One of my favorite movies growing up was Swiss Family Robinson. There is a scene in the film where the eldest son, Fritz, finds himself in a river wrestling an anaconda.
Rolling over and under, again and again, knife in hand, Fritz struggles to conquer the massive snake. Sometimes he is on top, gasping for air but close to victory, and the next moment the serpent wraps him in its massive body and pulls him back into the turbulent water.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, Fritz ends up on top, thrusts the knife in for the fatal blow, and rolls onto the banks of the river exhausted from the struggle.
Wrestling with sorrow, loss, personal wounds, and bitterness is not unlike rolling around in murky waters with an anaconda. Some moments we feel optimistic we have conquered our gloom and bitterness. “Ok, I’ve got this. I’m better now.”
Then something triggers us, and under we go, brooding and ruminating, uncertain we will ever be free. Our inability to let go creates so much of the pain we experience. Jesus warned us we would have trouble in this world, but we sure didn’t expect to be the source of our own pain!
Stuck on the Why
Not unlike Job, we sit in metaphorical ashes – bewildered. We want to know WHY.
If we could just understand why, maybe we could let go of the bitterness and be content again. Even Job’s friends tried to come up with plausible explanations, but they were wrong.
God heard Job’s prayers. He knew Job was struggling to make sense of his suffering, but God wasn’t inclined to give him an answer. Rather, he turned to questioning Job:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began? Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
If you read the entire book of Job, you see God’s answer implies he is not only aware and in control, but he has things in mind that are beyond anything we can imagine.
But does it really feel comforting to know God has a plan when our hearts are broken? Couldn’t we at least know why things happen the way they do?
In his thoughtful book Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing Through Grief, John Claypool says we often want to figure out life before we plunge in and live it.
He gave an example that stopped me in my tracks during a phase of my life when I was stuck on WHY. He said Adam and Eve were offered paradise, every good thing one could hope for: meaningful work, good food and drink, sex, beauty, pleasure; in other words, a full-orbed, rich LIFE.
And yet what did they get hung up on? The WHY. Adam and Eve became obsessed with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They wanted insight. They wanted explanations. We all know how that turned out.
Adam and Eve became so preoccupied that eventually they didn’t enjoy the life they were offered, and they lost it. Paradise was lost because they refused to live until they had the answer to WHY.
Faith, by its very definition, implies that we live passionately with an open heart without having all the answers. We need to be careful not to be like Job’s friends, too quick to speak about things we really don’t know.
Sometimes the problem is we start with false assumptions about God, people, and life in general.
How does the saying go… Sow an expectation, reap a disappointment?
That was certainly my problem. I had a formula in my head and God in a box. I knew what I had to do to secure the outcome I wanted. I was a bit like Job’s friends and I was wrong.
Life did not turn out at all the way I planned, and I wasted too much time trying to understand WHY.
How do we let go? How do we get over the hard things that happen to us?
Sometimes we get stuck because we feel that moving on, forgiving ourselves, others, or even God minimizes the significance of our pain. This is one reason forgiveness is so hard. And yet, forgiveness is a way for us to release our anger and hurt and begin to heal.
Forgiveness frees up energy to shift our focus to healthier things.
What We Nurture Grows
We become what we give our attention to and, the things we feed, tend to grow.
Are we spending more time focusing on our pain or who wronged us than on the good things in our lives? The apostle Paul encouraged us to give our attention to what is true and good.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.
One way to get unstuck is to practice gratitude. This isn’t about ignoring what’s wrong; but many of us spend too much time focusing on the irritating, bad, and ugly parts of life.
Practicing gratitude and celebrating what is good about our lives helps break the habit of negative rumination. Life can be very hard, but it is equally true that sometimes life is very good. We can acknowledge both.
“I have had this painful thing happen, and yet…” It’s interesting that many of the Psalms end this way. The Psalmist gives voice to his broken heart but often ends with a hopeful “and yet…”
Our story is more than just the painful things we experience. Focusing on what is right in our lives, looking for things to be grateful for helps us turn our attention away from our pain.
It retrains our minds to search for the true, good, and lovely. In changing our focus, in fits and starts over time, the good things in our lives start to eclipse our pain, and we find we have finally been able to let it go.