“Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.” Shauna Niequist Bittersweet (p. 11)

If these words awaken something in you, something that you need to be true, because you’re grasping for hope in a seemingly hopeless situation, then this month’s Honest Book Review is for you. The book is Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist.

I’ve read all of Shauna’s books, and this one is my favorite.

It’s a beautifully written exploration of the mysterious way in which sorrow and hope mingle together in the dimmest corners and saddest places of life, and inexplicably, when you least expect it, hope breaks through and illuminates all the glittery, jagged edges, creating something beautiful and profound inside of you.

I’ve always thought suffering and pain were to be avoided at all costs. I’m not sure where this idea came from, but I don’t think I’m the only one who believes it. I mean, who wants to suffer? Not me. Sign me up for the perfect, happy life thankyouverymuch!

I believed that if I did everything right, if I was serving God and following all of his rules, I would lead a charmed life, everything would go right, my kids would always be healthy, and we’d be wealthy and wise. But the underbelly of that theology is that if I experienced suffering, it meant I was doing something wrong. Which meant not only was I going through a terrible experience, but I thought God was mad at me too. Perfect! Just what I needed! The wrath and punishment of God on top of my pain and anxiety! That just gives me more pain and anxiety!

About ten years ago when we were living in India, and I was experiencing extreme anxiety, and my kids were sick all of the time with no medical help or explanation in sight (you can read all about that on ericabarthalow.com), I thought I must have done something wrong or that God was somehow punishing me. It felt like he was grinding me into the dust, even though I had moved halfway across the globe to be a missionary in an act of obedience. Clearly, I had done something that needed to be punished, because there was no logical explanation for what we were experiencing. And I’ve always needed an explanation. For Every. Thing. (just ask my husband, he’ll tell you it’s his favorite attribute of mine). I always need there to be a good reason for everything.

Slowly and painfully, much more slowly and painfully than I’ve liked in most cases, I’ve learned that sometimes there just isn’t a good reason. Or any explanation at all. God isn’t punishing me. This is life—and sometimes life is just hard.

Obviously, no one wants to suffer. But it’s become abundantly clear, the longer I’m on this green earth, that suffering and pain is not something I can avoid. It’s part of what makes me human. But sometimes… Oh, sometimes, when I walk through it there’s more, so much more, in the form of indescribable joy, contentment, and peace, than I ever dreamed possible. Because it’s in those painful places where I sense God’s presence most strongly, and in his presence there is fullness of joy. It’s not just an empty platitude. It’s real. And I pray that you experience it too.

So often we just want it all to stop. All we want, like we want a Dairy Queen Blizzard when we’re on a no-sugar diet, is our trial to come to an end. We don’t want to walk through it, we want to skip over it.

I know exactly how that feels.

I know what it’s like to have your husband look at you and say, “I don’t want you to quit before it’s time.” But everything within you screams that it’s time. The fat lady has sung. The lights are all out. All of those cliches. Every. Last. One.

Shauna gets it too. She knows what it’s like to live there, in that place where it hurts and you haven’t experienced anything good in a long time. But she also knows about the deep, substantive work that God does in us when we’re pressed and pinched, and the intimate way that he walks with us during those times that heals our deepest wounds. She writes,

“I prayed to be rescued, not redeemed. I prayed for it to get easier, not that I would be shaped in significant ways.” (p. 18)

If you can identify with that statement, if that’s where you’re living, desperate for rescue, find hope in these words:

1 Peter 5:10-12 “You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does.

The suffering won’t last forever friend (that much I know–even though it might be hard for you to imagine right now)! And God gets the last word! It won’t be long before our generous God, who has great plans for you, will have you put together and on your feet for good.

You can buy Bittersweet on Amazon by clicking here. (this is an Amazon affiliate link, which means that if you buy the book via this link Amazon pays me a small commission at no extra cost to you)

~Gut-Check and Action Steps~

1. Can you relate to my backwards theology that “God must be punishing me if I’m experiencing suffering or pain?” Have you ever lived that way? Does believing that cause you to draw closer to God or farther away?

2. Spend some time today letting Jesus surround you with his presence, because that’s where you’ll find your joy again.