Encountering Christ When Life Hurts

 Part 1 of an interview with Marlo Schalesky,
author of Reaching for Wonder

When hardship strikes, life can hurt, right down to the soul. It can hurt to even hope things will get better when you’ve faced a spiritual crisis of doubt, disappointment, or a feeling of distance from God due to unanswered prayers and painful circumstances. What does he say to us when we have nothing left to say? How do we see him when pain has silenced our prayers and blinded our souls? It is in those times, we must reach out and encounter Christ.

In Reaching for Wonder (Abingdon Press), Marlo Schalesky explores fourteen of the New Testament’s one-time encounters with Christ to illuminate the surprising character of a God who transforms pain into wonder. In these New Testament stories readers will find guidance to a deeper understanding of God’s plan for them, a more vibrant faith, and a fuller trust in God. Schalesky also leads readers to find hope in knowing that while their lives may not be what they had envisioned them to be, God is doing a mighty work in each and every life.

Q: In Reaching for Wonder, you examine encountering Christ when life hurts. What was going on in your life when you felt compelled you to write on this topic?

A: When I first started to really grapple with this idea of reaching for wonder when life is at its worst, my family was in the midst of some of the most difficult and painful times we’ve ever had to face. We were going through betrayal, from both inside and outside of the family. We were being threatened by a stalker, so we were dealing with the difficult and scary process of getting and enforcing a restraining order. Our business also took a turn for the worse. The stress was causing health problems on top of marital conflicts, and everything else. Life hurt.

I had discovered when we had faced infertility and miscarriage in the past, that the idea of “just have faith” and “God won’t give you more than you can bear” is, well, a bunch of hooey.

Life is HARD. Heartbreaking, soul-choking things happen to us. This life is not a walk in the park with daisies. It’s a journey that has peaks and beautiful vistas, but it also has dark valleys where we can barely remember what the sun looks like. Sometimes it seems as if those valleys will never end. This life is a battle for our souls.

In my latest valleys, I started looking more carefully and deeply at the Jesus we see in the New Testament. I looked at how he interacts with those who are facing things that were more than they could bear. I found the real Jesus is not a “just have faith and it will be okay” type of God. He is a breath-taking, vivid God who meets us in the times of trouble and encounters us in ways I didn’t expect. In ways that shake me from my “just have faith” mentality. He’s not after a shallow Band-Aid faith. He’s after a life-changing, shock-my-soul relationship with the living God. And that matters.

Q: You have focused on writing books about the wonder of God. Describe what that means to you.

A: Do you remember when you were young and would climb trees and run through sprinklers? Do you remember when a simple daisy would capture your imagination and a butterfly would capture your heart? Those days when beauty was not so rare and life was painted with the vivid colors of awe… Too often we lose not only our childlike wonder of the world, but we also lose our wonder of God—that sense of awe and beauty and catch-your-breath, more-than-I-ever-dreamed sense of who God is. We lose it when life gets hard and we’re struggling to just survive.

But what if this wonder, this beauty that’s inherent in God and in life, is just the thing we need when life is at its most difficult? What if the answer isn’t found in our circumstances but in somehow recapturing this amazing sense of wonder in the most unlikely places of life? When we’re hurting, when prayers aren’t answered the way we’d hoped, when it hurts to keep on hoping … what if wonder is exactly what we most need?

What if God is calling us back to wonder? For me, writing about God’s wonder is about pulling back the curtain, just a bit, during the very hardest times of life when wonder seems the most impossible, so that we might glimpse God as we’ve never seen Him before. And in that glimpse, be captured by the wonder of this God who is More than we ever dreamed. I believe our only hope in hard times is found not in more instructions and rules, or getting-up-enough-faith, but it is found in encounters with a vivid God. It is found in wonder.

Q: How is encountering Christ when life hurts different from any other time we meet him?

A: When we come to God in our pain, we just want him to make it better, to fix it. And we want it desperately. C.S. Lewis writes, “On the other hand, ‘Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? … After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity.

I have found that when I am the most desperate, God seems the most distant, the most silent. Often life seems to go from bad to worse. What do you do with that? How do you encounter Christ when it seems like he’s turned his back?

That’s where these stories of Jesus in the New Testament really help. After all, had these people in the New Testament never prayed before, never sought God, never pleaded for help? Of course, they had! Just like us. They were desperate, and desperation makes things different. We all know that. So, I want to know, I need know, WHO IS GOD in these most desperate times? When it feels like he has been silent for so long, and prayers have gone long unanswered, who is he really?

As Lewis says, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’” (A Grief Observed)

Q: Now for the hard question: Why does this wonderful God who loves us allow these terrible things to happen in our lives?

A: I’m sorry to disappoint, but I truly don’t know. However, I do know this: There is absolutely nothing in our lives that cannot be transformed for his glory. Nothing! When I doubt that, I look at the cross. In Jesus’ time, a cross was a symbol of the worst kind of guilt and shame and pain. There was no worse death. Yet today the cross is a symbol of hope, redemption, and salvation. Jesus turned the ugliest thing into the most beautiful, the most wonder-filled. That’s what he can do for us too. He specializes in taking the hardest, worst things in our lives and making them beautiful. I see it not only in the cross and the New Testament, but in the lives of the people around me. God’s wonder is found, somehow, in these places in life we least expect it to be.

Q: What final words of encouragement would you offer to those who are right now going through the worst time of their lives?

A: One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 28:28. It says, “Grain must be ground to make bread; so one does not go on threshing it forever.” Sometimes we just feel threshed, but this verse says that there’s a purpose to the threshing – to make something good and beautiful that will bless you and bless others. This threshing has purpose, and it won’t go on forever.

So, reach for wonder. Dare to hope again. One more time, reach … not just for healing but for transformation, relationship, growth … wonder. He wants to give you more than the edge of his cloak. In the worst of times, the God of the Universe is longing to give you himself.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the non-profit you founded, Wonder Wood Ranch.

A: I truly believe in the power of wonder to unlock the deep, closed-off places in the human soul so that God can do miracles. I believe it so much that a couple years ago I started a charity ranch to put at-risk, gang-impacted, homeless, and other disadvantaged kids on horses. Gangs and gang violence are rampant in my community. A couple weeks ago we had kids who are gang-involved out to the ranch. One boy, Mr. Tough-Gang-Kid, was quiet, stern, and closed-off until I put him on my husband’s horse, Smokey. This kid got on Smokey and said, “I’ve never ridden a horse before. This is my first time on a horse. I’ve never ridden a horse. This is my first time.” He went on like that, his voice getting more and more excited and childlike for about a third of our nearly half mile trail through the woods. Then he asked me if he could do a video. I said yes, and he started videoing. “I’ve never ridden a horse before. This is my first time on a horse. I’ve never ridden a horse. This is my first time,” while videoing himself, the horse, the woods … and right there before my eyes this tough gang kid transformed into a happy, excited little boy. That’s the power of wonder.

We had another group out from the worst neighborhood in East Salinas (our most crime and violence impacted area). These kids live with several families in one or two-bedroom apartments, down streets crowded with cars double and triple parked, and not a blade of grass in sight. This group came out, and 12-year-old Juan said to me, “We’ve had so many shootings already this year that we’re not allowed to go outside anymore to play.” Mind you, it’s February when he said this! These 25 kids were running around our 16-acre ranch, riding through the woods, learning archery, petting pigs, and eating hamburgers. They were tasting a bit of wonder. I don’t know that I’ve seen such big grins.

The stories just go on and on… The homeless girl whose lifelong dream was to touch a horse, who spent the afternoon riding through the woods. The autistic girl who was too scared to even touch a horse but ended up riding (with her mother in tears at the break-though).

The power of wonder, in the hands of God! It’s why I do everything I do. God is bigger, more wondrous, more out-of-the-box surprisingly breath-taking that we can even dream. Wonder helps us to get a glimpse of who he is a little more clearly. Wonder, whether it’s through horses or through books about one-time encounters with Christ in the New Testament, breaks down the barriers so that our souls can be healed. You can find out more about Wonder Wood Ranch at www.wonderwoodranch.org.