Bonus Episode: The Sacred Beauty of Suffering? With Kristen LaValley | Words with Writers

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From Today's Episode:

Welcome! We’re in our Words with Writers Bonus Series and today’s topic is The Sacred Beauty of Suffering? With Kristen LaValley.

Text Jen the word WONDER at 55444 *USA and Canada numbers only

Kristen LaValley is a writer and storyteller whose words offer a refreshing perspective on faith and spirituality. She offers insights that intersect doubt and belief, hope and suffering, beauty and heartache. With a deep love for the Christian faith and a willingness to explore its complexities, Kristen’s writing offers nuanced conversations that challenge readers to think deeply and wrestle with important questions. Kristen lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Zach, and their five children. Her latest book "Even If He Doesn't: What We Believe about God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense" is available now wherever books are sold.

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Here's the episode transcript

Hey friends, welcome to a bonus mini-series here on Good God Talks.

This series is different from our typical podcast format. It also does not adhere to our typical 8-minute time limit.
We're talking with writers about the words they have with God. I'm asking these guests to let us in a little bit more to the behind the scenes of their writing process, and the way that they connect with God, and how that relates to their writing, and how that relates to their walk.

The idea for this series actually came out of a project that I have been working on, kind of in secret. A Beckoning to Wonder: Christian Poetry Exploring God's Story is coming out March 19th, 2024.

And if you're listening to this episode, anytime during the month of March, grab your phone and text me at the number 55444.

And I want you to text me the word wonder. You'll get a reply from me, and I have free gifts that I will be sending out all month long. There's advanced access to stuff. There's exclusive freebies. There's behind the scenes resources.
And also it will alert you to the pop-up episodes in this special series because these episodes are not releasing on our normal podcast schedule.

So regular, Good God Talks every Tuesday, Thursday, like normal with those conversational questions to go ask God and also these special bonus episodes.

So again, text me at the number 55444 and send me the word WONDER.

And now it's time to jump into today's episode, and my guest is Kristen LaValley. I had a great time talking with Kristen about really the sacredness of suffering and how we can bring our hard circumstances to the Lord. Kristen's latest book released just a few weeks ago and it's called, Even if He Doesn't: What We Believe About God When Life Doesn't Make Sense. I'm excited for you to get to know Kristen through this episode, so let's get into it.

Kristen, I love the way that you, bring yourself so honestly and vulnerably to everything that you do. So for anyone who doesn't know you, like, will you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure. Just a quick little sum up of who I am. Yeah, you know, easy. Yeah, easy. Just give me, give me like one minute. I can sum up my whole life. Just kidding. Well, I am Kristen. Obviously, I live in Massachusetts with my husband. We have five kids, and we were in career ministry for most of our relationship a little over 10 years and we left that field, about seven years ago, I guess now.

And since then, we've just been living our lives here in Massachusetts. My husband works for a nonprofit that teaches relational skills to organizations, churches, individuals, things like that. And I've just been writing for the past couple of years, and it's been a really interesting and fun journey.

We're having a really good time in the stage of life that we're in right now.

That's awesome. Well, I've been following your writing journey for a long time now. Long time. Yeah. Yeah. It's, it's so fun to look back over those things and see like where, what we came from, where we grew for things, like all of the fun stuff.

And you share that so beautifully in this upcoming book. Well, this now released book, will you share just a little bit about even how that started for you and what people can expect when they look for your book now?

Sure. So I think the book started being, shaped in me many, many years ago, after we left our church, it was a really painful experience, really disorienting in a lot of ways and really challenged my faith in a lot of ways.

And then after that, we kind of went through a few back-to-back traumatic and terrifying things that just. I wasn't able to find words that spoke to the human experience that I was having. There were a lot of books on suffering, obviously. I mean, you could find hundreds and hundreds of books about suffering that try to answer the questions of why God allows us to suffer if he's good.

And there are a lot of books like that, that spoke encouragement and faith and try to answer the questions. And that just wasn't what I needed. It wasn't what I was looking for. I needed something that bore witness to my pain and didn't try to dismiss it or explain it or rush me past that. So after our last traumatic thing, which I kind of detail in the book, which is the crisis pregnancy that I had and premature birth most people thought I was going to write a book about church hurt because that's kind of the thing that I talk a lot about, but.

As I was going through this process of writing a proposal and talking to publishers, which some of the publishers were like, weren't you going to write a book about church stuff? And I'm like, yeah, you know, I, I thought about doing that. And then I realized that where God has me, isn't speaking to a specific kind of hurt, but just a
bearing witness kind of ministry to, to look hurt and pain in the eyes and say, I'm not afraid of you and I'm not afraid how you can affect my life and being able to bear witness to that kind of pain and give words to that human experience instead of trying to bypass it, I think is so important for healing.

It was for me. And so I wanted to write a book that provided that, witness for other people too.

I resonate with that need so much and the difficulty of that. I don't know anyone who's like, you know what, I'm a writer someday. I really want to write a book about suffering, you know, but, but embracing the opportunity, it sounds like to really share with other people from the place of ministry that you needed. When you talk about like bearing witness to that, what is that like for you and, how has that impacted you?

It's being comfortable sitting in discomfort and not being afraid of what someone's pain or what my own pain, metabolizes as. Pain management is not always pretty. It can get really messy. And I think the church has a hard time with people being honest about their pain and honest about how that pain affects the way that they view themselves, the way that they view God, the way that they view the church.

But it's just the reality of going through a painful thing is that sometimes it's going to challenge what you believe and challenge what you think and challenge how you understand the world and bearing witness to that is what Job's friends did. Even though we give Job's friends a hard time, they said some dumb things.

The first thing they did before they started speaking to Job's pain was to sit and grieve with him for seven days. And one of them even said, let's just not say anything because we can see that his grief is too much. I think that's the primary. best example of what bearing witness is. It's just sitting in it with someone else and not trying to offer them anything other than presence so that they can feel their pain and experience that human reality of our human responses to pain that are natural and not sinful and not something that we should feel bad about and giving that non anxious presence like I'm here.

I see you; you're going through something and I'm not going to try to explain it. I'm just going to sit here in it with you until you're ready to talk.

I love that. And I love that, you were able to be that for other people. And it sounds like had that in your own experience, people that were able to just bear witness to your pain.

One of the things that you, you talk about, and I gave you a warning—I think I'm going to be quoting you a little bit here—as you were talking about how we live out our spiritual instincts. And when we go through different things, we don't have the time or fortitude to rethink what we already believe to be true about God.

Do you feel like you already knew that God bears witness and walks with us through our suffering in the same way? Or do you feel like that was something that you relearned or learned in a different way through this process?

Definitely something that I learned. I didn't really have a good understanding of God's relationship to pain and suffering.

When I first started going through really hard things, which I think is what made those hard things really, really hard on my faith, because it challenged what I understood about God, because I expected God to come and rescue me from my pain. And what I found was that he doesn't always rescue us or prevent us from feeling pain.

Sometimes that rescue. Is painful. We don't realize that he's rescuing us when we are in pain. But he is, he's present with us in it. And I didn't know that until I needed to know that. And until I was really in the thick of it and wondering if God was good. If he had ever been good. If he'd ever been kind. And in those dark places where he showed up and was with me and comforting me in it, that's when I learned what that is and learned how God meets us in our pain.

And then also through the bride of Christ meeting me and bearing witness to my pain and being the hands and feet of Christ. in my suffering, that's how I sort of redeveloped this understanding of who God is in a much more beautiful and, um, not as simplistic or formulaic way that I used to believe after I went through all this stuff.

I'm like, Oh, it's actually not as simple as I thought it was, but it's so much more beautiful, so much more wild, and so much more comforting when God is with you exactly how you need in the moment of your suffering.

I'd love for you to talk a little bit more kind of pulling back then to the before. Before you knew that connection with him could be so beautiful. Before you knew that he would meet you in the pain. And you mentioned a little bit of that formulaic approach. What was it like before? What you've now experienced with God?

I viewed God as this transactional type of authority figure in my life, someone that I needed to please, someone that my relationship with him was always on edge. I was always anxious about if I was doing the right thing, saying the right things, pleasing him.

I would have called it service, but really it was just constant anxiety that I, that God was mad at me and that I was going to be disapproved of. And I thought if I do all these things right, then. I have some guarantees. God's going to protect me. God's going to bless me. God's going to vindicate me.
Whether the blessing is financial or just relational, whatever it is, my life has some guarantees in it, as long as I do all the right things and when I did all the right things and those guarantees were not actually guarantees, it shattered my entire understanding of who he is and how he works and what my relationship to him is and what his relationship to my pain is, it was just so chaotic and scary and messy and isolating and people would look in at my processing and just be like, I don't know if I can get close.

You're getting a little messy. I don't like these questions you're asking. You're on a dangerous, slippery slope. And I'm like, I'm just trying to make sense of my pain, trying to understand this. And then after I kind of went through that process of re figuring out my relationship with God and who He is, I became so much more secure in His love for me.

And I stopped feeling so anxious all the time because He showed me how useless my formulas were and how much those formulas prevented me from really resting in His love and truly, truly trusting Him.

Yeah. Again, I feel like I'm, I'm a broken record a little bit cause I'm like, Oh, I think that's so relatable. I think so many of us can rest on that, that formula approach to, okay, hopefully if I do the right things, then God will be happy with me, and he will give me things that will in turn make me happy.

And that can be such a difficult habit to break free from of if I've always approached God this way, how do I start having a different conversation with him? How do I start approaching him differently? Are there any things that stand out to you from your journey that you found really helpful in, in really pivoting away from the formulas that weren't working?

Really engaging with My pain and being honest, I think is the best thing that I did. When I, when I stopped being afraid that my honesty would cost me my eternity, I got really, really messy with God for a little while there, and I didn't feel rejected. I felt invited in with my strong emotions and my anchor and what other people may have called bitterness.

I just didn't care anymore. I got to the point where my faith was so fractured. That I didn't care if I lost my faith. I just needed to get through what I was getting through because it was a mental health crisis because of how much my identity had been wrapped into my faith. When that fell apart, my entire self-worth, the way that I viewed myself, the way that I interacted with the world, my family, my husband, everything was falling apart and I needed to move forward and I could have doubled down and just said, I'm not going to engage with this at all.

Stick to what I know, stick to what I believe. It doesn't matter what I'm feeling. It doesn't matter what's going on around me. I'm just going to trudge forward. But I knew that that was just going to keep fracturing me. So I said, forget it. I'm just going to be real. And if God strikes me down, then God strikes me.

Then I have my answer. Then I know who God is. If he strikes me down in this and I just really deeply engaged with what I was thinking and feeling with myself, with a therapist, with close friends that could tolerate my my panic at the time and of course with God. And I'm just such a firm believer that the only way through your pain is to process it and engage with it and engage with your doubts and your questions because there's nothing that God doesn't know already and there's nothing that is going to cost you his love.

At all. Ever.

Yes. Yes. Well, I mean, our whole podcast, Good God Talks, is all about having these conversations with God. And I love that you're talking about coming to him honestly, because so often I think, even in my own experience, I would almost try and clean up my conversations with God. Like this is what I'm thinking.

And how do I make this sound a little better before I say it out loud in prayer instead of. Mm hmm. Just bringing to him the honest feelings of my heart and there's one little line you have in the book and it says pain waters the soil of relationships and I feel like there's so much resistance for a lot of reasons to go into our own pain to share our own pain It's hard to find safe people that we can share our pain with and it can be hard to really reconcile that with our faith like my pain can water my relationship with God and too? It sounds like you found that to be really true.

Yeah. I mean, scripture says that he's close to the brokenhearted and I found that to be true over and over and over again. The thing about pain is that it's so vulnerable. And when you're open about your pain, it creates an intimacy and a trust with the person that you're sharing that pain with, whether it's God or your spouse or a friend or somebody in your church, your therapist, whoever you, are sharing this with, it's intimacy.

And I think intimacy, safe intimacy and vulnerability is sacred and it creates these sacred, uh, Bonds that are good and healthy. Sometimes it could not, it could not be depending on what the situation is, but I found that the more honest I am about my pain, the more connected I am to the father and to his people.


So how have you seen that play out in the midst of even your writing process? You've had this experience with God over extended circumstances, like multiple different things in your life. You're walking through this, you're recognizing what he's done for you. How then did he continue to do that same ministry and bring insight to you as you were writing the book?

Oh, that's a good question. The writing process for this specific book was really, really. Brutal. It was cathartic, but I had never processed the whole story of like everything that we went through from the church to the girl. I had never processed it in a linear way I had talked about it Sporadically or like talked about an emotion I was feeling and then you talk about what happened or whatever You know, you thought you process things in chunks.

You don't ever really process things linearly so this was the first time I sat down and Thought about it, thought about the details of what happened, and then how that affected me, how I felt, how I reacted to the world around me during that time, so it was really a cathartic release of those things, but it was also really emotionally draining and was just kind of spiritually, maybe revelatory is the best word because by writing it down, I could see where God had been moving in all of these pieces that I maybe didn't notice before or hadn't remembered that I noticed and being able to see God's hands in and out of my story throughout all of this was this really, emotional reminder of how present God was and is with me.

All the time and when I notice and when I don't notice looking back and not, not thinking at the time, I need to mark this down, but then writing it down later was just, man, it was a really intimate and vulnerable writing process. I took a lot of naps, a lot, sometimes I'd write for like two hours and sleep for the rest of the day because it was just so like, well, that was a lot.

Yeah. Well, you're, you're pouring your heart out on paper and it, I mean, it really sounds like you're also experiencing more of God's heart for you in that process. Like you're definitely, you're sharing your hearts with each other in that. Yeah, for sure. That's beautiful. So would you, I'm like, I'm not saying, would you recommend that anyone just like writes a book when they're going through this kind of journey, but would you recommend like journaling? Would you recommend like getting something out on paper to aid that back-and-forth conversation with God?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, writing is, has always been my way of processing my whole life. That's kind of just the way that I process the world around me. Even now when my husband and I are arguing about something, I'm like, Just give me a minute and I need to go and like write out my thoughts in a note before I can like communicate them verbally.

I think the way that you process is the way that you should communicate with God and have these conversations with God. For me, it's writing. I think that's a really good practice to work into your life. But I know some people are verbal processors. My husband is a verbal processor sometimes, so he'll record voice memos into his phone.

And I have friends who paint. There are all these different ways of processing that. that communication between you and God. And I think if writing is your way, I personally, I'm a fan of writing because I like to read other people's processing after they're done with it. But voice memos are a great way to do that too.

Whatever your processes, I definitely think you should work a practice, a habit into your life to continue that conversation with God. So you can go back and remember it and look back on it. Because when things get really hard and really dark, you forget these conversations that you've had with God. And it's really helpful to have them somewhere where you can access them.

You're like, okay. You came through for me before. You're going to do it again.

Yes. Oh, I feel like we see that in the Psalms so much. David is like, Oh my gosh, everything is awful. Well, like death, like all of this stuff. And then he's like, Oh, but your unfailing love pursues me. Like your steadfast kindness.

And it's almost that I remember, I remember you Lord, I can see how you were this way. I can see how you are this way, even in these circumstances. God made each of us uniquely and on purpose, and so taking the way that you process and letting that become a habit that you bring into the way that you talk with God can be so life giving.

I think even sometimes we can over spiritualize that, of like, praying is me with my hands folded and my head down, and there's worship music, but like, talking with God is talking with God. And it can be in a voice memo, and it can be as you're creating something beautiful, or as you're out loud in your car by yourself, just engaging that dialogue into this two-way conversation with God.

One of the other things I love that I hear come through on your Instagram posts, I hear come through in the way you're talking about stuff now and in the book is how much the way we view God affects everything else. There's Beauty and value in sitting with the questions and not just going with the way I've always viewed God. Because even as those who love God and who are able to recognize his loving care even in hard things, there's still more that he wants to share with us about who he is and what he's like. So if someone is going through a hard time and they're like, I don't even know how to notice God in the middle of this. I can see him in the good, but how do I see him in the hard? How would you encourage them?

It's hard to begin the practice of noticing. It can feel a little, um. I don't know, maybe it's disingenuous or like you're looking for God. And you're trying to like fabricate his presence, but I think God is really specific for us sometimes. And of course he speaks in general ways, and he speaks in, you know, a way that everybody can listen and understand, but I think he speaks really specifically to us too.

And it helps to start the practice and to just pay attention to what's happening in your day. I always wake up and pray. Like one of the first things I say to God every day is help me to notice you today. And anytime I get this little, just sometimes it's just like a little like, That feels like Jesus.
I'll just take out my notes app and put a little quick note in my phone and the more that you build that practice when things aren't hard, the more you can default to it when things are hard. So I always start by saying if you have never made this started this practice before. Borrow from other people's, testimonies or other people's ebonies or stones. People tell stories all the time of how God showed up for them in specific ways.

When something stands out to you and you're like, wow, it's a really cool thing God did for that person. It's really easy to disqualify ourselves and say, Oh, he's never going to do that for me. Borrow from their hope. borrow from their stories, write those down and then just ask God to help you to start noticing his movement in and out of your life as it's happening.

And just write, even if it seems really silly, I'm telling you most of the things in my phone that I have where I've noticed God, people looking in would be like, that just sounds like a regular day. I don't know what you're talking about, but for me, I think God's I can speak so specifically, and it's hard to notice him if we're not expecting him, but when you expect God to be moving in and out of your life and you start marking those moments down, when it's really dark, you'll look back on those moments that you've already marked down and say, okay.

All right. If he was moving then, he's probably moving now. Let me start trying to notice him. And that can be really hard because when you're in pain, your body and your mind tell you, one of the first lies that they tell you is that God isn't who he said he is and God has abandoned you and God has rejected you.

It's the first lie that entered into our atmosphere. Did God really say that? Do you really tell you not to eat that fruit? I don't know. And the enemy plants that doubt in your mind and start telling you lies about God. And it can be really easy to just resign yourself to that and say, yeah, that's true.
I'm in pain. So God must not be good to me. And it's really difficult to break yourself out of that thinking and say, all right, let me look for the good. Let me look where God is moving and just start writing it down. Even if it feels silly or trivial, I can almost guarantee you it never is.

That's beautifully said it can feel so small in the moment, like, am I really going to put this note down? But God is on display. He is on display in nature. He's on display in us as his creations, He is, always the same. And so there are so many little glimpses that we can get of him and building that habit of, okay, I'm going to slow down enough to notice.

One of the questions that I love to ask along this vein is every time we see God and we, we experience him differently, it transforms us. So if you were to think about a specific time when you saw God differently and you were able to connect that to a marked change for your life, would you share a story about that?

I do actually share this one in the book, but it's just such an impactful thing that It was after we left our church, and it was probably about a year later and I was still in the stages of grief.

I was in, in between anger and acceptance, getting closer to acceptance, but still just like, man, why did that have to happen that way? Why did it have to be so painful? And just getting used to telling that story and the responses and usually when I would tell people what happened to us, it was a lot of, um, maybe dismissal of like, well, Is there something you could have done differently, or maybe there was a reason it happened that way, or people would get really uncomfortable, and I would feel like I needed to make them feel more comfortable with my horrible story, so I try to, like, wrap it up really pretty, like, but it's okay, like, we're past it, we're healed, God is good, whatever.

So this is what I was doing. I had just met this woman who now my husband works for their organization, but we were just kind of telling her our story and we got to the end, and she didn't say anything and she was just sitting there really quietly, which is so awkward after you just shared a really vulnerable story, and you're not sure how the person is going to receive it. She just didn't say anything. And so I started trying to wrap it up, but it's okay. God is good. We're healed. Blah, blah, blah. And she was just like, you don't have to do that. I just want to sit here and grieve with you for a second. And she started crying and it was just this compassionate response from a stranger at the time.

We didn't know her at the time. Now she's like a dear friend of mine. Of course, how could you not be when you offer that kind of compassion and, and grief? It impacted me so much because up until that point, even though we had people in our lives who were angry for us, and they were supportive of us, and they were loving, I hadn't seen my grief reflected back to me yet, and when she reflected that grief back to me, it just gave me this entirely new perspective on who God is. That God is not just a God who protects and vindicates, but he's a God who grieves with us as well, who's acquainted with our sorrows, and it changed the way that I Engage with my pain and it changed the way that I offered compassion to other people because it was so impactful to me to have that image of God reflected to me that I determined I'm going to reflect that to other people because we don't do that with people's pain enough.

We try to make him feel better. We try to dismiss it. We try to rush past the discomfort of it. We very rarely are okay with just sitting and being sad with somebody. And that was such a beautiful representation of a God who took on our flesh to know who we are and to know our pain and to offer us comfort in it.

And he did that through another person. It wasn't this like supernatural experience. It was somebody else who had flesh and who loved Jesus and wanted to offer me that compassion, truly life changing.

That's powerful. And I want to remember that I'm going to take your story with me because I want to remember that in the times where there is that tendency to like want to make someone feel okay to want to help kind of pep them up or be there for them in a way more than what feels like more than what is actually needed, which is just holding that space.

And, and honoring their grief and their pain and I love that it was so evident to you in that moment. this is the image of my God who's on display in this woman. And that we get to be his image bearers and carry him in that way.

It makes me just want to sit back in awe of him. Like, God, look what you did. Yeah. Look what you did for my friend.


Okay. So as we wrap up here, Kristen, you, you are incredible.

Um, Thank you.

Yeah, you, you really are. I just, I'm just like gushing. I would love, I would love for you to share any closing thoughts that you would want to share with the listeners here and then where they can connect with you in all the places.

Sure. I would just say, I think sometimes when you listen to people's stories, like, like my stories, it's really easy to discount yourself or disqualify yourself or think, oh, well, she just has so much faith or she just has. You know, so many wonderful people around her. It's easy for her. And we find all these reasons to count ourselves out of healing and count ourselves out of moving forward and maybe not figuring things out, but, um, you know, moving forward in our lives with, with our whole selves intact.

And I just want to say that that is so entirely untrue. And the people that you think have such strong faith, their faith was probably built through really messy ways and really hard things. I never look back on my life and go, wow, look how much faith I have. It's more of like, I cannot believe I am still with Jesus because my faith has been fractured over and over again.

I think the best thing that you can do if you see something in somebody or in a story like what I'm sharing is to just know that that person got here through a lot of pain and a lot of, um, not being sure of anything in their lives. And just don't be afraid to engage with your pain and engage with your doubts.

God's not afraid of them. And you can be safe in his love and rest in his love no matter what you are going through. And you can follow me on Instagram. Sorry, that was a really long, uh, word I spoke there, but follow me on Instagram. It's kristin.lavalley and I have a Substack blog as well.

Well, that's awesome. And it was perfect.

If you're going through a hard thing, anyone who's walking in the beauty of faith is walking through and has walked through hard things and we can trust God with that.

Thank you so much, Kristen.

Well, I know I was really encouraged by this conversation and I'm believing that you were too. There are links in the show notes for all the places you can connect with Kristen and find her book, even if he doesn't. Also, don't forget to text me at 55444 and send the word WONDER.

All month through the month of March 2024, I'm going to be sending you gifts and encouragement and resources to help your vibrant life with God. I don't want you to miss out on that. And so I look forward to getting to know you better, connecting with you and sharing those resources for you in this way.

Thanks for joining me for Good God Talks and we'll talk soon.

And if you've been encouraged by this content, please share it with a friend and help them grow in their conversational relationship with God too!

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