Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers: a Conversation with KJ Ramsey
Denver-based writer and therapist, KJ Ramsey lives with a painful chronic disease. Her new book, This Too Shall Last, explores the paradox of suffering with a loving God. Here are excerpts of our recent conversation.
Hi KJ. Catch us up. Please tell us about your journey with suffering?
Suffering has been a prominent part of my life for over a decade. Nearly 11 years ago, as a junior in college, I suddenly became ill with what was later diagnosed as Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). In a matter of days I went from being active and health to barely being able to walk. While I started receiving treatment fairly quickly, my diagnosis wasn’t certain for four years. Those were some of the hardest years. In a decade of living with AS, I haven’t had a day without pain. In some seasons I have been unable to work or leave my home, but right now I am pretty functional.
Physical suffering has forced me to reckon with the suffering throughout my life story. Physical pain has helped me attend to the emotional and spiritual pain laced throughout my life. Paying attention to my whole story and naming the pain throughout it has created larger space to acknowledge the goodness and grace in my present circumstances...and the healing that is coming.
How has your suffering impacted your faith as a Christian?
Suffering continuously crucifies the god I thought I was worshipping so I can know the God who has already drawn near to me. Suffering dissolves the tie between striving and acceptance in my faith, leaving the essential truth that I am already loved by God. When I’m not so busy trying to earn love and annihilate anxiety, I get to encounter Jesus: God-made-flesh, the God who chose to suffer. I then find that my places of pain are places to commune with Christ. He has not forsaken me. Suffering has also illuminated the truth of who I am: I am not an individual being, strong by the virtue of my own perseverance, weak in the wake of my failure to stay hopeful. I am inextricably united to the body of Christ, and in his body, I am strong. Suffering has helped me see the beauty that others can have faith for me when I am fragile and I can do the same.
“The beauty that others can have faith for me when I am fragile”…. I like that. I’ve experienced that myself.
We cannot sustain faith or hope on our own, and we were never meant to. We were created to thrive in relationship, and the Body of Christ really is our strength when we are weak. When I am struggling to hope, when I am exhausted, when the weight of sorrow is bringing me low to the ground, I ask trusted friends to have faith on my behalf. When I cannot see a way out of my suffering, they can have hope that light is coming. My faith is upheld by the faith of others. My hopes are held in the hearts of others. When I cannot lift my own head, they hold me up until I can.
Can you let us in on some struggles in your suffering?
Right now the biggest area of pain for me is being patient with the process of rebuilding trust in communities where I have been mistreated. Sometimes the bigger struggle has been envying others who seem to have much easier lives. Other times it has been maintaining hope that my life can be more than laying on a couch day after day. There have been many, many places of struggle in the past ten years and there will be many more.
How does your community support you in your suffering?
The support of my community has been vast and varied, and I discuss this at length in my forthcoming book. Some of the most beautiful ways my husband and I have been supported are through people just showing up at our home to sit with us, conversations where we are allowed to be broken and angry, and practically making space to help our needs be met.
Their presence is a support.
Our community has been Jesus to us—not through the truthful things they say but in their consistent presence. Showing up. Checking in. Reminding us they see us and appreciate us, even when we feel like all we do is mourn or take. They are God’s gift of strength to us.
Can you offer encouragement to those who don’t have that kind of supportive community?
Practice hopefulness in relationships. We who suffer often wear a cloak of mistrust and cynicism in relationships because we have been misunderstood, mistreated, and sometimes abandoned by people who should have been supportive. And yet, we were made for love. If you were worth the God of the universe dying to unite you to himself, then you are worth the risk and effort of seeking relationships where you can be supported and seen. Try to hope that the person you are meeting for coffee or connecting with in a small group could be a person worthy of trust. Go slow. Be patient. Offer insight to them about what your life looks like due to your suffering. Pray for an open heart. Safety and connection take time. Don’t cut yourself off from goodness before it has time to grow.
Is there anything else you want us to know about suffering and faith?
Suffering is not primarily a problem to fix but a place to be present. In our pain, in our diseases, depression, losses and limits, we most encounter the God who chose to suffer to redeem us with love. You don’t see him when you’re busy trying to find the purpose in your pain. You don’t encounter Jesus when you are trying to push away your pain. You don’t witness the mystery and miracle of God-made-flesh until you witness the anguish, anger, and anxiety in your life. Open your eyes. Look the darkness in the face. You might find God is more present in the dark than he even was in the light.
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