Years ago, we were camping on the Oregon coast and we began noticing a thin layer of white stuff all over everything - cars, tents, plants, the ground, everything. Later we learned it was the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s in Washington State. This year was the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens (May 18, 1980) – it killed 57 people and did a billion dollars in damage.
This year was also the 19th anniversary of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001) - it killed just under 3,000 people and did untold billions in damage.
• Both were well known, recognizable locations.
• Both were fatal and highly traumatic events.
• Both left a visual and physical carnage that was striking.
• Both left people wondering if the damage could ever be repaired.
Imagine that you were charged with the task of restoration… what would you do first? This is where the stories diverge:
In the twin towers of 9/11, the first task of the restorer would be to remove all the remnants of the old buildings before any restoration could even begin. The smoldering bricks and twisted steel girders would be debris that would impede restoration.
In the case of Mt. St. Helen’s, the debris from the eruption – fallen trees, melted snow, volcanic ash, buried foliage – was actually the starting point of restoration. Their existence was not merely compatible with recovery; it was conducive to it. The first task of the restorer would be to allow the damage to become part of the restoration. And within 15 years the site of the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption was a thriving forest whose trees were unusually tall for their age because the ash abated competing weeds and foliage in their early years. Then other plants began to grow in the now-enriched soil, and they flourished as well. This invited wildlife to return. By 1997, an Audubon Society study found more species of birds in the area than there were in the 1980 pre-eruption study of the same region. The final markers of restoration were the return of tourists and shortly thereafter, logging companies making plans for commercial harvesting of the newly grown trees within the next decade.
The difference between rebuilding the Twin Towers and the Mt. St. Helen’s forest is simple: One disaster left debris that was in the way and the other left debris that was generative and helped the healing.
We often react in a similar way to the trauma and suffering in our lives. We tend to view the damage done by trauma and suffering like the debris left over from the destruction of the Twin Towers. The damage is simply in the way – it is an impediment to recovery and should be removed as soon as possible so healing can get underway.
In fact, though, the damage from traumatic life events and suffering is more like the damage from the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption. It can and should be viewed as generative of a new and flourishing life. Indeed, our most important task may not be to get out of the ashes of suffering as soon as possible, so that healing may begin, but rather to see and allow the ashes of our suffering to become part of the healing process itself.
I think this is exactly what God is telling us in Rom. 8:28 “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
There are many “good” things God brings to us through the ashes of our suffering, not in spite of them:
Rom. 5:1-5 – endurance, character, hope
James 1:2-5 – steadfastness, complete, lacking in nothing, (testing the reality of our faith), wisdom
Phil. 3:10 – share in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like Christ
Col. 1:24 – suffering that brings salvation to others
2 Cor. 1:3-7 – helping others, comforting
This is what God did in the life of the apostle Paul. In 2 Cor. 7:4-7, Paul saw the damage of his sufferings as generative of his joy and comfort. “I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more.”
In 2 Cor. 12:7-10 Paul saw the damage of his “thorn in his flesh” as generative of his strength and power in the Lord. “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Trusting God “to work all things together for good” and realizing the damage of our suffering is not to be seen as “in the way” but rather to be seen as part of the healing process itself, let’s not just seek to get rid of the debris of our suffering but rather to use it as generative of a new and flourishing life.