed with your children’s suffering and desire for their happiness? Are you harboring jealousy, envy, or resentment? Do you covet your friend's marriage, regret your past, or strive to control your circumstances? Ask the Lord to reveal to you what is pulling you down, making life heavier and more complicated than it needs to be.
Where is my focus?
“Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2)
Jesus is the finish line, and we are to fix our eyes on Him. He is the mark we run to and the prize we run for. If we take our eyes off Him for one second, we risk running off course. Like a ballerina performing a pirouette, she finds a spot to block and never takes her eyes off it. Is Jesus your blocking point or something else? Are you looking at your friend’s race and wondering why she got the scenic route? Are you staring at your suffering, convinced that nobody’s life stinks like yours? Ask the Lord for the strength and faith to keep your eyes on Him.
What’s the point?
“…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
We endure the hard things here on earth for the same reason Jesus did: for the joy that awaits us on the other side. Jesus has already shown us that this is possible! The shame, pain, and suffering were worth it in the end. He sits on the throne! Have you lost sight of where you are going? Ask the Lord to keep the joy on the other side of the cross before your eyes.
Is Jesus worth it?
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:3–4)
It is good to meditate on the life of Jesus. All the caffeine in the world won’t give you the energy to persevere. Recalling what Jesus did for you will. Have you considered what Jesus endured? Ask the Lord for the grace of endurance and thank Him daily for His sacrifice.
With my daughter gone, many friends have reached out, checking in on my heart. And I must say, while I miss her presence here with me, it doesn't compare to the joy of watching her spread her wings as she flies into a new chapter. Undoubtedly, there will be bumps and bruises along the way and quite possibly a few flights of stairs. But I have something brighter in view under the sorrow of saying goodbye, which makes it all worth it. If she can run forward, then so can I.
 Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Grounded in Hope: A Study of the Letter to the Hebrews (Walking with Purpose, 2019), 277.
So, the question came up last night, “Can you grieve and still have hope?”
Let me backtrack here a bit, to give you the full picture. Currently, I run in two different circles: my Bible Study, which aims to lead women into a personal relationship with Christ through Scripture, and my Support Group, which aims to offer encouragement and hope to those who care for, or have tragically lost, a loved one afflicted with substance abuse disorder. This question came up at Group.
What has become crystal clear is my total inability to keep Jesus out of any discussion. To keep Jesus out of any circumstance. To keep Jesus out, period. Because I have grieved without hope; back when I did not know God's character, back when I reduced the Blessed Mother to a plastic statue, back when I believed the Gospel stories to be outdated and unrelatable, back when I did not know...truly know...my Catholic faith.
I see this a lot with cradle Catholics, fallen away Catholics, and non-Catholics. We know bits and pieces of our Catholic story but not the whole thing. Ironically, many of us wind up learning about Catholicism from our friends who have left the Church and encourage us to do the same. We misinterpret Scripture and allow the world to tell us who God is, and our hideous news feed becomes the icing on top of this lopsided cake. Then enter in the blind side: an unexpected twist in the road that takes us out at our knees, pulling us right out of hope and straight into despair; because I mean, really...if God were real, He would never have let this happen. If God were love, why would He stack one more thing upon our already burdened shoulders?
I so get it.
But here is the other thing I so get: God never promised that life will be easy or we will only be given so much. In the Gospel of John, He promises that we will have trouble. And the statement that we love to throw out in times of suffering? You know the one. “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Fun fact, folks...that phrase is not in Scripture! As Proverbs 31 Founder, Lysa Terkuerst, points out in her book, It's Not Supposed To Be This Way, “Nowhere in the Bible will you read that God will not give you more than you can handle. God does say He will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear and that He always provides a way out (1 Cor 10:13) but that's not the same as God not giving us more than we can handle. He sometimes will allow more and more and more.”¹
Saint Paul's words in 2 Cor 1:8-9 confirms this hard to swallow truth.
“...we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”
God absolutely gives us more than we can handle...beyond our strength...because He wants us to rely on Him. God does not expect us to handle it all on our own; He asks that we hand it all over. If you do not believe you can have hope while grieving, meditate on the Joyful Mystery of the Holy Rosary. The Annunciation cannot bring Mary the joy of carrying the Son of God without the grief of letting go of a life she had planned. The Presentation cannot offer Mary the joy of dedicating her Firstborn to the Lord without grieving the news that her son will be rejected and both will suffer greatly. Joy and Sorrow. Hope and Grief. Our Lady perfectly models how they can live side by side. But to be able to do this, you need to be like Mary; you need to accept whatever God has given you to carry and believe that what He says is true.
Herein lies the obstacle for so many of us: how do we accept something we do not understand from someone we truly don't know? It is the not knowing Jesus that ultimately trips us up. It is our lack of intimacy with Christ that directs our misplaced hope. We have all of these expectations for ourselves, our loved ones, our marriages, our future, and when those expectations we hold tight to do not line up with God's plan, we stay stuck in the need to understand what God is doing; to understand how this plan, which is often endless and painful, could actually be good. I have been stuck in this place myself, sweet friend. Stayed there too long, and it is a recipe for an extinguished faith.
Coincidentally, only hours before sitting in Group and faced with the question, “Can we grieve and still have hope?”, we had just chosen our Parish's Walking with Purpose Bible study for the fall: Grounded in Hope. The course description is as follows: “In a world where levels of despair, addiction, and suicide are rising, we need more than clichés or positive thinking. Grounded in Hope will help you encounter Jesus in such a powerful, comforting, and stabilizing way that He can become your lifeline.”²
If you are in the midst of a suffering causing you to lose hope, maybe the question is not so much, “Can you grieve and still have hope?” but rather…“What has become your lifeline?”
Praying we always stay tethered to the Anchor that grounds us in hope.
Your Sister in Christ,
¹ Lysa Teurkerst, It's Not Supposed To Be This Way, 2018, p.111,112
² Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Grounded in Hope, Walking With Purpose 2019
We sat in the last pew at the back of the Church. Knees to the ground, beads in our hands. This was her idea. “I know this sounds crazy, but would you meet me before Mass tomorrow and pray the Rosary? Will you let me pray for you?” And when we completed our meditation, she looked directly into my eyes, and begged, “Don't lose hope. You can't. I know you are weary. But please. You have to have hope.”
We have all been there, haven't we? When life's disappointments reach the point of just too much. When God's plan for good is impossible to comprehend, and we doubt there is a finish line. And what happens when we begin the fall into despair is one of two things. We either choose to take the easy route we write up ourselves; the road that avoids difficult decisions and giant leaps of faith. Or, we quit the race altogether. As soon as we recognize, “hey, wait a minute, Lord...following you is no longer fun,” we stop running. We exchange our hope in Jesus for a false sense of hope in ourselves.
Being grounded in anything but hope has led me into the lie that my suffering is pointless. Being grounded in anything but Jesus has led me into the lie that I am too weak for the race that God has mapped out for me. When hope is absent from my heart, fear claims the space that is reserved for God. And when I give in to fear, I rely on my own strength. This, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. Because apart from Him, I can do nothing. I am not the Savior, no matter how hard I try to be. I also can't cook. So following my own recipe is bound to disappoint on so many levels.
But God can cook, and His recipes are good. (And I hear He saves the good wine for the end, so don't quit too soon.) Especially the recipes for hope we find in Hebrews. The entire book of Hebrews is based on this central truth; that God reigns Supreme, and it is by His strength and grace that we can persevere. These are the ingredients I should be reaching for, rather than grasping at useless things around me. Things like complaining versus praying. White knuckling instead of surrendering. Comparing instead of thanking.
So how do we hold onto hope? Hope do we turn hope into more than a pretty word we like to paint on wood panels and frame over the fireplace? How do we remain steadfast when life is unsteady? How do we hold onto hope as an anchor, when we'd rather throw the anchor at the back of someone's head?
Here is what I do.
When I start to spiral into despair, I start listing all of the times I lost hope, doubted God's plan...and then He showed up. And when I say “showed up” please don't mistake this for “then I got my way.” My most fruitful seasons are the necessary hardships that dragged on way longer than I had wanted, and didn't end the way I told God they needed to end. These are the seasons that shaped me and strengthened me more than I ever imagined possible.
RUN TO MARY
Mary stood at the foot of the cross, not because she felt no pain or sorrow, but because she believed that the promises of Christ would be fulfilled. I made a vow to start every morning praying the rosary. Oh, how we could linger over many cups of coffee as I share with you the powerful intercession of the Blessed Mother in my life when I needed it most.
There is no greater joy for me than when given the opportunity to point a despairing soul in the direction of hope. As painful as life has been, when I can sit across from a friend and assure her she is not alone and she will make it to the finish line, I can say with total confidence that it has all been worth it. Sometimes the best way to have hope, is to be hope.
If you are weary from running your race, I want you to know: I GET IT. I know how you feel. No hope is quite possibly the most painful thing I have ever felt. But I can also share this: no hope is a lie. Remember, we are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life (Hebrews 10: 39). And if you were here with me now, I would grab your hand, and I would take you to the last pew in the back of my Church, and I would pray with and for you. On our knees. Every bead. And with tears in my eyes, I would look into yours and I would beg, “Don't lose hope. You can't. I know you are weary. But please. You have to have hope.”
Ground yourself in Him and run with me.
Your Sister in Christ,
If you are looking for additional encouragement to run your race, you might want to read Grounded In Hope, our newest study coming out in February. Click here to purchase Grounded in Hope.
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