In Seasons of Suffering, You Need a Pile of Stones.
Today I wrote these words in my biblical journal, a journal that has been woefully neglected of late: “How do I worship and testify when all I feel is loss and suffering, which [God] allowed or even ordained?”
It’s an uncomfortable question.
At the start of 2020, I was on the mountaintop. Life wasn’t perfect, but I was working, writing, and dreaming all within the context of an intimate spiritual walk with God. Then just as the storm of COVID-19 began to hit America, my wife miscarried at four months, and as that loss rocked out family nucleus, my business gradually dropped from 82% of the prior year to 27%.
I’ve been walking in the valley ever since.
At some point, I’ll have space to grieve, but for now the hierarchy of needs makes it difficult to consider emotional and spiritual concerns when there are more tangible needs.
This brings me back to my question: “How do I worship and testify when all I feel is loss and suffering?”
Too often when Christians speak of witnessing, they are referring to debates or apologetics. However, witnessing is far simpler. At its core, witnessing is simply testifying to what we have seen or experienced.
But how do we testify when life has transitioned from the mountaintop to the valley?
A story from the book of Joshua helps sign the way. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, the priests led the procession, carrying the Ark of the Covenant. As their feet touched the water’s edge, the flood stage river stopped flowing.
After the Israelites passed through on dry ground, one man from each of the twelve tribes removed a stone from the middle of the river where the priests were standing (knowing masculine competitiveness, these were probably absurdly large stones). Then the priests left the river, and the floodwaters returned.
The Israelites set up these twelve stones at Gilgal as a testimony to how God stopped the Jordan River, as he had parted the Red Sea. The Israelite leader Joshua says,
“[God] did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God” (Joshua 4:24).
When I was growing up, my parents kept a binder called, “The Gray Pile of Stones.” They wrote and compiled stories about how God had provided and shown himself faithful. They wrote about God’s protection during a kerosene fire, his guidance during my parents’ courtship, and how he had answered prayers.
Story after story bound together testifies.
As an adult, I started my own pile of stones, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I recognize that my memory fades faster than ever before—especially now that I have children. I’ve recorded many stories, such as:
- How God provided in dramatic fashion when I was raising financial support in order to intern with Campus Crusade for Christ.
- How God guided my wife and me along a difficult path to marriage.
- How God has provided for me financially over the years.
- How God has shown himself to be sovereign over my schedule in the midst of sickness.
These stories and more testify.
Now, as I walk through the valley, I find I need those testimonies to speak first to me, that I must reside in their pages, reminding myself of God’s past faithfulness in trials, which gives hope for the present and the future.
This is how I make space for worship in the midst of loss and suffering.
When life is hard and the future looms hostile and uncharted, much as it did for the Israelites as they entered Canaan, the testimony of my pile of stones speaks to the faithfulness of God—that I might remember that God is powerful and worth revering.