When Life Hurts: Elizabeth Woodson
Hitting one of those moments when life hurts something fierce? Author Elizabeth Woodson talks about finding the other side of pain in her own dark night.
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Hitting one of those moments when life hurts something fierce? Author Elizabeth Woodson talks about finding the other side of pain in her own dark night.
When Life Hurts: Elizabeth Woodson
Elizabeth: You know, I think the question is what do we do with the hard stuff? The reality is we live in a broken world. I don't know if we are always in the practice in kind of our Western Christian American culture of sitting in our pain in a way that's healthy. I believe God gives us space to honor those losses and we see it in Scripture and it's this place of lament - I point people to Psalm 13. And how do I cry out to Lord and say, “God this isn't what I wanted. This isn't what I signed up for. This hurts really, really bad.”
Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic, this is Real Life Loading….
I'm Shelby Abbott and we're in the holiday season. But let's be honest, it could be hard to really care about a holiday like this Thanksgiving when it feels like your life sucks, and you can't really think of anything to be thankful for. Well, Elizabeth Woodson is here to help. She's a Bible teacher who's written a book called, Embrace Your Life: How to Find Joy When the Life You Have is Not the Life You Hoped For [B & H Publishing 2022]. I really believe Elizabeth's going to help us see how to be honest about how we're feeling, but also hopeful and thankful even in the hard times. It was a really authentic conversation. So let's get into it with Elizabeth Woodson.
Elizabeth, is it really possible to find joy in life when my life isn't what I hoped it would be, because it doesn't always seem like it?
Elizabeth: Yes, that's real. I always like to say that what we feel isn't always an accurate representation of what is true. And so the quick answer is yes, it is possible to find joy, but the path to that is not always easy.
Shelby: So unpack this from a personal perspective. How has your life been impacted by unmet expectations and longings?
Elizabeth: Yes. You know, the illustration that I always point people to is that I am single, never married. I have desired to be married. I'm in my late thirties, but the Lord has just not connected that with my life as yet. I think it is wrestling with these unexpected expectations, these prayer requests that you, that I might have feel have not been answered. I think God always gives answers. They may not be the ones that we want. What do I do with that, right? I think reaching kind of this fork in the road or this moment of like, I can't be stuck in this place. So I've got to make a decision for how I'm going to navigate this. I keep waking up in the morning, which means God's got life for me to live. I don't want to just limp along. When I think about my journey, Shelby, what I really think about is just like this resolve to some how, some way. I'm going to learn to live and not just, like I said, limp along, but thrive and that's a journey. I think for a lot of people, it's a journey. But for me it was, there's got to be something more than what I'm living in. So, how do I live in this middle space until God answers my prayer one way or the other?
Shelby: That’s a mature response to a difficult problem that you're going through.
When did that happen for you? Was it a switch? Or was it like you said, a process? Because I know a lot of people who struggle with being single and sometimes they're in their early twenties, sometimes they're in their thirties, or even early forties and they still have that kind of I'm waiting, I'm waiting, and limping along. You're not doing that, so how did that come about for you?
Elizabeth: It probably would be a couple of different things. One, I think our environment and our community is really big. So, I always tell people the community that I'm in, my closest friends, aren't people who are constantly talking about singleness and marriage.
I think that that helped create this dynamic of, okay, there's something else I can look to because I have people around me who are in the same season, and they're living in a space of vibrancy. Or I have my parents, sometimes you like, you go home and you're like, I don't want to go home for the holidays, [Laughter] because somebody's going to ask me, “You met a boy yet?”
Shelby: Yes, you met a boy.
Elizabeth: Like I got the Nobel peace prize - nobody cares. Have you met somebody yet?
Shelby: You know, let's get to the real stuff.
Elizabeth: Right, let's get to the real stuff. And so that has not been a part of my life and that's a blessing. But I honestly think, and I've seen this in other areas of my life, I just got tired.
I just got tired of feeling the same way. I got tired of being sad. I got tired of kind of being in the face of disappointment. And for me, I think there is this resolve in me for other things too. It's like, okay. This ain't it. So, there's gotta be something better. And the wall I hit was just weariness. It's like, I can't do this anymore. I've gotta do something different.
Shelby: Yes. Okay. That’s helpful. Thanks for sharing.
I think a lot of people take a look at their lives and they're simply discontent. Whether they're young or middle aged or even older, they want to get better, but they have no idea how to get better. So give me some perspective on how to embrace real deep joy in the midst of sadness and unmet longings. How can someone really practically do that?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think the first part that we've got something that is deep; it's a wound; it's a pain point for us. We need to acknowledge the fact it's a pain point. I don't know if we are always in the practice in kind of our Western Christian American culture of sitting in our pain in a way that's healthy, in a way that I believe Scripture provides for, so the word that I point people to is lament. Whatever it is, and if for you it might not be singleness, it could be, I wish I had better friends. You moved to a new city and you thought your career was going to go a certain way and it's just not working out the way you thought it would. It could be a whole slew of things. It could be finances, health. It could be - it's not just relationships.
But I think it's like you've incurred a loss. How do we grieve? I thought my life would turn out this way. I thought I'd be at this point, at this age, and I'm not. I believe God gives us space to honor those losses. We see it in Scripture, and it's this place of lament. I point people to Psalm 13. And how do I... “Cry out to the Lord and say, God, this isn't what I wanted. This isn't what I signed up for. This hurts really, really bad.”
But what lament is, is this process of we're not just taking those pains to an empty space, we're taking them to a God who changes things and changes people and situations. The process of grieving before the Lord is when this dynamic, and it's when it's full of hope, because what we believe and that's why I think it's so important for us to be so entrenched in our Word is our God is good and He is compassionate, and He is kind, and He gives us good gifts.
So, even in the midst of our pain, it's like, God, I know you're here. Can you bless me? Can you meet me? And maybe that meeting us is a kind word from a friend. It's encouragement. It's another surprise blessing that we weren't thinking about that, like, encourages our spirit. But we are in this dynamic place of prayer with the Lord and asking Him to meet us. And honestly, Shelby, I genuinely believe He does every time.
But to me, the first step in kind of embracing these hard seasons is, let me just acknowledge the fact that it's hard. And give myself space to grieve. And again, for me, everything's a process, so it's not overnight. And I give myself an appropriate amount of time. At some point you have to get up and have some movement, but there is a season for just let me take my sadness before the Lord and that's okay.
Shelby: Is that really what lament is? Because I know a lot of people have heard that term before and they think, “Oh, that's grieving.” The way you described it, grieving before the Lord. Does it look like a bunch of things? Because I know some people might go, “Well, that's just complaining to God.” Is it complaining or is it part of it? What would, how would you define lament?
Elizabeth: Yes. I think the question is, what do we do with the hard stuff? The reality we live in is a broken world, and the reality is we're going to hit stuff that's going to be hard, that's going to wound us. We're going to wound other people. So, what do we do with that as people who are emotional beings?
Emotions are good. I always say that, “They are horrible drivers, but pretty good passengers, maybe in the backseat, and they tell us something.” And so, our model for what it looks like to live a Christian life is our Scriptures. So, over and over again in Scripture we see people lamenting, and they're lamenting about some really significant things.
You have a whole book called Lamentations, you have the Psalms, which forty percent of our Psalms are Psalms of Lament. It's not complaining. I think complaining is when we stay there.
Elizabeth: Right? It's like, it's all we talk about, we get stuck. It's like, I'm bringing something that I can't control to the One who controls all things.
If there's someone's like, “Okay, what does lament look like?” I think of three different kinds of movements. Psalm 13 is really great. It's six verses. Each of these movements are two verses. All the Scripture is not this clean cut, but it makes a nice example. And first you see honesty. I don't know if we always believe we can be honest with the Lord. I tell people God knows the words you want to use anyway.
Shelby: Yes, so if you're rehearsing them in your head, He's already there.
Elizabeth: Yes, He's already there. So we always seek to honor, but we honor in honesty. And you have David asking, “How long, oh Lord, how long am I going to be here?” We tell God what's really going on.
In the next two verses, you see David ask God for help. And so he's really specific. I think sometimes we don't have the courage to ask God or be specific and believe that He is big enough to do what we need Him to do. We serve a really big God that we wouldn't be limited by our own hands, but the limitless wingspan of our Creator.
And the last one is He reaffirms His trust in God. I like to think, in my glorified imagination Shelby, that there is some space in between that I'm going to cry out to God and I'm going to ask Him for things and I'm going to reaffirm, “Lord, I know you're trustworthy. I know you're good.” And what he [David] does is he goes back to the character of God.
David has a history with the Lord and he has a history of God showing up. He has a history of God providing, and oftentimes what happens in these middle spaces is we forget what God has done. Like we forget the good things He has brought. We forget the prayers He has answered. And so in this place of reaffirming our trust in the Lord with lament, we're like, “God, I, my relation with You is probably based on past history.
You've come through before, so I know you're faithful.” I'm asking you just to be who You are. In the future, in my life. So we tell God, we ask God, and then we reaffirm our trust in God, and all of that is only possible because we serve a God who changes things, and it's to Him we pray.
Shelby: Yes, I think there's so much value in taking time to sit and remember what God has done. That's why journaling, I think, is so important, and I'm awful at it really, if I'm honest. But I write stuff down that God does, because we are quick to forget it. We're very much like, what have you done for me lately?
A couple things came to mind as you were saying that. I heard a pastor one time say that the Psalms give us permission to beat on God's chest, and I really love that kind of visceral imagery of crying into the chest of someone and like banging with your fists at the same time, and there's room for that.
The other thing that came to mind, I was reading in Luke chapter ten or eleven, where Jesus tells the parable about the guy who has a visitor and he goes over to his neighbor's house and he knocks on the door in the middle of the night to ask for some bread. And the neighbor's like, “I'm in bed with my kids, like, no.” And he keeps on knocking and knocking and knocking and then eventually he gives him the bread.
That weird parable is in the context of prayer. It's like if your neighbor, a human being, will eventually relent and give you what you want, like encourage you to keep seeking, keep knocking, keep praying. And that's a beautiful image of like God does listen; He does hear us; and I like that reminder that you're saying there.
Wel, what am I supposed to do when I feel like my prayers are just bouncing off the ceiling, you even alluded to this before that “God's not answering my prayers”?
Elizabeth: Yes, you know, it's like you prayed over the same thing, and it feels like there's no movement. There's no person that comes into your life. There's no job opportunity. Your health doesn't get better. The finances don't get better. That's a real thing. I think for us, there's this process of training our minds with the life of the Christian, and part of it is training so that we can constantly bring ourselves back to what is real and true according to the framework of the Bible says, “This is how the world works.”
And what the Bible says is, “God is always present and He's always working and He's always listening to us.” So it's like He's not silent in terms of like, He's gone off and done something else. He's always with us. If that is true, then that means that either God, there's all these three categories, gives me a no; He's giving me a not yet; or it's a yes. And sometimes I'm honest, He's told us, “No,” and we're just like, “I'm going to try to come back again.” [Laughter]
Shelby: Let me ask one more time.
Elizabeth: One more time.
But if it's a not yet, right, like you genuinely believe that, man, the Lord has not provided conclusive answers to what I prayed for, then it is, “What do I do in this season of waiting?” I think we can think of waiting like I'm waiting in a doctor's office. And I'm waiting for my number to get called, so I'm just going to sit here in the chair and read the magazines.
Shelby: And bored.
Elizabeth: And bored - and waiting for the Christian is active. There's always something for us to do. A lot of times what happens in the waiting is we waste the things that are in our hands. Because we don't do anything with them, because we're so consumed with what we don't have, we forget about what we do have. I'm not saying this is easy. I'm not saying that our minds won't be drawn back to the place of what we don't have yet. But what we give our mind and our heart and our energy to is, “Okay, Lord. I love you. I trust you. I know you're good. Your ways are best. Until you show me left or right, I'm going to be faithful where you've placed me and I'm going to do my best to steward, to maximize, to find joy, to be present for other people.”
Another thing is you want to find some type of motivation or some kind of uplift in a season of waiting. Go serve someone else who's waiting. Go serve someone else who's struggling. Go sit with someone. Bring a meal. Be an encouragement. And sometimes in that place, we find the answer and we find the blessing we're looking for. But in that place, we're reminded of perspective of, “Oh, I'm not the only one.”
Shelby: I'm not the center of the universe.
Elizabeth: Yes, we decenter ourselves.
Shelby: Yes, I love that. That's practical, tangible advice to help battle the waiting room syndrome. Being active is one of those things that we don't think about. We think, “Oh, I'm waiting on the Lord.” We do think I'm just sitting in a chair, scrolling on my phone, waiting for my number to be called.
But what if, yes I struggle with chronic pain. I have, degenerative disc disease in my back, and so I have chronic nerve pain and sciatica. It's been 14 years for me. I was always constantly thinking, “Where's the light at the end of the tunnel? When do I cross the finish line?”
But nine years into it, I was like, What if there's never an end to this for me? Then I'm wasting my time always thinking about the end. Maybe I need to just process what life will be like with this and stop being self-centered in this. That's my personal example. You can use your personal example.
Anybody could talk about what they're going through at the time, dwelling on the thing that's “holding you back” is not necessarily what God calls us to do. He calls us to be a blessing to others. I found as I've talked about my suffering and embraced it, it's been the single greatest element that God has used in my life to be a minister to other people.
Shelby: You talk about this thing called “hoping with open hands.” What's that actually mean?
Elizabeth: I think it is this idea that, you keep praying and I keep hoping, but I'm okay if the answer the Lord gives me is not the one I want.
Shelby: Can you give me other examples besides maybe your singleness or maybe some friends that you have of some examples of how they've gone through hoping with open hands?
Elizabeth: Yes. I think I recently had a friend, she was struggling with a chronic illness. It's one that had her in and out of the hospital, and she's around my age. She is so vibrant. She is an actress. She saw herself being on TV or being in theater, not in the hospital all the time. In our conversations what I saw with her with her hope, is that it's this hope that inspires me to try. To still go on the audition, to still apply, to not be consumed with disappointment when my path gets diverted, right?
I'd rather be on set somewhere, but today I'm in the hospital because of my sickness. And I think to hope that, “Lord, I'm going to do all I can.” So her is related to how can I change my diet? How can I, you know, nutrition that I'm trying to engage? All these things in her hand. But I'm going to be faithful to live the life you've given me, Lord, until.
I really saw that in it was a fight in her that I saw. To me, sometimes hope looks like that. Hope is not again, I think there's much of the Christian life that is not passive. Hope inspires us, fuels us to say, “Man, I'm going to try - one more day I'm going to try, even if God returns an answer that I don't want, I'm going to try then to, because the hope for us extends to eternity.
I think that's the beauty of hope. Like, it's not shallow. It is a hope that one day, what I'm carrying and dealing with won't be a thing anymore, but what will be a thing is my life with God. So let me continue to pour into that and my healing or blessing might come on this side of eternity, might come on the other side, but it is coming. Until then, I'm going to serve my Lord.
Shelby: We were talking about remembering earlier and one of the ways that me and my family do that in particular is we do a thankfulness jar. So some people call it like an Ebenezer Jar or whatever you write down, like the things that you're thankful for from the last week and you put them in a jar, we share them together.
At Thanksgiving every year we pour out the jar and we pull out like three or four each and we read some of the things that God has done over the last year. And we usually always go, “Oh, I forgot about that.” So gratitude is one of those things that we try to foster in my home, but how can gratitude factor into a healthy perspective of life when things aren't going the way we want them to? You talk about feeding the right thing.
Elizabeth: Yes, I like to say in our culture, negativity and cynicism are easy. In fact, we're surrounded by it a lot. And so we are formed by what's in front of us. What gratitude does is it kind of pops us back right, because it is this discipline of seeing what is always there, right?
Like the things that you put in that thankfulness jar, I mean that's God's constant work in the life of you and your family members. But our eyes may not focus quickly on that. Our eyes are going to focus on what didn't happen or what went wrong or how I can be critical about myself or someone else. So the practice of gratitude, I think of gratitude as a muscle, and part of the reason I think that we struggle in the Christian life is because we don't show up to the gym.
Elizabeth: In these moments where we really need strong muscles to deal with certain things, we haven't been doing what we need to do in order to navigate that. And so it's unnecessarily hard. God in his grace always meets us. But I think gratitude is one of those things so that you're doing that week after week, month after month, year after year. You're going to be a different type of person when a situation hits, because it is going to be almost default natural for you to say, “God's doing something good in this situation.”
It's going to be easier for you to trust because you're just used to seeing that, versus all I do is focus on the negative, and so I'm going to immediately go there. So, I just think it strengthens our muscles, it corrects our eyesight, and that enables us, empowers us, I believe the Holy Spirit empowers us through that to live. Because again, joy to me is always present. We just have to wipe off the lenses of our spiritual glasses to realize that that joy is in front of us, and the joy is ultimately Jesus. I don't say that to be sugary sweet Christianese.
Shelby: Yes, yes, yes.
Elizabeth: It genuinely is Jesus. Yes, because without Him all the hard things in our lives there would be nothing that takes them away, but with Him, it's all taken away.
Shelby: So good, Elizabeth, really good. I love that illustration. I think a lot of young people can relate to that, because you know that you can't just go to a weightlifting competition and bench, you know, 200 pounds. You got to start small and do it for years.
For people like me, show up to a marathon because I'm never going to bench press anything but the bar and maybe tens on the end, but show up to a marathon and try to run the whole thing. You got to get in shape. You've got to do it. And it starts small and you look around you and you do it all day, every day. Like you said, when the big thing hits, because life was going to smack you in the face with good things and with bad things.
Shelby: The bad stuff has a tendency to derail a lot of people who aren't prepared for it. Gratitude can prepare you for something that's negative in the future. I never thought about it like that. That's really, really beautiful.
Can you give me - you've done a great job of taking these kind of high concepts and bringing them down to like reality. I love the practicality of stuff. I'm a super practical guy. Can you give me a few practical ways that we can fight against discontentment specifically by living a life being outward focused, what are some real world ways we can do that? You talked about helping other people. What are some things that maybe you have done? Things that you have seen done, that we might be able to sink our teeth into and go, “Ah, I want to do that specifically.”
Elizabeth: Yes. The Surgeon General, I think it was in May, declared loneliness to be a national epidemic in our country.
Shelby: Yes, I saw that.
Elizabeth: What it means is relationships are just hard. So what does it look like for us to kind of move forward and to kind of have this outward focusing relationship? Text a friend you haven't texted in a while and just ask them how they're doing. How can I pray for you? Cook a meal for somebody in your church.
If you've got a mom and she's got any amount of children, she probably needs help. Mom and a dad and it's like, hey, just drop a meal off and say, “Can I, can I bless y'all?” You've got someone, you know, I always think about the people that fall on the margins that get forgotten, sit next to somebody different in church. Just someone who maybe you haven't seen their face before. Might be easier if you're in a smaller church than a bigger one. But just engaging somebody in a conversation to get it all. Invite somebody out to lunch. It's the small things of how can I initiate bringing joy and the opportunity to be known to somebody else's life? Again, it's simple stuff, like if you see the same checkout clerk at Target, we're all good, but just go to die. [Laughter]
Shelby: It’s the truth.
Elizabeth: It’s the truth. I came in there for a toothbrush. I got a cart full of stuff on the way out. Man, ask your checkout clerk how their day is going. Ask them what their name is. Be intentional about seeing people and then cultivating just being involved in their life. In other words I like to cultivate because it's like this intentionality of helping grow and flourishing.
But to me, it's just like, you're around people all the time. Who are they? What's their story? How are you involved in ways that are just encouraging them? And I think, especially when it comes to relationships - there was a friend of mine gave me this quote heard from somebody else in a podcast and like a lot of times we're looking for people to love us, right? Whether it's platonic or romantic we want to be loved especially in a church like going to church is hard. It's hard to connect with people. And you're like man I just want to find friends here.
What the podcast guest had said is, “Instead of looking for love, why don't you look for opportunities to love? And in doing that, you may find more love than you ever imagined was already there.” So I think it is that. It's the simple things of just connecting with people, going out of our comfort zone, being kind, and then seeing what the Holy Spirit does in that, because none of what we do is static. It's always the movement we move with the Holy Spirit. He's going to do something and let Him surprise you by your obedience and your courage to move forward. And just trust Him to fill it in.
Shelby: Yes, I love a lot of those examples. It's helpful to, to just know, even what you mentioned too, like, ask God to open your eyes to the people that you may not be seeing currently.
Shelby: To see that Target checkout person, or the person who serves you coffee, or the waitress at the restaurant that you go to all the time, or the student you're sitting next to in class all the time, or even the professor that you've had several times. All of those people are people. They're not objects. They're people and they have stories.
I've found it surprising if you're just kind to people that you run into, eventually if you run into them multiple times, they will be more prone to being vulnerable with you. They will be the kind of people that go, “That's a safe person. They've always been kind to me.” It opens up crazy doors that you didn't even think were possible to open up. If you're just intentional, you'll see how God can use you in phenomenal ways and in return get love yourself as a result of giving love to others.
Shelby: Let's say I'm a person and I hear what you're saying and I resonate with it, but I'm in a season of darkness or pain or going through depression or whatever, and I really want to know how long until I start to feel joy, if I'm not feeling it now, not that you have to give me a specific day, week, hour kind of a deal. What, what if that's me? What would you say to me?
Elizabeth: I would say to you, if it doesn't show up immediately or quickly, it doesn't mean you're going in the wrong direction. What the Scriptures point us to is moving in the right direction and trusting that the Lord will help our heart catch up with the movement, because we trust the movement is taking us in the right direction. But I would also say to show up with expectancy. I think sometimes we're used to being in a dark place. Our expected place is to be disappointed. Like, I'm just expecting it not to work. And it's like, expect it to work. Expect God to surprise you and to look for it.
Like, I'm going to walk out the house today and I am looking for a joyful moment, and it could be something small, it's an unexpected conversation, it's a smile, it's a text message you've gotten. I think, again, it is a discipline of I'm looking for it. Sometimes when we have eyes to look for it, we're quicker to see it than we just think it's going to like you know, I'm going to wake up different.
Elizabeth: That speaks to the process. It speaks to God working in our lives, but it does get easier, and that easier happens over time, but show up expectant for what God will do each day.
Shelby: Yes, that he'll give us those good things and the good things is God's definition of good not ours.
Elizabeth: Yes, exactly.
Shelby: Because that that whole hashtag blessed thing for a long time was like that equals money, fame, power. That's what blessing is. But that's not what blessing is, that's often a curse. So, we need to view it from the proper perspective. Yes, I love that to have God's eyes being expectant of how He'll show up.
I love to open it up and say at the end here, everything you said is gold. But is there anything that you feel like maybe I didn't ask you, or something that you would want to say related to this topic that you're an expert on, to communicate that might be helpful for our listeners?
Elizabeth: Yes. I always think of the person who's listening and says, “Man, that sounds really nice, but that ain't my life right now.”
Shelby: Mm hmm.
Elizabeth: What I want to say is someone who has been in a valley for different seasons and reasons. There is another side to your pain, and that you would see Shelby's story. You would see my story as a testimony that God is present. There is hope, even if it doesn't feel hopeful, there is hope, and there is another side, and God does not leave his people.
That you would see that and be encouraged by that no matter how low you feel. No matter how much you feel like you've messed up, that you're not worthy of God coming to provide blessings, that you've done something and you're like, “Man, I think this is so reprehensible.” God's grace covers so much, and He is with you, and there is hope. There is always hope, and you will be encouraged by that and live in that.
Shelby: Elizabeth, so awesome. I'm grateful for your time, grateful for your ministry. Thanks for talking with me today.
Elizabeth: Yes, thanks for having me.
Shelby: Like Elizabeth said, “there is hope.” God's grace covers every failure, from your past and your future, and even the shame and failure you might be feeling right now in the present. His grace is our hope when nothing else feels hopeful.
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