As a Catholic newbie, I think the biggest mistake I make is trying to figure out God. I sometimes can't help asking myself (and Him) why things happen the way they do.
To be fair to myself, it is human nature to ask, to wonder, to want to learn. Even though my pastor reminds us on Sundays of “the mysteries of faith” (chanted in his delightfully off-key voice), the mystery-solver in me just can't seem to let some things go. And by some things I mean the bad things; especially the bad things that happen to good people.
I've been thinking a lot about Sue, a woman in my parish who has four children, and who has the worst illness I think I've ever heard of. Sue has ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is very rare, affecting fewer than 20,000 people a year. It is a devastating disease in the way that it attacks the body, and there is no cure.
I haven't seen her since she was diagnosed in December. I've been thinking about her a lot recently, though, and wondering if she thinks the way I do. Is she asking God why-why she must suffer so horribly? Sue is Catholic, and I wonder if her faith is being tested or if it's what gets her through it all.
Sometimes I picture myself in Sue's situation, and I test my faith in an imaginary way. If I told you that I could be 100% buoyed by my relationship with Christ and the promise of eternal life while fighting a terminal illness, I'd be lying.
Over the summer, I ran into a friend at a party who gave me a quick update on Sue, which birthed in me an almost manic need to write Sue a letter. I thought constantly about the letter I wanted to write and agonized for weeks about the words I'd choose. Clearly, phrases like “you'll beat this… you're strong... you have the best doctors” wouldn't work at all, and standard get-well-soon sentiments just don't apply when you're fighting a losing battle with ALS.
Could I find the right words in the Bible? I seriously considered googling “Scripture verses for sick people.” Then I decided one night as I lay sleepless, deep in thought about Sue, that Lisa Brenninkmeyer (founder of Walking with Purpose) would have the right words for my letter.
The next morning I turned to the Walking with Purpose Bible study Opening Your Heart (authored by Lisa), and specifically to Lesson 15, which is about the role of suffering in our lives. I expected to be able to pluck Lisa's favorite Bible verse related to suffering right out of Lesson 15, and scrawl it onto a notecard for Sue.
In her wisdom, Lisa writes in the introduction to Lesson 15:
“I don't know about you, but when I am in the vise grip of suffering, I don't really want to hear someone whose life looks a heck of a lot easier than mine quoting Romans 8:28: 'We know that all things work for good for those who love God…'”¹
Fair point. I read on.
“When we encounter suffering, nothing robs us of peace like expectations.”²
We expect to understand God, Lisa says, and when we don't, confusion shreds our faith. We expect God's definition of happiness to be the same as ours, but when things go wrong, we wonder if He cares. And we expect to see evidence of God when we need him, but often, he remains invisible.
Opening Your Heart Lesson 15 is five days of learning, Bible study, and reflection. After taking in this lesson a second time, and clearing my heart and mind of all those expectations, I came out of it with a tremendous sense of peace. And I wrote a card to Sue and put it in the mail.
I should tell you that I didn't find words for Sue in Lesson 15, but I found peace and comfort for my heart, and a clear mind to come up with the right words all on my own.
I told Sue she was an amazing mother, that her four kids were terrific (which they really are), and that I was praying for her.
PS: After I finished writing this blog, a well-known truth from Scripture landed in my email in-box. I find it so comforting and feel compelled to include it here:
It is the Lord who goes before you; He will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed. (Deuteronomy 31:8)
¹ Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Opening Your Heart (July 2018), 173.
² Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Opening Your Heart (July 2018), 174.
“Terrible” was her response to the question, “How was your afternoon?”
“Oh, no, what happened?” I asked my friend, expecting to learn of an argument with her teenager or a run in with a crazy neighbor. But it wasn't either of these things. It wasn't even an actual thing that had happened. (Not in the present moment, at least.) She looked straight at me and sighed, “I just have so many regrets.”
The Hebrew word for regret actually means “to sigh”. Interesting, right?
Regret is defined as sorrow or remorse over something that has happened or that we have done. And we all have regrets. Some regrets are foolish choices, like the time in the seventh grade when I chose to cover my entire head in Sun-In, while laying out at the beach for eight hours straight drenched in baby oil. Other regrets are sin choices, and these can cause us the most harm as they tend to leave scars and consequences that last longer than a bad bleach job and third-degree burn.
I have learned a lot about regret in the past few years, and I have come away confident in this: if it doesn't propel me into a deeper faith and trust in the Lord, it is a completely useless emotion, that ironically, I will only regret at the hour of death; which, if you ask me, is THE most important hour of our lives. And that? That to me is the ultimate regret! Focusing on the sorrow my poor actions have brought me changes nothing. It only holds me face down in disappointment, reminding me of all the “what-ifs” and “if onlys”. It encourages me to look around at everyone else who apparently has what was supposed to be mine IF ONLY I had made better choices. Ultimately, and most tragically, it cripples me in my pursuit of glorifying God.
And we want that, don't we? We want lives that are lived for Jesus, that point to Jesus, that glorify Jesus. But if we are drowning in our regrets, is this even possible? How do we start seeing our wounds as the pathway to the heart of Christ, and not the obstacle? Exactly how do we accept our mistakes, and make peace with our past?
We need to get over ourselves. And we do this by repentance.
As I said earlier, regret focuses on the action that has brought us sorrow, but repentance focuses on the One we have offended. Saint Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 have helped open my eyes to just how selfish my own regret can be:
I rejoice now, not because you were saddened, but because you were saddened into repentance; for you were saddened in a godly way, so that you did not suffer loss in anything because of us. For godly sorrow produces a salutary repentance without regret, but worldly sorrow produces death.
There are a few ways I pray to not die. One, I don't want to be eaten by a shark. Ever. Two, I am terrified of my car driving off of a bridge and drowning. OR worse, not drowning, but once I escape through the car window, I get eaten by a shark. And three, “death by worldly sorrow”. So, to avoid the first two, I will stay out of the ocean and off of bridges. And to ensure I avoid number three, here are three things I am putting into practice:
1. Shut Satan Down.
Sisters, he is not called the Accuser for nothing. His tricks and schemes go back to the Garden of Eden. He tempts you, lying about the consequences, then accuses you when you consent. He delights in your shame, and wants you to believe the lie that you are defined by what you do. Own your identity. You are defined by God. Weekly Confession has been my saving grace. Take your regrets to the Sacrament of reconciliation, and leave them in the confessional. Then, on your way home, blare “I am a child of God” with your windows wide open so everyone knows exactly who you are.
2. Stop dwelling on the past.
Every time you go down that path, you take a step further away from trusting the Lord with your life and accepting the outcome. Your past is a huge and necessary piece of your story. Remember, He wastes nothing. When I focus more on what I should have done, rather than what God is calling me to do, I remember Saint Paul's words in Philippians 3:13-14: Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
3. Praise God.
Thank Him for allowing you to make mistakes because you are confident in His ability to pull the good out of every circumstance. If you do not believe that your situation could ever be used for good, now would be a good time to open up your Bible to Romans 8:28 and declare this over your life: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
When Judas felt the sharp pains of regret, he fell into self-destruction. This is not what God wants for us! Like Saints Peter and Paul, the purpose of our regret is that it leads us towards repentance. There is no need for you to undo your past. You have a God who lives to redeem it. Claim that truth and keep running towards the prize.
In Him who makes all things new,