We are entering our third time zone of dissecting the pain that prompted our grief-anger. The first time zone was the “before,” these were the events that were so good that disrupting them was painful. The second time zone was the “during,” these events changed what was good. Now, we’re going to consider the “after,” the fallout that added to the pain but were not necessarily tied to the “during.”
By way of example, let’s consider how these three time zones are often represented around the painful event of adultery in marriage.
- Before: This is every part of the dating, courtship, and marriage that was good.
- During: This includes the compromises, coverups, and unfaithfulness of the adultery.
- After: These are the things that happen after discovering the affair which add to the pain; things like blame-shifting, partial truth telling, or apathy towards restoration.
To this point in our journey through the pain that resulted in a grief-anger with God, we have focused on the before and during. In this reflection, we will consider the kinds of things that go in the “after” category when we’re talking about anger with God rather than adultery.
Too often, this time zone either gets neglected or lumped into the “during.” If it gets neglected, then it meets the same icy silence that makes God seem distant from our pain. If it gets lumped into the “during,” then we misinterpret many of the people, actions, and events that occur during this time zone.
We will continue in the vein of interviewing our pain and consider five factors that can make things worse in the “after” time zone. Like before, not every factor will fit every experience of suffering. Reflect on the ones that fit your experience and feel free to ignore those that do not.
1. Dominoes of Suffering
Profoundly painful experiences often have aftershocks. Betrayals bruise trust and healthy relationships begin to be viewed with suspicion. Events with financial impact cause us to have to say “no” to loved ones regarding things we desperately want to say “yes” to. Suffering that results in shame leaves us feeling stigmatized and defensive even in safe, welcoming social settings.
A near universal domino of suffering is emotional fatigue. We just don’t have the emotional energy to process any other life challenges. We begin to avoid things that need our attention or make easy-but-unwise choices even when we know the long-term consequences will be worse because we “can’t handle making the hard-but-better choice right now.”
Here are questions to help you identify dominoes of your initial suffering.
- What did you have to neglect during your season of suffering? What are the consequences?
- What emotions were dominant during your season of suffering? How do they interfere with life now?
- How was trust damaged during your suffering? What good relationships are adversely affected by this generalized lack of trust now?
- [If young] What age-appropriate life skills did you not learn during your suffering? How does the under development of those skills affect you now?
- [If an adult] What events in the life of your children or grandchildren were disrupted? What good memories do you look back on with a tinge of pain?
Remember, God has the same compassion towards these dominoes as he does the initial climactic event(s). For your flourishing, God wants to see you grow to be less affected by these dominoes, but he is not rushing you. God does not view you as being “behind” or “deficient” because of these challenges. God knows your story. He understands why these things are hard or delayed. Like a good father, he takes extra delight in your progress because he knows what you are overcoming.
2. Ancillary Suffering
Not every hardship after a profoundly painful experience is a domino of the original experience. Some suffering experiences just happen to coincide in the same season of life. A family can experience a house fire and then, a month later, due to a down economy one of the parents lose their job. The fire and the job loss are unrelated; they just happen to have occurred around the same time.
While ancillary suffering events do not have a cause-and-effect relationship with your initial suffering, they do add to the emotional weight and logistical hardship. During these times our thinking can take on a superstitious quality as we feel “cursed.” We do this to try to make meaning of the multiple hardships. Feeling cursed makes us ask, “By who?” and this is where our misdirected anger at God can emerge.
But this system of meaning-making is no more accurate than me getting upset with my wife because she happened to walk into the room at the same moment I missed a nail and hit my thumb. There is a correlation in time for the events, but no casual relationship. My misguided-meaning making only creates distance in a relationship that could be a source of comfort.
Here are questions to help you differentiate whether suffering is a domino or ancillary.
- Is it likely this later hard thing would have happened regardless of profoundly painful event(s)?
- Did you have this aptitude weakness or emotional vulnerability prior to the painful event(s)?
- Was this challenge normal for the season of life you were/are in?
God does not ignore these ancillary challenges. They still “count.” But in how we make sense of our life story, it is helpful if we keep them narratively separate. Yes, my wife walked in the room. Yes, I hit my thumb with the hammer. Yes, it hurt like the dickens. But for my marriage narrative to be accurate, I need to keep these two things narratively separate – my wife didn’t make me hit my thumb.
3. Dry Quiet Times and Prayer
Emotionally loud experiences tend to dull emotionally less loud experiences. If I am feeling the pain of a broken leg, my ability to enjoy a flourless dark chocolate torte (i.e., the best of all possible desserts) will be diminished. The cake tastes the same, however, my senses are saturated and distracted. This same principle holds true in our relationship with God.
When the painful experiences of life are emotionally loud it can dull our ability to enjoy our relationship with God. God is the same as he has always been. He is every bit as much for us and with us. But our pain inhibits our capacity to take solace in God.
In this sense, we need to learn to appreciate God’s presence like a person exhausted by chemotherapy appreciates the presence of a spouse or parent in their hospital room. The suffering may significantly limit how meaningfully this person can engage their loved ones. But this muted ability to enjoy their family’s presence does not diminish how much the relationship is valued.
Here are a few suggestions to offset this kind of dry quiet times and prayer life.
- Allow simple “thank you” prayers to be enough when you are tired.
- Listen to the Bible rather than read it. This takes less mental energy and concentration.
- When you hear one meaningful truth that resonates with you, pause, and savor it. That may be all you can cognitively assimilate that day.
- Through the spiritual discipline of silence (a neglected discipline) imagine God patiently with you like a family member in the hospital room.
These things won’t make a dry quiet time burst forth with vibrancy. But if they help dryness not get mistaken for God’s absence, then they will have accomplished something significant.
4. Clumsy Friends
In previous reflections, we focused more on people who you would have considered friends but did things that were hurtful. After we’ve been betrayed, it is easy to begin to assume that anything that is hurtful is also malicious. We want to curb that assumption. If what a friend did was intentionally hurtful, those actions belong in the “during” time zone.
Here we are looking at unintentional things a friend may have done to make your pain worse. Perhaps a friend asks an excited question about your baby at an office party not knowing about your miscarriage. Or, a friend tries to be encouraging but in their attempt, they are being insensitive to your pain. For a variety of reasons, those around us are often emotionally clumsy when we’re hurting.
This doesn’t mean their actions do not hurt us. Our goal here is to distinguish safe pain from unsafe pain after the event(s) that so radically impacted our life. Without this ability, we begin to avoid genuinely caring people, and this fosters an isolation that makes it easier to believe that nobody – including God – cares.Our goal here is to distinguish safe pain from unsafe pain after the event(s) that so radically impacted our life. Click To Tweet
To help you discern when genuine friends were emotionally or relationally clumsy, consider these questions.
- What did your friends know at the time of the interaction?
- In their mind, what was the desired effect of their words/actions? If you’re not sure, consider asking them.
- Has it been like your friend to be malicious in the way your fear/pain interprets their actions?
If there is reason to believe that your friend was just well-intended-but-clumsy, consider having a conversation like this, “I don’t think you were trying to be hurtful, but when you said/did [describe] it made this difficult time harder for me. I value our friendship. It would help me resist the urge to isolate if you understood why it was hurtful and would work on not saying/doing things like that again.”
5. Consequences of Reactionary Choices
The “after” time zone can also get worse because of unwise choices we make. While suffering may have been at the forefront of the experience that prompted our angry-grief, that doesn’t preclude our subsequent choices from having stoked the fire of our pain in sinful or foolish ways.
Consider the person who begins escaping through alcohol to a degree that becomes addictive after a major grief event. Or, the spouse betrayed by adultery who begins to share too much information with a co-worker and sparks an emotional affair. After suffering, we can make choices that make a bad situation worse. This doesn’t make the initial tragedy our fault, but we do need to own what we added to the dilemma.
When we fail to see our contribution (when it exists) to the aftermath of a bad situation, we begin to feed a mentality of powerlessness. We fall into the mindset that because there was nothing we could do (past tense) to prevent the initial tragedy that there is now nothing we can do (present tense) to either make things better or worse. Succumbing to a powerless mindset only makes our angry-grief worse.
To help you discern what impact your choices had on how the aftermath of your profoundly painful experience developed, consider these questions.
- What things have I done that I would consider wrong if someone else did them?
- What things have I done that I would consider foolish if someone else did them?
- What things have trusted friends cautioned me about, but I’ve resisted heeding their concerns?
- What “after” time zone actions of mine would I undo if I could?
The value of identifying these actions is twofold. First, it alleviates a sense of powerlessness. Identifying these actions helps you see the “choices of influence” you have, which can either make your situation better or worse. Second, it protects your life from a moral drift. Many people can look back on a profoundly painful experience as a time when their decision making deteriorated, and life declined dramatically. This awareness is a protection against that process.
Questions for Reflection
- Has it been your tendency to neglect the “after” time zone or lump it in with the “during” time zone?
- Which of the five factors that influence the “after” time zone have been most influential for you?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.