Recently, for the second time this spring, I got The Question again. Knowing my trauma since losing the PhD and my joy at getting a book deal, a close friend asked me: “Dan, standing where you are now and looking back, do you find yourself grateful for the road that brought you here?”
I didn’t want to look back, didn’t want to remember the times when God really seemed to “pile it on” – the pain, the agony, the humiliation. However, after hearing that question twice within a few weeks, from two different people, I realized God was doing the asking—and he is unrelenting. So I knew I had to answer.
Yet why the hesitation?
After all, I have a book scheduled for publication this summer—and that’s great news. If my dry, narrow-focus doctoral dissertation had passed rather than failed, there’d be no book; instead, there would be only the dissertation, gathering dust on a back shelf in a remote university library, with virtually no chance that anyone would ever read it. In fact, if my dissertation had passed I’d have no hope of redemption—because without pain and failure, there is nothing to redeem.
Shouldn’t I be able to see that by now? Shouldn’t I be thankful for my story—for all of the heartbreak God has brought me through, and for everything he’s done since? Sure, I’ve carried grief and regret so searing, so mind-numbing, I felt like I barely survived. But in hindsight, wasn’t it worth it?
My head knows the right answer. My head knows I should be grateful for all that has happened, including the wretched road that brought me to where I am. My head knows, and even believes, that “all things work together for the good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
My heart, however, has wanted to kick in the teeth of every person who spews that verse as if it were an instant fix. My heart still feels the shock of hearing my examiners reject my dissertation. My heart still remembers the torment of lying in bed like a corpse, telling myself to breathe. My heart still knows the disgrace of leaving England as a failure, having to face everyone back home, and losing my job just a few weeks later.
In hindsight, yes, I can see that those dark times may have had a purpose—yet my suffering felt so great, so overwhelming, that my stubborn heart doesn’t want to let it go.
But maybe we’re not meant to let it go—at least, not in the way we sometimes think. Maybe it means more than that.
Our society loves to get past pain as quickly as possible. We relieve our physical ills with fast-acting painkillers, so we want to relieve our emotional and spiritual ones the same way. We do everything we can to avoid and deny anything that hurts. But such avoidance and denial is not scriptural—and it does not produce spiritual growth.
Like us, the Israelites wanted to dodge pain. Their trek from Egypt to Canaan was filled with heartaches they would have preferred to avoid. It was a two-week journey which, due to detours caused mostly by sins and failures, they somehow managed to cram into forty years. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Forty years of uncertainty, misery, and death. Forty years of conditions so bad that they actually begged to go back to their former life as Egyptian slaves.
It wasn’t a good time.
But that period was bookended by two miraculous water-crossings: First, before those forty years, God had parted the Red Sea and the Israelites crossed over from being slaves in Egypt to being free people in the wilderness. Second, after those forty years, God parted the Jordan River and they crossed over from being nomads to being a true nation, settled in the Promised Land.
And during that second water-crossing, something different happened. At God’s instruction, each tribe carried a stone from the middle of the riverbed to the opposite bank and Joshua built the stones into a memorial (Joshua 4:7), saying:
“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” – Joshua 4:21-24 (NIV).
Make a pile of stones? Really? Seems like an odd request. Why did God have them do that?
I think it was because he knew the Israelites, like all humans, had short memories. Sure, he had delivered them from Egypt by parting the Red Sea; but then came forty years of wandering in the wilderness. By the time they were ready to cross the Jordan River, virtually everyone who had been an adult during that first miraculous parting was dead. The children born afterward had only heard about it. Maybe it didn’t sound real to them. Maybe they didn’t even believe it had happened.
So God gave a repeat performance: he parted the Jordan River, just for their generation. New generation, new miracle. And in the future, when their descendants would see the pile of stones and ask, “What do these stones mean?” – then the people could tell about all of their failures, all of their pain and suffering, and how God had brought them through.
The purpose of these events was not to show how cool and special the Israelites were, but to show how powerful and merciful God is. If there hadn’t been any difficulties, there couldn’t have been any deliverance. Just as in my own story, without pain and failure there can be no redemption.
To me, the river stones can represent the pain in our lives—memories so raw and sharp-edged that we wouldn’t wish them on anyone. These painful memories break the water as it rushes around them, and they break us too. They crush us, even grind us to powder. Though we shouldn’t dwell on or obsess over them, we should remember them. In fact, we must remember them. Because, piled together, they attest to God’s salvation. Each painful memory becomes part of our monument of remembrance – a monument to God’s work of mercy and grace.
My friend’s question still makes me hesitate, because my heart still remembers the pain. But my painful journey is now a part of my story. It’s a part of who I am. So when people ask, I can say: Yes, despite the pain, I can still be grateful.
So go ahead…pile it on.
Because there’s one thing that is always true about a pile of stones: It always points toward heaven.