I Can't Imagine!
“God gives grace for what actually happens to us, not for what we imagine might happen to us.”
I overheard a colleague make that statement years ago, on her first day back to work after giving birth to a stillborn child. Someone had said to her that they couldn’t imagine how they would handle that situation and the grieving mother responded with those insightful words.
As soon as I heard her say it, I thought, I’m going to remember what she said. Someday I’ll need to share it with someone who’s sad and afraid.
That “someone” turned out to be me.
Imagination is a double-edged sword; it can help us or it can hurt us, it can stir up either fear or faith, it can drive us into dark places or draw us out into the light. Imagination is the genesis of most of the inventions, conveniences, and entertainments we enjoy. But it is also a cold and hostile invasion of our thoughts that convinces us to expect the worst possible outcome.
When it comes to grief, imagination can work against us in a couple of ways. It can:
tempt us to borrow other people’s circumstances, or
shove us too far and too fast into our own circumstances.
When I put my former colleague’s insight about grace alongside the downside of imagination, I came to these conclusions:
We don’t have the grace to face other people’s struggles.
Though we will have grace when it happens (whatever “it” is), we won’t have that grace until it happens.
To be clear, in this context I’m using the word grace to refer to the God-given ability to endure suffering without being overcome by it.
When we watch someone we love suffer, I can’t imagine! is an honest response. Their pain is so disturbing that our minds want to reject it. And as it goes on day after day, month after month, we begin to question whether we would survive if their circumstances became ours.
This can bring about a crisis of belief, a time when we, from the outside looking in, have to dig deep into our own faith even as we wonder what God is doing. Does He see? Does He care? Will He really carry my friend through this? Will He carry me when something like it happens in my life?
Here’s the point: If we truly believe God gives us grace to endure, then the ones who are experiencing the pain have access to a form of grace that those who are only observing their pain don’t. Those on the outside of our circumstances do not fully share our pain, but neither do they fully share our grace.
When it comes to grace for suffering, we get it when we need it.
Not There Yet
One of the toughest battles I fought during my wife’s illness was with my own emotions. Sometimes fear would try to take over.
I worried about how I would take care of her when she could no longer walk, or when she lost the use of her hands and arms. I worried about her breathing and her swallowing. I feared the approach of death.
Niecie always wanted to know how I was dealing with things, so one day we talked about my fears and we realized that I was mostly afraid of things that weren’t yet true. Even though the day would probably come when those things would be true, that day had not yet come. Imagination was tormenting me. I was forfeiting joy, letting tomorrow’s maybes spoil today’s realities.
So I began arguing against imagination with truth—something I picked up from Paul’s instructions on how to think (Philippians 4:8). The first point he made was: think about things that are true (real).
The day did come when Niecie could no longer be left by herself, and many more difficult days followed, each one bringing its own challenges. But facing those days as they came, in the realm of reality, was better than shadowboxing the “what ifs.” Accepting reality brought grace. Grace brought courage. Courage brought peace.
© 2022 by Tim Grissom. All rights reserved.