My husband and I recently shared dinner with some older friends of ours, a husband and wife with years of marriage between them, looking forward to retirement and back on years of faithfulness in ministry and work and family. Josiah and I are young in almost every sense of the word. We are young at marriage and young at work and young in ministry. At some point the conversation meandered to our marriage, a baby of a thing not even a year old. They asked what has surprised us most about being married and we both were at a loss for words.
In truth, any surprises of marriage have been eclipsed by the suffering of losing my aunt and uncle within the span of 3 months. When I pictured marriage and imagined how it would be, I never pictured grief and death, and yet those were the experiences we have shared over the last nine months.
When I’m feeling especially self-absorbed, I find myself angry at the seeming injustice of it. I tell myself that my first year of marriage was supposed to be spent on dates with my husband, showing off my new wedding ring and eating all our favorite desserts while we talked about the things we love most about each other. The “Honeymoon Phase” as people call it! Instead, my first year of marriage was spent at funerals and gravesides, hugging my parents and pretending not to see my father cry for the first time in my life, and then going home and crying into Josiah’s chest while we both tried to get some sleep.
In truth, an easy, happy, honeymoon-esque first year of marriage was never promised to us. Still, when I watch other friends marry and struggle through normal things like sharing a bed and settling into a first home, I feel the sting of my own expectations. Their struggles are real to be sure, but I am envious of the normalcy of those struggles and how easy I think they would be to navigate.
A friend of mine recently shared that she was struggling with losing sleep because of wedding planning, and I had to bite my own tongue to keep from spilling over with the cynicism in my heart. The night before, I had woken up from a dream in which I thought my brother had died in a car accident. My subconscious mind had no trouble filling in the details of my phone ringing on the nightstand and hearing my mom’s voice, the sick feeling in my stomach, the wishing it was all just a dream. And it was. It was a dream. I woke up crying and sick, but it was a dream. Unlike the other deaths in my family, this was one I could wake up from. I didn’t sleep much the rest of the night.
When my friend tells me about losing sleep because she’s worried about the details of her upcoming wedding, it feels like comparing a stubbed toe to an amputated limb, my dream a type of phantom pain that threatens my hold on reality. My cynical and prideful heart wants to hold all the struggles of every other newlywed couple up to my own standard of suffering and declare them unworthy of complaint. At the end of the day though, there is no measuring stick for suffering and we were not promised a life without it. Pain is pain is pain. Suffering is suffering is suffering.
There is nothing in the Bible that says you must experience a certain level of pain before it is validated. The Father doesn’t withhold comfort from us, demanding we experience a certain amount of suffering or a certain amount of pain before he offers us his comfort. The apostle writes,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
This passage has become both sweet and challenging to me over the last few months. God is named the God of all comfort, meaning there is no true, lasting comfort that can come from anything or anyone but him. This is sweet because of the very next line, “He comforts us in all our affliction.” All. Not just the afflictions that are painful enough. He comforts us in all our affliction. The stubbed toes and the amputated limbs. The funerals and the sleepless nights spent wedding planning.
The challenging part of this passage, to me, comes in the next few words, “...so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
I can feel the words grating against me like sandpaper, softening my edges but not before reminding me how sharp I have become, how my heart is turned toward measuring the suffering of another person before even considering comforting them. I am embarrassed to admit that I have been comforted by God and then found myself turned around to the next person and thinking them unworthy of even asking for comfort. I selfishly used that which was meant to bring glory to God for my own gain and to bolster my own sense of superiority.
Comforting others in this season of my life is unnatural and difficult; it requires the laying down of my pride, the surrendering of myself and leaning into the God of all comfort for strength and guidance. Even pain is not meant to be hoarded as if experiencing more is a kind of competition, and the comfort we receive from God as a result of that pain is to be given away, shared freely without ever asking for the person to hand over their suffering credentials.
Even in this, God is teaching me. The Holy Spirit ministers in our weaknesses and through our pain, and what an area of weakness this is for me. He has reminded me again and again through his word that he is enough, and if he is enough then there is enough comfort for me and for you, for the stubbed toes and the amputated limbs. There is enough because the God of all comfort comforts us in all of our affliction.