I’m not sure about the exact numbers, but a good portion (maybe most) of the books I’ve read for leisure in the past few years have been memoir. So many things about the form captivate me. The intersection of storytelling and deep reflection, the invitation to walk the landscape of the memory through well-crafted vignettes, the masterfully-woven themes that slowly emerge. The best ones simultaneously awaken in me a sense of beauty and heartache, no matter how mundane the stories themselves may seem.
Every person carries stories that, if you knew them, would break your heart.
At an airport gate, a young man sits next to me and we make small talk. He tells me why he feels nervous about returning home, about who he’s leaving behind on the East Coast. Friends he’s made and a girl he likes. He begins to tear up. Sorry for dumping this all on you, he says, clearly surprised he said what he did. I tell him that I’m a pastor’s wife and that I’m used to it, people telling me these types of things, before letting him change the subject.
My healthcare provider tells me about what’s going on in her social circles as she works on my back— emergency room visits and disease and suicide. She says it seems like everyone she knows is going through something, and I murmur my agreement as I lie facedown on the table.
During a conversation with a friend, It feels like everyone we know in ministry is getting beaten up. Maybe that’s ministry though. Then a pause. Maybe that’s just life.
This does seem to be the plotline for many these days, hard thing after hard thing. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve noticed another theme slowly and persistently begin to emerge in the lives of dear ones I know.
I hear it in the voice of fellow workers in ministry. They preach, and pray, shepherding flocks through the devastation of a global pandemic and the destructiveness of indwelling sin. They visit the unrepentant, pleading for them to turn to the grace of God. They are tired, but are not giving up hope that God loves his people.
I read it in the words of friends texting for prayer, chronically ill or caring for those who are, facing loss or mourning unfulfilled hopes. We are all praying for healing, for God to grant them the good desires that he withholds without explanation, but these friends also ask for grace to trust Jesus, courage to love others better. They continue to love the weak and hurting, even as they themselves cry out for relief. All I want for one friend is for her suffering to stop, but she is asking me to ask for more— for rest in God’s love and mercy, for joy in his faithfulness, for hope in his promises, and for endurance.
I sense it in the songs sung by the sinner-saints meeting weekly in our small, local church. Battered and broken, we declare the goodness of Jesus, believing God hears and receives us, that he sees and remembers.
I saw it on the other end of that flight with the tearful young man, where over the course of a few days, I caught up with those who knew me when I was fresh out of college. In even the shorter conversations, I got glimpses of what they’ve been rejoicing in and what new or old things continue to be difficult. Many are walking through loss, uncertainty, and trauma— yet still seeking Jesus, still committed to being in his church. And this time, I was the one crying in the airport on the way home, moved by how clearly I witnessed in them the faith described by Peter in the Scriptures. Though they have not seen God, though they don’t see him now, they love him still (1 Peter 1:8).
I am experiencing in real time the perseverance of the saints. And like the best of stories, it is both heartrending and achingly beautiful.
The Apostle Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, and from that character, and then hope. I have been thinking lately about why he’d write hope there— not love or godliness. Or why not just end at “character”? Why make hope the culmination here of what God does in the midst of suffering? I am beginning to see now that God does not just make his people stronger or more righteous through trial. We all know that sometimes difficulties make us stronger, that suffering can produce character even without God in the picture. But for believers in the heat of affliction, something otherworldly emerges: a hope against all hope, a faith that perseveres.
I have never had trouble believing that God raises the dead, but that he keeps his own until the end— the longer I have been a Christian, the harder it’s been to trust. It sobers and humbles me now then, how God is using the trials of those around me to deal with my unbelief. Through the fire, I am seeing the precious genuineness of the faith of God’s children, and I stand silenced. The people of God have always been a persevering people, a people learning to hope against hope. And this hope is miraculous in its very nature.
Christian perseverance, Christian hope, is not a fake-it-til you make it, silver-lining way of dealing with suffering. Neither is it flashy, spiritual triumphalism nor self-reliant grit. It is salvation worked out with blood, sweat, and effort and worked within by the Holy Spirit. It is the tested faith of those who have found safety in the one who has been a refuge for all generations. Its beauty is like that of century-old forts, made of solid stone, enduring battle, the elements, and time. We have tested it and found it to be trustworthy, but it still takes faith to believe it will continue to stand in time to come.
This perseverance says that though I do not yet see God making all things right, he will do so one day. That though I do not feel like what he has ordained for me is good, he who gave his own Son for me will not withhold from me anything truly good. It says that though I am weak, and confused, and uncertain about many things, God remains steadfast in his love and unchanging in his ways. That though things all is not right, he still indeed is good. That what is seen may lead me to despair, but there are realities beyond what I can see that give me reason to hope. Not the least of which is the truth that Christ lived, died, and now lives.
I have felt this hope in the handshake of the strongest of believers. A widow at the end of a receiving line of her husband, a pastor’s, funeral. They’d lived through the cultural revolution. She’d worshipped in the dark with her children, curtains drawn. He’d survived harsh labor. She took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and spoke, her voice gentle and firm, Ganxie Zhu— an expression of praise. And I wondered if she was here ministering to us rather than the other way around.
I have also seen this tenacity in the saints who feel themselves to be the weakest. I think of how sometimes the smallest of plants can be surprisingly hard to uproot. I’ll tug at the tinier weeds in the garden, assuming they’ll come out with no issue, only to have the stems snap where they meet the soil and the roots remain intact. Here is the woman who, in the absence of tidy answers, remains sure of what she hopes for, certain of what she does not see (Hebrews 11:1). The weary servant of God who confesses that while he is pressed, he is not crushed, he is perplexed but not driven to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). Both have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. God has been faithful to keep his promises, and they know there is more reason than not to continue to trust him now.
And I witness it in the lives of believers all around me now. In the absence of seeing, in suffering, their hope is being forged and proven, because, who hopes for what he already has? (Romans 8:24). Ours is a supernatural faith, and it’s only when it’s against all odds that we know, surely, it must be upheld by a supernatural strength.
We may not all have memoirs in the pipeline, but, oh, what stories we will have to listen to and tell in ages to come. Whether God’s strength working in us means we will one day find ourselves sprinting across the finish line, or whether we feel for sure we will be limping, inching, and clinging onto dear life up to it, we will declare him faithful who has kept us. Through stories of darkness, dangers, grief, and trial. Of faithful endurance, inexplicable peace, and hope that has not put us to shame. By God’s grace, I’ll have a few to share. Dear, persevering saint, you will too.