One of the worst aspects of suffering is the way it tends to isolate. When great storms of suffering overtake us, our sense of loneliness can become overwhelming. As the clouds close in, we may lose sight of everything but our suffering, making it loom larger and larger. With profound suffering, we may think that no one else has ever suffered as much.
I have been partially paraplegic since I was 17, with very limited use of my legs. I’m now 62. A few years ago when my walking worsened, my doctor suggested that I see a physical therapist for the first time in almost forty years. Often, when she has just asked me to do something difficult and I’m straining really hard to do it, she’ll say, “Breathe!”
Of course, I’m not the only one who needs to hear that (women in labor and athletes must be urged to breathe). But sufferers often need the same reminder.
Losing perspective in suffering is stifling; it is like forgetting to breathe. More particularly, we Christians can forget that we are never alone, no matter what we are undergoing, because God is with us, just as he was with those saints who have been in similar straits before. Sometimes we are especially prone to forget when we are dealing with some chronic disability of our own or of one of our loved ones that seems to just be going on and on, with no end in sight. We need then, especially, to be reminded to breathe in the word that God has breathed out for us (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
The Scriptures record a lot of suffering because God’s people have never been free of it, not even from the kinds and degrees that can overwhelm God’s most stalwart saints. Indeed, when Job’s suffering seemed to him to be neverending, he actually accused God of keeping him from catching his breath (see Job 9:18, NLT). Yet his story finally conveys that, as awful as his situation was, much of what he needed to hear was something like this: “Breathe! Don’t panic! Slow yourself down! Don’t take everything to be as it seems. And don’t irrationally conclude that things will never get better.”
In other words, even one of the Old Testament’s greatest believers needed some breathing lessons.
We do, too.
And so one of the main tasks that I am setting myself for my talk at Desiring God’s conference on disability in November is to cull from Scripture some of its great breathing lessons.