The Secret to Thriving, Not Surviving

It was a quiet morning at the oceanfront hotel where we were staying at Virginia Beach. The breeze off of the Atlantic Ocean gently combed the beach grass. Families of birds chased the retreating waves, their footprints too light to make any impression in the sand. I walked alongside the beach, taking in the overcast grey sky blending into the waves. The beach approached a peninsula, promising a view that would surely not disappoint.

As the beach rounded the corner, another expanse of beach came into view with the same grey watercolor. I kept on walking. The horizon continued to taunt me as I walked closer to the end of this beach segment, followed by another bay of sand to trudge through. I kept my eye on the next corner. But each corner rounded to a similar scene. It seemed to be never-ending. It was beautiful, but it was also the same view no matter the number of steps I took. 

This walk felt like my life — a “Groundhog Day” of caring for my disabled daughter. There are beautiful moments. But most days are focused on each step without seeing the view. We are dealing with many of the same issues that we have dealt with for a long time. Only now, we are older. And my daughter is now bigger. It is becoming more physically challenging to keep up. Our patience has grown greater. Our wisdom has grown deeper. But our fatigue has grown more real as well. 

On my walk, I was looking for the beauty around the corner. I wanted the AHA! moment that would allow every grain of sand in my shoe to be worth the gritty journey. But each turn of the corner proved to be more of the same.

A vertebra "shell" found on Virginia Hampton Beach
A vertebra “shell” found on Virginia Hampton Beach

Chronic suffering is being trapped in a never-ending cycle of the same. We all have a painful thorn in our side that does not let up — an unanswered prayer, a salt-wound relationship that never heals, a broken heart that cannot ever be whole, a dream we must mourn. The reality is this broken world is marred by loss. 

I want to thrive in loss. Just survival is not enough for me.

I want a thri-vival

So how do we answer the deep aching feeling that there must be more? 

For the Christian, there is more. 

The only way to understand the intersection of a suffering mankind and a good God is to interpret this life through the lens of eternity. 

The only way to find purpose in our suffering is to know that our lives exist for more than this world. The more we accept decay — and, for that matter, learn to embrace it — the more we become thrivers rather than just survivors.

Decay is everywhere.

When I was walking this beach with the repetitive view, I finally looked down. Shells, seaweed, and abandoned nettings were peppered amongst the sand. All were carcasses of life that once was. The beach is a battlefield littered with the remains of an ocean ambushing its prey. What is one’s child’s playground is the cemetery of mollusks. What is one woman’s treasured pearl is the oyster’s expulsion of waste. What is one family’s treasured keepsake of vacation, is the skeleton of a conch.

Decay co-exists with beauty.

In fact, decay is required. For the beauty that emerges from decay is richer, more fruitful, and lasts forever. Like the compost that enriches the growth of a garden, decay, disability, and death are the fertilizers of a richer beauty to come. Yet decay occurs at the same time that flowers bloom. Beauty and pain can be enwrapped in the same moment.

There is no better example of this paradox of beauty and pain than the cross. The cross is the intersection of many contrasts — injustice and justice, death and life, hatred and love, grief and celebration. When Jesus died on the cross, He did more than punch a ticket to heaven. Purposeful suffering was exemplified. 

Still, living the joy of the cross on a daily basis is not easy. Especially in the mundane everyday struggles of motherhood or caring for the disabled, suffering can feel purposeless and never-ending. We can be deceived into hopelessness if we allow emotions to overshadow truth. The energy needed for everyday surviving makes thriving seem impossible. When the days of survival mode stretch into weeks, months, and years, we must learn how to thrive in the pit. So how do we seek thri-vival?

  1. To thrive means that we change our expectations about decay. Our decay is not unique to our generation and decay will continue until this world belongs to Jesus again. We can certainly point out the decay of others, but we are often unaware of our own decay. We expect progression, not regression. And yet our society, many of our relationships, and our own bodies are fighting the natural decay that comes from the fall of man. We would like to believe that we are always getting better, but in reality, we ourselves are not immune to entropy. As our bodies and minds age, our ability to process our worlds is also dampened. But one day, this decay, too, will lead to eternal beauty. And decay will not exist in heavenly realms.
  • To thrive means we recognize our need for rescue. Grace covers our sin, for our salvation. But sanctification requires us to embrace pit-dwelling. He gives our feet a place to stand between each rung on the daily climb. This state of dependence is uncomfortable and yet necessary for our trust in God’s goodness to grow. The Gospel is lived daily in our lives when we are in a state of dependence. For our need for a Savior is often when we are at the end of ourselves. 
  • To thrive means we learn to abide in Jesus daily. We rely on His mercies to be new every morning and enough for today’s trials. We humble ourselves to be a servant rather than the source. Abiding in Jesus is trusting Him to fill in the cracks daily. Abiding involves constant connection with our Source of strength. We are emptied continuously so that He can fill us continuously. And we must ask for help. Ask for His wisdom. Ask for eyes to see His care for us. Ask for a heart of praise. And these one-second prayers build our relationship with Jesus and help us see the treasures in each exhausting step. We must sit under the Bible as a servant and not stand over the Bible as a critic. As we learn of God’s plan for the decay of this world, our souls are comforted and reassured that He has an ultimate plan for redemption. 

That is thri-vival — where pain and beauty co-exist. It is possible to be a thriver and not only a survivor. To thrive is to abide with Jesus. Because when we look only at ourselves and our circumstances, the decay is discouraging. But when we look at the cross, decay is defeated. It is in the daily struggle of chronic Christian suffering that we learn to abide. We learn to trust in the One who carries us from birth to death to eternal life. God alone sustains us.

Our walk on the beach becomes about Him, not about us nor the view that we think we deserve. 

The walk to heaven is more pleasant when we let go of the “should be” and “should not be.”  We will stop walking for the purpose of the view. We will walk because we are called to walk. And then we will start to see the treasures in every step. We will expect decay in this world rather than be disappointed by it. And one day, at the vantage point of heaven, we will look down at all of the faded footprints in the sand and we will understand why. The deepest sinking sand will be the sweetest places we thrived as we learned to abide in Christ.

This is the hope of the Christian in chronic suffering: There is more. And for today, He is enough.

“Listen to me, house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been sustained from the womb, carried along since birth. I will be the same until your old age, and I will bear you up when you turn gray. I have made you, and I will carry you. I will bear and rescue you.”

Isaiah 46:3-4

Rachelle Keng is a physician practicing Obstetrics & Gynecology in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her husband Michael and their two daughters. She cares deeply for people and has a passion for writing about her reflections on life and faith. Rachelle’s oldest daughter has Angelman Syndrome. Her experiences as a special needs mom are often the inspiration for her writing.

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