For the first time since I've been back from Vienna, I recently pulled out the notebook I kept while I was there. Inside of it are countless recordings from professors on dream analysis, existentialism, and the general inner workings of Freudian psychoanalysis. Mingled frequently within the academic jottings, however, were my own written prayers and pleas to God for understanding and deliverance. I longed for insight into my purpose in being there, but more than that I often yearned to return home. I missed my husband and son, and to put it simply, I was homesick before I ever even left home. Since I've been back, though, I've had ample time to reflect on my time there and it now makes me smile. I can still see Dimitri, a tiny Chihuahua that greeted me most mornings down in the breakfast hall. I also remember finding immense comfort from the pages of my Bible while I nibbled on small, "schokolade" peppermint patties. The two just seemed to go hand in hand. Literally. I can still smell the inside of St. Stephen's Cathedral, a place where all of my worries seemed washed away the minute I entered the magnificent structure. It's also unlikely that I'll ever forget the taste of the best vegan pizza I've ever had from a small pizzeria just down the street from my hotel. Reflection on these things continues to bring me immeasurable joy, but they are even more cherished because of the challenges and hardships I endured in order to experience them. For me, it was an arduous journey that relentlessly tested the limits of my mental, physical, and spiritual strength. I walked on foot for many long distances, stepping on glass along the way. I traversed bumpy roads to stand atop Am Himmel, and I endured nearly three weeks of intense sleep deprivation. I got lost the first night there and I could scarcely converse with my family back home throughout my stay. The dialogues were brief and the distance of time and space wide. In the city, I didn't speak the language, nor walk the pace. I slept without air conditioning and ate what was available, and as I look back on it all now, it was in one word - beautiful.
To be clear, it's not the pizza, Dimitri the Chihuahua, the chocolate, or even the cathedral that I'm referring to as beautiful, though all of those things were certainly delightful. No, the beauty of which I write is that of the struggle. As I said goodbye to my family (Luke 14:26-27), I counted, for perhaps the first real time, the cost of being a disciple. Physically, I made the journey alone, but spiritually the presence of God was never closer. The tears I shed before boarding multiple flights, my heavenly Father has collected in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). When I walked through, what was for me, the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4), Yahweh Himself, with rod and staff (23:4), was there to comfort me and protect me. On every sleepless night, the Lord gently extended the invitation of Matthew 11:28 to "come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." When I wrestled with the inconsistencies between various tenets of psychotherapy and biblical truth, Jesus assured me through Psalm 32:8 that "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye." As a stranger in a foreign land (Exodus 2:22), unable to speak the language, I found solace in knowing that God is untouched by such communication barriers (Exodus 4:12). In a culturally diverse group where conflicts arose often, I witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit bringing unity through the diversity (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). No matter the challenge, His Spirit was greater, for "greater is He who is in me than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).
Shortly after I returned home, I had a new whirlwind of difficulties rise up and it just didn't seem like I had been given ample time to recuperate from those still rippling out of Vienna. I talked to my mom on the phone one day and she heard the cracks in my voice and could sense the tears in my eyes. She knew I was having a hard time, but from 2,000 miles away couldn't possibly have known why. As a mother myself I can only imagine how worrisome this must be for her at times, but it was something she said in a later conversation that stayed with me. She said she wanted to see the "joyous Heather" again and it was in that moment that I was reminded of how the world often perceives hardships and trials. Without knowledge of God's Word, we see hardships as things to be avoided. We want to live a stress free life on the mountain top, but the hard reality is that the majority of our time on this earth is lived down in the valley of God's training ground and our trials and afflictions are hand-tailored by Him to make us stronger, not weaker. From afar, my sweet mom was unable to see that my joy is never more pure than when it abounds down in the hollow of any given struggle, but the psalmist says it best. In Psalm 119:71, he says this: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes," and I can truly say that the bulk of my knowledge of God and His ways has been learned in battle, not rest. Psalm 34:18 says that "the Lord is close to the brokenhearted," and when God is your first love and greatest desire, there's nothing you won't endure to feel that closeness. If your heart has taken the plunge and fallen deeply in love with Jesus above all that the world offers, then you know what Psalm 42:1-2 feels like: "As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, Oh God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." Does any of this diminish the difficulty and pain that we feel when we're enduring a specific hardship? No, but like the psalmist writes in 119:92, "unless your law had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction." I don't perish in my afflictions because I delight in God's ways. I understand what His Word says about the purpose and meaning and beauty of suffering (Philippians 1:29, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Philippians 3:7-11, 1 Peter 2:21, Acts 14:22, 1 Peter 4:1-2). Therefore, always mixed in with my despair is hope, enmeshed in my suffering is joy, and interwoven with my unpleasnantries is beauty.
There's a reason James 1:2-4 says to consider it "pure joy" when we "fall into various trials," and the reason is what comes from those trials. Were I never to suffer, I would be of little use to those who suffer when I do not. It is precisely because of my troubles that I have eyes to see the hurt in others (John 9:25). I care because I have been cared for (1 Peter 5:7), and I am enabled to counsel because my own pains have required that I be counseled (Psalm 32:8). I can listen to others because by the Lord I have been heard (Psalm 34:17, Isaiah 65:24) and I can lead others to deliverance because I, too, have been delivered (Psalm 34:19). I am not here to endure hardships and keep the lessons to myself. My afflictions serve a much greater purpose and so do yours (John 9:1-3, 2 Corinthians 4:8-11, John 11:3-4). Through the darkness of each one shines a light that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14), a light we are meant to shine for others to see (Matthew 5:16) that they, too, may come into a saving, healing knowledge of Jesus Christ. We are assured in John 16:33 that "in this world, you will have trouble," but then instructed to "take heart," or as the King James Version says "be of good cheer," because Jesus has already overcome them all. Who are you helping as a result of what you've suffered? Into whose life are you shining God's light? How are you taking His Word into the hearts of the hurting? Immerse yourself in the pages of the Bible when your troubles arrive and you will see just how beautiful your pain can be.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Ecclesiastes 3:11
"The great of the Kingdom have been those who loved God more than others did."A.W. Tozer