Growing up, my only experience with baggage was when I packed for summer camp. I sympathized with those who carried heavy loads but I also thought: “Life is so complicated for them.” I even said to myself: “Marrying someone with that much baggage would be difficult."
But at the age of almost-thirty I now own my own suitcase of suffering. I carry it awkwardly because it’s new. I'm just beginning to understand the complicated nature of this weight. The pressure it puts on those closest to me. The way I must now learn to navigate the strange ebb and flow of grief. But though baggage is hard to view in a positive light God has graciously shown me some of its benefits.
The Bible makes more sense
In college, one of my wing-mates told me that she knew Biblically she was a sinner but couldn’t think of any sins she’d committed. She drew a blank when she would try to repent. I couldn't relate. Every verse about forgiveness was a gift to my guilty soul. I felt connected to just about every sinful character in the Bible. As a result, God’s Word was full of conviction and comfort for me.
But it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve come to an intimate understanding of David’s cries for help in the Psalms. His isolation. His fear. His desperation. It wasn’t until I was in the fetal position on the bathroom floor of my apartment, crying out to God to save my husband and my marriage, that I read the Psalms with complete understanding:
“I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.” (Psalm 38:8-9)
Since my divorce, groaning and sighing have become a regular part of my prayer life and passages like Matthew 11:28-30 have become a treasure:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Mathew 11:28-29)
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” (Psalm 55:22)
Jesus makes more sense too. His constant sorrow on earth resonates in a way it didn’t before. My awe over how He left heaven to save us and satisfy God’s wrath has increased. It’s as though His sufferings are now printed in bold in my Bible. The more baggage I carry, the more I need Him. The more time I get to spend unburdening at His feet. These are painful but precious times with my Savior.
Bonding over baggage
Jerry Sittser lost his daughter, wife, and mother all at once in a car wreck in 1991. In his book, A Grace Disguised, he said: “Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”
Baggage can weigh us down so that we fail to see others and Christ clearly. But it can also provide us with an opportunity to practice and receive compassion. When you start walking around with baggage, you suddenly become aware of those travelling beside you. Their loads become visible. Though some choose isolation and self-centeredness, our burdens can lead us into the most blessed community – the community of sufferers.
The people I found easy to categorize as “a mess” or “too complicated” before are now the ones helping me make it through the day. They pick up my bags and carry them for a while. I help them unpack theirs and we travel together. For “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9)
I have seen the beauty of the Body of Christ more this past year during my greatest grief than in all my previous years as a Christian. The Sunday after my husband told me he was going to file for divorce, I sat in an empty row at church. The assistant pastor saw me and, knowing what had happened, stepped out of his row where he had been worshiping with his family and walked down the aisle to where I stood. He put his arm around me, said “I am so sorry,” and let me cry. Instead of returning to his row, he stood next to me for a few songs so that I didn’t have to worship alone. I can’t tell this story, type it, or even think about it without tearing up. My baggage does not scare away my brothers and sisters in Christ. It gives them a chance to demonstrate His love. And I get to receive it. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many...If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 26)
Homesick for Heaven
I asked one of my closest friends her thoughts about this idea of “baggage,” knowing how greatly she and her husband have suffered this year. She said: “This challenge has given us eternal perspective. Life is not about how big our house is or how much we made last year. It forces us to think about what really matters. Jesus and souls.”
I love this perspective. Baggage forces us into a cage where we must wrestle with God’s goodness, His grace and His plans for us. As we wrestle with heavy things what is flimsy and fleeting matters less.
A close friend of mine walked alongside me for years until his sister died. That day, he refused to carry the weight of his pain to the cross. Instead, he picked it up and walked in the opposite direction. Baggage, whether handed to us by an abuser, given to us at birth, or taken up after a consequence-filled mistake, is never light. But for those who are in Christ it is temporary. It is a heaviness we will not carry into eternity. This truth only increases my longing for His kingdom (Mat. 6:33).
The blessed nature of humiliation
I am humiliated to admit how many times I prayed this year: “God, just take me home.” It’s a prayer I pray when the emotional intensity of this loss seems unbearable. I know it’s selfish. I must repent when my strongest desire is not God’s glory but to see an end to my pain. In a recent sermon my pastor spoke about Elijah praying a similar prayer in 1 Kings 19:4: “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life.” He pointed out the faithlessness of this plea in light of all God had shown Elijah. We lose heart so quickly. But God was merciful to Elijah. And He has been merciful to me.
Regardless of what brings you low, humiliation is an equalizer. Job bowed down in humiliation when God appeared before him. He no longer felt the need to argue his case but instead put his hand over his mouth. I have been weighed down so that I can sympathize with my fellow travelers. So that I will cling to His Word. I have been brought low to understand better how my Savior was brought lower. It has been tempting to use this baggage as an excuse to sin – to indulge in self-pity or build mini-idols. But I see the wisdom in that Puritan prayer, that it is from the valley that we are truly able to see Him in the heights.
The humiliation of baggage pushes us to see our weakness and His strength: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10) We may never get to a place where our suitcase of suffering is empty. But if we allow it to, our baggage will ground us in humility, push us toward the Body and lift our eyes to the Mighty Fortress that is God.