By Bryan K Brigham
Tragedy, suffering, and pain come to each of us eventually. If you or someone you love is suffering right now, I’m not going to pretend I understand what your life is like. I’m not going to quote a celebrity or act as if everything will be all right. Your tragedy is real. Your suffering is hard. Your life may never be the same again. Your pain is ugly, and I can’t change it. What I can do is show you how I’ve learned that we have a God who foreknows our tragedy, mourns with us in our suffering, and stands on the other side of our pain waiting to show us that he is still beautiful.
A Life Transformed
My wife, Olivia, has had an amazing journey. Overcoming incredible odds, Olivia worked to put herself through private school and then moved across the country to attend a Christian university she’d never even seen. She worked her way through college, endured an abusive and unfaithful first marriage, and suffered the loss of her first daughter just a few weeks before her due date. Less than three months later, she was diagnosed with a severe form of Lupus and had to undergo two and a half years of chemotherapy.
To anyone looking at her life from the outside, Olivia was destined to become a statistic, a casualty of her circumstances. In fact, at one point she was told as much! Nevertheless, Olivia refused to let the suffering and loss in her life define who she was. She learned the great truth that in moments of true hardship we either turn away from God or run toward him. Olivia has consistently run toward God and as a result she sees the world differently. Olivia’s eyes have been trained to see the beauty of God in suffering and the glory of God in what others often overlook.
In the months following her diagnosis, God began to teach Olivia how her photography could express the beauty of life as God was teaching her to see it through her pain. Her goal was simple: use her new understanding of the world to show others beauty they might otherwise miss. Olivia was being transformed because God was with her in her pain.
Falling in love with Olivia was easy, partly because of how Olivia’s journey had transformed her. Olivia has become the amazing woman she is largely through the trials that made Jesus the greatest reality of her life. The way she looked at the world was irresistible. The passion she had for the hurting was magnetic. Her fury to see God victorious over all his enemies was almost staggering. Despite the adversity of her life, she was gentle, joyful, outgoing, and friendly.
Entering the Crucible
This is where my own story of pain starts—my journey to let go of my own definitions of beauty and see beauty in the world through God’s eyes. I love how God had transformed Olivia, and I wanted to join her as we both learned to look more like Jesus. I knew God was calling me to marry Olivia. What I didn’t realize was that in drawing me to Olivia, God was also inviting me to enter into the crucible of transformation with her.
For Olivia and me, the real challenges began on our first anniversary with the loss of our first son. I still remember being huddled in a corner of our bedroom nearly two months later, sobbing uncontrollably as I mourned the loss of that little boy. In all my life, I’d never felt a split in my heart like that. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d make it through.
Thankfully God gave Olivia the grace to minister to me in the midst of her own suffering, and I came to a deeper understanding of confidence in the Lord despite circumstances. Through Olivia, God invited me to celebrate the reality of the son who waits for me in Heaven and to thank God for his life. Every time I remember him, I am also reminded that my confidence is in the Lord, not in my situation.
Pain Isn’t Good
Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Notice, it doesn’t say everything “is” good, but that God “works” everything for our good. Academically I recognized the distinction long ago, but I actually learned what it meant through my own suffering. It is a thesis that continues to be tested in my life.
Losing our son wasn’t good. The things Olivia endured weren’t good. Tragedy, suffering, and pain aren’t good. Yet God has used them all to refine our lives and make us look more like Jesus. That is good. This mixture of beauty and transformative ugliness is, after all, what we see in the cross of Jesus. Through her suffering and through our loss, Olivia and I have learned to offer “a sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15). As she said, “Our pain can be an offering.”
A Hopeful Perspective
As a final point on our perspective, I want you to know I am not writing this article from the other side of pain—I am actually in the midst of it. Our journey has not ended. (In fact, we buried another child while I was working on this article.) The trials continue to come, and several of them have been incredibly difficult. Therefore my proclamation of the beauty found in knowing God in the midst of a trial is based upon both past experience and future hope.
Olivia and I have learned and are still learning to see beauty through our tragedy, suffering, and pain. We are being transformed into people who look like Jesus, recognize how he values our tears, and believe that he suffers with us. Over the years, we have faced far more challenges in our marriage than successes and have regularly needed to search for God’s beauty in the midst of pain. Yet, through the pain of these struggles, our confidence in the God who can “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) has actually increased.
A Beautiful God
If you are currently suffering, I cannot understand or take away the ugliness of your pain. All I can do is remind you that our pain can be an offering. There is transformative beauty in overcoming a trial, and victory in these moments is found in letting God decide what beauty looks like. As Olivia has said, “It is worth every minute of suffering because God is going to walk in it with you.”
What I write to you, I also declare to myself! God shows us the beauty of his presence in the ashes of his creation. It isn’t what we see around us that’s truly beautiful, but the Lord who walks with us through the valley and who shows us the flowers that bloom only in the darkness. Through tragedy, suffering, and pain, God affords us opportunities to see with his eyes and share what we see with others. He is a faithful Father and the author of everything good and perfect (James 1:17). Truly we can say: “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Bryan Brigham is a preacher, PhD student, husband to an amazing woman of God, and father to a beautiful little girl.