FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Navigating Suffering Spaces: Heather MacFadyen

with Heather MacFadyen | November 24, 2023
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Relationships on planet Earth: They're inevitably linked to hurt. Author Heather MacFadyen believes there's a deep humility in choosing to occupy our sacred spaces of pain—to the glory of God.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Author Heather MacFadyen believes there’s a deep humility in choosing to occupy our sacred spaces of pain—to the glory of God.

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Navigating Suffering Spaces: Heather MacFadyen

With Heather MacFadyen
November 24, 2023
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Heather: I think we try so hard to follow other people's paths.

Ann: Me, too.

Heather: Especially with social media, you have access. You have all these people telling you the five steps; the five ways. And it's—there's a Way, Jesus, and we walk with Him. We don't know the purpose of our suffering. We can never see it. The simplicity is to walk with God no matter where we're assigned.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at

Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: So, what do you remember about our first date?

Ann: It was amazing! [Laughter] You were so cute. And I was—

Dave: —that is not what I was going for. [Laughter]

Ann: I remember being at the top of this hill.

Dave: It was the Finlay Reservoir.

Ann: Yes. [Laughter]

Dave: It was a very romantic spot.

Ann: It's where everyone went to make out, and we sat there, talking.

Dave: By the way, we didn't make out—

Ann: —that's what I'm saying—

Dave: —just in case our listeners are—

Ann: —all we did was sit and talk about Jesus.

Dave: Yes.

Ann: And I remember thinking, “I've never had a conversation like this.” [I was] super-new in my faith; you were new in your faith; and I was stunned at your heart for Jesus.

Dave: I literally remember asking you, “What are you going to do with your life?” You were 18?

Ann: 18.

Dave: I was going into my senior year in college. You were going into your senior year in high school, and you said—do you remember? You said, “I'm going to go and do whatever Jesus calls me to do. Wherever it is, I'm in.” I remember thinking, “She's doing that with or without me. It doesn't matter if I'm part of this equation. This woman is going after His call on her life.” And I remember thinking, “That's what I want.”

Ann: I thought the same thing about you.

Dave: And here we are—

Ann: —“He’s going to change the world. It'd be so fun to change the world with him.”

Dave: Yes, but here we are. We're going to talk about calling today.

Ann: We're going to talk about calling today, and then how, 10 years later, I'm thinking, “I don't even like this guy [Laughter], and now I have kids. I'm not changing anything except diapers.” That's kind of where it can go at times. We go through this—

Dave: —yes—

Ann: —crazy path.

Dave: Well, I'm holding the book in my hand called Right Where You Belong: How to Identify and Fully Occupy Your God-given Space. Guess what? The author’s here!

Ann: Heather is here! It's nice to have you back, Heather.

Heather: It’s so fun being with you all. I was excited to get on this plane.

Dave: Well, your podcast is Don't Mom Alone.

Heather: Yes.

Dave: I know this is your second book. Do you talk about that a lot on Don't Mom Alone? Calling: occupying Your God-given Space which, I love that—-

Ann: —as moms—

Dave: —phrase.

Ann: Me, too!

Heather: Don't Mom Alone is more mother-oriented. We did a series related to this book, and I think it struck a chord with a lot of women, particularly when we talked about being assigned suffering spaces. I think there is a theology challenge when, if that's a God-given space, “Does God give us suffering?” And then you have to talk through, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” All of that thinking. Really, my heart is: so much energy, often, in suffering spaces is wasted trying to figure out why that happened.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: Instead, if we could embrace, “It is happening. What do I do in this space?” I picture Paul in prison, shackled. What did he do in his space, right? We were saying our—

Ann: —yes.

Heather: —calling is to go and make disciples. Well, he did it right there in the prison cell. He's praising God; he's singing; and he knew the God he worshipped is outside that space and could do anything. He sure did! He [made] an earthquake; the walls came down; but what I loved is that he didn't leave.

Dave and Ann: Yes.

Heather: He stayed, and then he made another disciple of the prison guard. That guard made disciples of his family and community. Then we read [that] the guard comes back and says that the authorities told him to “go in peace.” So often, we're in these places; we’re looking for escape buttons.

Ann: We're asking—

Heather: —"how do I get out of this?”

Ann: Yes. We're asking the why. One of our good friends, Jamie Winship, said, “God seldom answers the why question,”—

Heather: —yes.

Ann: —"but what He will do is answer when we say, “God, what do You want me to know about this time; this space, this situation? What do You want me to know?”

Heather: “And how do You want me to be”—

Ann: —yes.

Heather: —"with You in it?”

Ann: Yes, that’s good!

Dave: Well, walk us through that because—it's later in your book but—you talk about your dad and your mom with cancer.

Heather and Ann: Yes.

Ann: No, a suffering space.

Dave: You were in a suffering space.

Heather and Ann: Yes.

Dave: How did you navigate that?

Heather: Man, yes, that was a lot of this just, “This is not where I want to be.” I was choosing the flowers for my dad's casket, and shaving my mom's head because of the chemo, and—

Dave: —how old were you?

Heather: I was in my 40s. No, I was about to turn 40.

Ann: Oh.

Heather: I turned 40 right after my dad passed.

Ann: So, your mom had breast cancer.

Heather: They lived in Costa Rica. They came to Dallas for her treatment, and then my dad got—his liver cancer showed up. 

Ann: Oh!

Heather: He had had colon cancer before, and it had moved to his liver, and he passed away within a month. But my mom had just started the hardest part of her chemo. In fact, we were in Orlando. [It was] our last trip as a family, and I remember my dad saying—Christmas Eve night, he said—we're all sitting there, and he said, “This is my life! Y'all are my life.” [Emotional] And I think—he’s a lawyer; he ran for political office; he mentored Mike Pence. He’s done amazing things, but at the end of the day, it was sitting around that table with our family. That's the whole of his life.

I think we overcomplicate the purposes of our life. These suffering spaces are part of our journeys to intimacy with God; to relying on other people where we may choose to do it on our own. “We don't need our families, or we don't need relationships.” So, we miss out. We actually miss out.

Dave: What do you mean, “overcomplicate?”

Heather: I think we try so hard to follow other people's paths.

Ann: Me, too.

Heather: Especially with social media, you have access. You have all these people telling you the five steps; the five ways, and it's like, “There's a way: Jesus.” We walk with Him, and even if it's [thinking], “Jesus went to a cross and suffered.” The purpose of that cross was for our salvation.

We don't know the purpose of our suffering. We can never see it. I am a strong believer that pain is not wasted, and I know, even walking through my suffering space, the connection with my friends; people that God put in place years before who I needed in that time of need. I just feel like the simplicity is to walk with God, no matter where we're assigned.

Ann: It's almost, Dave, like that night on our first date, we were talking about, “Let's go change the world!” But then we walk in, as you said, Heather, these suffering places where our marriage is struggling; my sister died. And you're thinking, “Wait, I thought we were going to change the world.”

Heather: Right.

Ann: I'm sure David thought that: “Wait, I thought I was going to be the king, and now I'm hiding in the cave.” Moses was this great, incredible leader [thinking], “Now I'm in the desert, and I'm a herder,” you know? So, God takes us on these journeys we don't expect, and you're saying, “God, you're going to use this journey of suffering.”

Heather: Yes, and whether the cause is our sin, someone else's sin, or God's purposes, it doesn't matter. Like you said with the why question, we don't need to know the why.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: But it's the how we walk through it. When we ask the questions, “Does God love? Does God care? Can God…?"

Ann: That's good.

Heather: I think, we have to answer, “Okay, He's powerful. He can do anything. He can shake those walls for the earthquake for Paul. He can heal anything. We've seen it over and over in the Bible.” Then when He doesn’t; when we do bury the person we were praying for full healing, we question, “Does He care?”

Ann: Yes.

Heather: “Does He not love them?” Then we have to [think], “Oh, wait! You love them more than I could possibly ever know. You love my kids more than I could ever possibly know.” Answering those questions with the Truth goes back then to our relationship with God and leaning in, because what I find, too, is people walk through suffering spaces, and they start to blame God—

Ann: —yes.

Heather: —Who's the Source of the hope and the healing, ultimately.

Ann: One of my friends had breast cancer, and I asked her—I was in seminary; we were young 20s—and I said, “Are you mad at God? Have you told Him? Are you really mad at Him? Does it make you want to walk away?”

I remember, she so wisely said, “Ann, He's my Source of strength. He's my Source of hope. He's everything to me. How could I leave Him? I can't walk a day without Him.” And I thought, “Woah! That’s good!” It's a good reminder of, “Why would we pull away?” We need to get even closer to Him.

Heather: I think it's real to ask the questions;--

Ann: —yes.

Heather: —it's real and okay—

Ann: —that is what I was going to say, “It’s okay.”

Heather: I walked through my own bitterness—

Ann: —me, too.

Heather: We were at Family Camp, and a pastor was talking on Ruth. He said her mother-in-law tells her to call her “Bitter—Marah.” And I'm thinking, “What kind of woman wants to be called ‘Bitter’?” [Laughter]

Then another pastor quote; he said, “Worry is when you think God's going to get it wrong, and bitterness is when you believe God got it wrong.”

Ann: That's good.

Dave: Yes.

Heather: I was sitting there, and something resonated so much in me. I was visibly and physically impacted by those words. So that night, with friends who I've prayed with before, I just confessed to God: “God, I do believe you got this wrong.”

Ann: What was He getting wrong?

Heather: The taking of my dad.

Ann: Oh.

Heather: But I had believed that in my core, even though my “Christian girl” mind says, “No, God's sovereign,” and, “No, He never makes mistakes,” and, “Oh, I’ll see him in heaven.” All the things that the Pollyanna voice wants to say, which are true. I still needed to wrestle with my soul that held onto a belief that God got it wrong.

Dave: So, what happened when you confessed it?

Heather: I was forgiven, of course, because God is so abundantly willing to forgive us. Then I accepted the forgiveness, which is a step that we often pass over.

Ann and Dave: Yes.

Heather: “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.” And God is [saying]. “I forgave you already.” [Laughter]

Ann: Yes, yes.

Heather: “Will you accept it?”

I've prayed with women, and we get to that point, and they say they're sorry, or they say the thing they've been believing that's not true about God or about other people.

Ann: —or, “I should do something to make it right.”

Heather: “I should do something to make it right.” I'm [responding], “Okay, now accept the forgiveness.”

There is such a long pause, often. There's such a resistance, at that point, in the spiritual realm that I think a really important step in our being-set-free journey is that accepting of the forgiveness that's available to us. When I accepted that, it was almost like, literally, if I took this plant, and I just pulled it right out. It was an unrooting of bitterness in my soul.

In that same room where I'd heard the sermon on Ruth, the next day, I was dancing with my kids [Laughter] to the So You think You Can Dance game that they were playing. It was like He turned my mourning into dancing. It was a “before and after” moment for me personally that needed to happen. I could just imagine, when hard things happen, we hold those beliefs, and we just keep burying them under—whether it's performance, whether it's distraction, whether it's, “No, I'm going to be a good Christian. I'm not going to admit that I believe this.” It's like David showed us.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: Say the thing. [Laughter]

Ann: Yes.

Heather: Lament!

Ann: Yes.

Heather: Tell God what you think about Him, and then remind yourself of what is true of Who God is.

Dave: Talk about this: if we don't receive that, if we struggle and block that, or hold on to Marah—be bitter, can we live out God's calling in our life? Can we live out what He wants us to do, right where we belong?

I was thinking of your title and this whole concept of, “I'm supposed to do what God has called me to do: make disciples right here.” But if I'm stuck, it's like I'm not living out—

Heather: —I know, that was my heart.

Dave: Do you know what I'm saying? I can't dance!

Heather: No, I do! What I pictured was: you've been given this space, and I always think of just a square. I don't know why I think of a square. I think [it is] because I thought of four boundary lines, but it could be an octagonal-shaped space—whatever.

Dave: And you're not all the way in it, because so much of the space is filled with your bitterness; so much of the space is filled with your own regret; so much of the space is filled with your fear.

A lot of the book, too, is, “How are you cleaning house with God?” When you let go of those things, you can walk in freedom, and you can fully occupy the space; not the fears; not the shame. All the things we've been given power to be set free from, but we don't. We are the ‘priest’ who cleans out the temple; [Laughter] the temple being our body—I mean, if you really narrow your God-given space all the way down, it is your physical body in this present moment.

Ann: I think people aren't even aware of the things that are in their space.

Heather: No, because they’re so busy with other peoples’.

Ann: Exactly. Shame, guilt and fear; the self-talk of hatred; and your past pain and your past trauma. Jesus says [paraphrase], “I'll take all of that. I want to set you free. I want you to walk in freedom.” Yet we've lived it, and we've been covered with it so long, I don't even think we understand how it's affected our lives. I think, as I'm saying that, I think for women, “Are you free? Jesus came to set you free. Are you free?”

Heather: Yes, and a good way to tell if you're not, is to take an inventory of your day. What comes into your mind? What thoughts come into your mind? What preoccupies your energy and your time? If a lot of your energy is worrying about what other people are doing; worrying about what your kids are doing; worrying about what your husband is doing; worrying about what your friends are doing, what's in your hoop?

I really, really feel like if you stick to what's in your space and you steward that well, that is going to occupy a majority of your time and your energy and your relationship with God, so that you can then shine a light for Him, because you're going to look so different—

Ann: —yes.

Heather: —changed from the inside out. That is a testimony in and of itself.

Ann: I think this is the hardest thing with adult kids.

Heather: I can only imagine.

Ann: Because at home, we have control. As they get older—you can feel that now, middle school, high school—they're forming their own hoop, and they don't really want to be inside of your hoop anymore. It makes me want to just cry about that. But then, as they get older, we really are done parenting them, and we should be. We're friends, we're coaches; but, you know, we're peers instead of parents.

So, to let them have that hoop and to not be in control is so important. I think it's hard to do that apart from Jesus, because He's the one that allows us to not get our identity from our kids’ success or failure, too.

Heather: Yes.

Ann: You know that, as a mom, [with] your Mom Alone podcast. You're probably talking to moms all the time.

Heather: I have to preach it to myself. [Laughter]

Ann: Yes! When your kids are failing, you feel like you're a failure.

Heather: Yes.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: Yes, you have to find—I mean, your identity in Christ—that to me is the biggest goal, if you haven't dug into that for yourself. I know, for me, it's this constant reminder of it.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: And even having friends remind me when I fall into the trap of, “Oh, I'm a terrible mom because X, Y, and Z.” “Okay. Remember, Heather. [Laughter] You're important, but you're not essential.” I'm like, “Okay, that's right.”

Ann: That’s good.

Heather: “You're important, but not essential.” Spending that energy on, “How will I walk through this next to my adult child? How will I support them and deal with my own need to fix and correct and let them know where they're wrong?” That's on me.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: Where am I struggling? Instead of—it seems a little easier to do it for others in their space.

Ann: It's so much easier. [Laughter]

Heather: I can judge your space all day long. [Laughter]

Dave: Well, I mean, in some ways, it sounds like you're saying—I mean, we want to have our eyes on others to reach them, and help them, and make disciples, but it sounds like you're saying—the hoop idea is: “Have your eyes on your own hoop; your own”—

Heather: —with you and Jesus.

Dave: —"boundary lines.” [It] sounds selfish, but if you do that well and just take care of what God's call is for you, you'll be dancing; you'll be free. Is that what you're saying?

Heather: Yes; think about Jesus, how He discipled. He walked alongside. He was walking with Father God. He was going away from the crowds to spend time and pray. He was focused on His relationship and His hoop. He wasn't concerned—the Pharisees could say what they wanted to say. He didn't veer off course. His disciples could be wrong. “Okay, let's just build tents up here on the mountain here. This is a good idea.” [Laughter] He wasn't deterred.

He knew His mission. Even the moment when He says, “Take this cup from Me.” He's seeing all the suffering He's about to walk into.

Dave: Yes.

Heather: “But not My will, but Yours be done.” He had to have a moment of surrender.

That's what I feel like we—if we are walking intimately with God in our spaces, we're going to have surrender after surrender of our will. It's not a one-and-done.

Dave: Right.

Ann: Is that what you mean by “tending your space?”

Heather: Tending, yes.

Ann: One of your chapter titles is “Tending Your Space.”

Heather: Yes; I mean, my yard right now, y'all— [Laughter] Texas heat with random rainstorms leads to unwieldy weeds, okay? It feels like a never-ending battle, and I can't say, “Well, I weeded once this summer. Check.” [Laughter] That's what I want to believe. It's this contending, and “Oh, I've got to pop the heads off the begonias, and I've got to water that tree and…”

Jesus was trying to give us the example with the vineyard.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: You know, you can't create the fruitfulness that we want in our lives as believers: Fruit of the Spirit. It's the Spirit in our life. We can't have that if we're disconnected from the main Vine, which is God through Jesus. He gave us access to God, the main Vine. And there is some pruning in there, so that we can have good growth.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: We don't control the outcome.

That's the other thing: I really wanted to help bring peace to people; to stop being so outcome-focused—

Ann: —that’s hard.

Heather: —with your life: “How can I get here? How can I get the book deal? How can I get the speaker invitation? How can I get the kid who's this…?”

If you focus in on what God's asking you to do today—listen and obey. The word in Hebrew is Shema. It is connected. Shema is “to listen.” Samuel said, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening (Shema).” “Hear, O Israel (Shema).

Dave: Right.

Heather: But they would also—when the Hebrews would hear it, they wouldn't disconnect it from obedience; to hear was to obey.

So, are we stopping in our lives to listen to God? Listening and asking for His direction? Are we choosing to surrender our will and obey, whatever—if it doesn't match Sally Sue next door, and what she's doing with her family?

Ann: Yes.

Heather: But we feel God's leading us in this direction.

Ann: What does that look like for you, Heather? On a daily basis, what does that look like?

Heather: I don't know. It's whatever God's leading you that day.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: You go to the same grocery probably every week. [Laughter] You probably see the same people. It's like a TV show where you know all these people and you know what's going on in their lives, because “I go here every week. As often as I go to church, I'm going to the grocery store.” How am I showing up there and interacting with them?”

Ann: Like every day, I imagine you saying, “God, I give You my day, and show me the space that I can occupy today.” I think—

Dave: —and then watch—

Ann: —yes—

Dave: —what He might do.

Ann: “What do You have for me today?”

Heather: He is the biggest networker. [Laughter] He's connected to the Universe.

Ann: Yes.

Heather: If He wants something to happen, He can bust open a sea; prison walls. Trust the outcome and the fruit to Him.

Ann: Let me add: I think if all of us would daily surrender, but then ask Jesus, “Just show me where You want me to go. Let me know what You want me to say. What do You think about this? What do You want me to know, God? What do You want me to do, God?”

Those are just great prayers to help occupy our space.

Dave: I would just say, that conversation with Heather about making a difference right in your space, occupying that God-given space, is the DNA of FamilyLife.

Ann: It's exactly what we talk about all the time. You say, “Make a dent for your sent.”

Dave: Yes, and FamilyLife’s motto is, “On the corner.” You know, make an impact on the corner where God has put you. It's in our symbol: the house impacting another house, impacting another home. That's what we talked about for the last couple of days.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: It's just exactly what God has called every one of us to be and do, and families to do, to impact the world for the Kingdom.

Ann: I think of her podcast called Don't Mom Alone, and I think of us in FamilyLife Today as a team, but I also—we see you as listeners as being a part of our team. We don't want to do this alone. So, if you've never given to FamilyLife, I would invite you to become one of our monthly partners because we can't do this alone.

Dave: Yes. You think about—you make a financial contribution, it doesn't stop.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: It multiplies. It's you using the gifts that God has given you to bless others. So, thank you for doing that. If you've never done that, jump in!

Ann: Be our partner!


Shelby: I'm Shelby Abbott. You've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Heather MacFadyen on FamilyLife Today.

That's really well said. I really loved the conversation today and yesterday with Heather. She's got a book called Right Where You Belong, and the subtitle is How to Identify and Fully Occupy Your God-given Space. This is really going to help you to figure out—set boundaries, embrace your talents, and figure out—where you're going to find fulfillment amidst kind of conflicting messages of productivity and rest that come from today's culture. If you want to learn more about that, you can pick up Heather's book at in the show notes.

As Ann and Dave were talking about, we’d love it if you’d partner with us so we could do FamilyLife Today together. If you want to be a partner with us, you can go online to and click on the “Donate Now” button at the top of the page. Or you could give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”. Or you could drop us something in the mail if you'd like if you want to become a partner that way. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.

And since it's Friday, be sure to check out our Cyber Monday sale coming at the start of the work week next week. You can find out more at Speaking of Monday, next week, we're going to talk about Jesus moments. I'm going to be sitting down with the President of FamilyLife, David Robbins, his wife Meg, and David and Ann Wilson, and we're going to highlight some Jesus moments from the past year on our show, FamilyLife Today. That's coming up next week. We hope you'll join us.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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