Soul Work

There is much talk these days about the soul. We hear of soul formation, soul care, soul healing, soul longings, and soul connection, to name a few. The emphasis on the soul is great because it is the eternal part of every human life. The soul is the birthing place of our desires, passions, longings, and stirrings. This being true, what happens when our soul is lost in deep grief? Where do we turn when life’s circumstances bring enormous suffering, deep pain, or unchangeable loss and heartache? Perhaps my own soul struggle in 2006 related to my son’s special needs will spark some reflection of your own.

Journal entry: June 12, 2006
I can do nothing, nothing, NOT a THING, God! Jon’s needs . . . his tics and head nodding, more and more tests . . . I thought the hardest had passed. Isn’t autism, illness, and near-death quite enough? Oh, don’t forget my other two children and their needs; it’s constant, Lord, constant! “My grace is sufficient.” Oh, really? How come you let it multiply in difficulty? I feel sufficiency ran out about two years ago, Lord. “My grace is sufficient.” Nope, nope, nope . . . today I can’t agree. I don’t know if I believe that anymore. The knowledge of sufficiency does nothing to rescue the downpour of pain I feel. I thought autism was enough; now, autism seems benign compared with his present condition—where is the relief?

From January to June 2006, my son Jonathan regressed by 50 percent in all cognitive and functioning development. This perplexed his teachers and shocked me. We had been through so much already with Jon’s mental and physical health, I thought the most comprehensive evaluations were behind us. I felt like I was playing pin the tail on a moving donkey—blindfolded and unable to connect the dots in my son’s life. For three months, Jonathan underwent three EEGs, two MRIs, genetic and chromosome studies, and toxicity and metal poisoning tests. More than half the exams reported eventual death or morbid outcomes. Additionally, our medical insurance package changed, requiring that I locate all new doctors, and none of them wanted to take on a new patient like Jonathan. All things considered, tensions at home escalated, personal exhaustion intensified, and the whole family struggled to make sense out of life.

My Soul’s Cry

On June 10, 2006, the brilliant blue Orange County, California, sky hid behind a blanket of dense, wet fog. Like the dusty streaks left when sweeping ashes away, life was stained that grayish white color. In the waiting room, kids and parents looked like Jon and me—downcast, apologetic, embarrassed, longing to find hope in the four walls of a sterile specialist’s office. We entered the exam room, one so similar to those we had visited weekly, years ago. A clean sheet of white paper lay neatly over the examination table. I remembered all the times I had used that paper for math, art, writing “I love you” in a thousand different ways, drawing “smiley faces,” coloring, you name it—all to entertain and comfort my son.

Throughout the exam, the neurologist asked what felt like 398 questions. She neared the end of poking and prodding Jon’s body, then looked at me and quietly asked, “Has he ever been evaluated for Tourette’s syndrome?” Hmmm, I thought, Guess we missed that one . . . imagine that. After a long pause, the doctor spoke. “Well, Jonathan obviously has Tourette’s syndrome [a neurological and nervous-system disability, managed with medication: no cure], Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [a comorbid syndrome common with Tourette’s syndrome, managed with medication: no cure], Oppositional Defiance Disorder [a psychiatric disorder, managed with medication: no cure], and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder [a comorbid syndrome of autism and Tourette’s syndrome, an often-comorbid syndrome of psychiatric disorders, managed with medication: no cure].”

Emotional shrapnel went flying everywhere. As I choked back hot tears, the doctor handed me four new prescriptions, suggested I remove Jon from school for in-home ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy daily, eight hours each day for at least a year, and strongly suggested daily reading, occupational, speech/language, and sensory integration therapies as well . . . for the next two years. She requested a follow-up appointment in two months and left the room as quietly as she had entered.

Journal entry: June 10, 2006—My thoughts upon leaving the doctor’s appointment
Lord, where are You? . . . You have left me alone. . . . Are You even . . . ? I am shocked! How come You . . . ? I can’t, Lord, I CAN’T!! Weren’t the illnesses, the lung infections, the autism, the retardation score, the . . . wasn’t that just plenty, God? How long, Lord, how much more is coming? I feel duped by You, yes . . . and strung out. I feel forgotten, I’ve called out to you, Lord, but I can’t hear your voice or sense your comfort.

My soul was shot through with pain. As Jon and I walked hand-in-hand out the door, his tics continued. His sounds and snorts, the blinking, and head-bobbing continued, echoed by thuds of my gallon-sized tears hitting the sidewalk. Again, I noticed the variegated glances of others—kids darting their eyes from Jon to their parents and back again and adults giving that momentary look of pity and confusion. Like two gigantic, purple polka-dotted elephants, we made our way to the car.

I picked up the promised cheeseburger and fries on the way home. As Jon blinked, smacked, swallowed, nodded, smacked, and swallowed again, my tears grew in number and force. My anguish fell out all over my face, soaking my lips, my chin, and my neck. I said things to the Lord I had never said before. I told God I hated Him, I hated this life, I hated my faith, I hated doctors, I hated hospitals, I hated illness, I hated, hated, hated everything! With my jaw clenched, I gripped the steering wheel, saturated with wet, messy grief. I felt stripped bare of all religious graces I had believed represented strength. Many things died that day: some of my hopes, my goals, my dreams, my pride, my self-sustaining strength, my dignity, and another layer of my humanity wanting this life to make more sense. My soul was in utter despair.

My Soul Searching

I remained distant and quiet from the church for a few months. Bombarded by agonizing circumstances and pleading for Christ to find me in the mess, I had no ability to put the broken pieces back together. Tragically, I have found that law-abiding church-goers often make judgments about people in deep grief, believing that their lack of church attendance and of dictated religious performance means correction or reproof is needed rather than comfort. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In my pain, I spent hours alone with God. I searched Scripture, and slowly but surely, He led me to truths which nourished my soul. I’d like to share a few with you.

Let’s begin with Naomi. Her story lies tucked in the pages of the book of Ruth. We run into Naomi, trudging alongside her bereaved daughter-in-law, Ruth. We find them both in silence, walking along a dusty road, interrupted only by the sounds of grief and the few dried up tumbleweeds tossed about by the arid winds. Naomi found herself in deep, bitter grief because she had recently lost her husband, her two sons, her home, her future security, and her hope for the rest of her earthly life. If we could walk alongside Naomi on that blistering road, I wonder if she would barely lift her head to reveal her face, mud-stained from the mixture of wet tears and dry dust. Eyes dim, sunken, and over-shadowed with bruised sorrow, somewhere along the way, Naomi said, perhaps whispered that her daughters-in-law needed to move on without her. “The hand of the LORD has gone forth against me” (Ruth 1:13).

Her soul weighed down by loss and grief, Naomi had no clue about her future, about the coming relationship of Boaz and Ruth, about the forming ancestry link to the Davidic line and the birth of Christ. She didn’t know anything that the text speaks of because she lived in the midst of it. Her soul wrestled with bitterness, frustration, resentment, loss, fear, and worry. Naomi struggled to find hope because, from her perspective, hope seemed lost. Naomi’s heart wasn’t hardened against God; it was crushed against the circumstances she couldn’t change or fix. As the story ends, however, we find Naomi’s hope restored, her family rescued, and the birth of a son, building a link in the lineage to the birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Ever felt what Naomi felt in those dark days? Ever felt as though the faithful Father who was supposed to carry you through the darkness had dumped you into a pit and taken off? Ever had fear wrap its clenching jaws around your heart, when you didn’t know how the bills would be paid or what the test would reveal or how you would make it through the day? These are all soul-related issues. Soul work was going on in Naomi thousands of years ago, just as soul work is going on in you today. From Naomi, we can learn to hold on to our faith in the face of grief and despair.

Skip over a few pages to First Samuel, chapter one. Right out of the gate we meet up with three individuals: Hannah, her husband, Elkanah, and a woman named Peninnah. Hannah was married to Elkanah, and Elkanah cherished Hannah. Hannah’s soul grieved because she could not bear children. In the ancient world, many things were viewed differently than in today’s culture. Being unable to have children was the ultimate humiliation for a married woman because childbirth was considered a sign of God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 7:13-14). Any wife who could not bear many children, to pass on the family name, was a societal outcast. If a man’s wife was unable to have children, then that man could marry another woman (Genesis 16:1-3; 30:3-4, 9-10). The ancient practice of polygamy, though not celebrated, was allowed in specific cases such as this. As a result, Peninnah became the wife who bore Elkanah’s children. And, Peninnah found pleasure in parading her pregnancies in front of Hannah. The text says she “thundered” against Hannah;1 she purposed to provoke, to antagonize, to delight in Hannah’s barren condition (1 Samuel 1:6-7). The result? Hannah’s soul was shredded into a million pieces as the babies and the purposed antagonistic assaults kept coming from Peninnah.

Year after year the Lord gave children to Peninnah, and scorn for Hannah continued. Then, at a family celebration which occurred three times a year, Hannah lost it. The loud laughter and joyous singing of families in celebration bombarded Hannah’s broken heart like thunderous echoes clanging in the caverns of her empty soul. The text says, “In bitterness of soul Hannah wept,” that she was “pouring out [her] soul to the LORD” telling Eli the priest (1 Samuel 1:10, 15 NIV). Three times she begged God: “look!” “remember me!” and do “not forget [me]!” This harassed, young, and perhaps frail woman bowed low before the Lord, her tears saturating the dusty ground leaving muddy puddles of wet pain, her face coated with dirt, and her heart spilling out grief. There was not a thing Hannah could do to change her circumstances, but she kept asking God for help. The sovereign God did His transforming work in Hannah’s soul through the pain. What is God transforming in your soul? If your pain is anything like Hannah’s, you can learn to hope in the face of hopelessness.

And we may also remember the anguished soul of Jesus in the garden.

They came to an area called Gethsemane. Jesus told his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him. He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony. He told them, “I feel bad enough right now to die. Stay here and keep vigil with me.” Going a little ahead, he fell to the ground and prayed for a way out: “Papa, Father, you can—can’t you?—get me out of this. Take this cup away from me. But please, not what I want—what do you want?” (Mark 14:32-36 MSG)

Jesus, anguished in body and soul, pleaded for His own Father to change the path ahead. But He submitted to the goodness of God’s will and freely went to the cross. Christ offers you and me eternal life, but ONLY through the cross. Soul work is painful; often there are many deaths along the way: death to our self-will, to our pride, to our self-protection, to our own pleasure, to our self-pursuing ways that seek relief rather than eternal reformation. This is what we learn from Christ: death to our will and submission to God’s.

My Soul Work

Soul work is about coming to terms with life. It is the process of surrendering our self-will and placing it under the governance of Jesus Christ. Intense pain accompanies these dark valleys, causing many to doubt God’s presence and faithfulness. The truth is, tremendous pain was present in my life not because God was out to lunch or clueless or mean or harsh or cruel, but because the circumstances He allowed crushed or changed or took away what I thought was best or wanted or would have allowed. In June 2006, with my son’s additional diagnoses, the work and support he needed went beyond my capacity to fulfill. I couldn’t see God’s good hand in it, and it felt like the Lord was cruel. Ever felt that way before? God never promised I would like what He allowed, but He did promise that if I trusted and obeyed, He would sustain and strengthen me. His work in my soul built endurance, strength, confidence, a peace beyond my understanding, and a hope that lasts forever.

My Encouragement to You

I’ve discovered three vital points on which it’s helpful to focus when agonizing soul work is in process. They’re listed in a memorable ABC pattern. You may want to repeat them as a prayer to the Lord all through the day. May you find hope in Him.

A : Lord, I accept what You allow. I accept these circumstances, believing that You are at work. I accept what has happened as part of Your perfect plan. And I accept Your will, surrendering my will to Yours.

B: Lord, I believe You are good and faithful and true. I believe these circumstances are a part of Your work in my life. I believe You will comfort and guide me through this. I surrender my will to You, believing this to be true.

C: Lord, I choose today to have my thoughts transformed by the truths in Your Word. I choose today to meditate on Your Word. I choose to focus on what is right and true about You and about me. I choose to release what I desired, and I choose to follow where You are leading.

  1. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006), 947.
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Colleen Swindoll Thompson holds a bachelor of arts degree in Communication from Trinity International University as well as minors in psychology and education. Colleen serves as the director of Reframing Ministries at Insight for Living Ministries. From the personal challenges of raising a child with disabilities (her son Jonathan), Colleen offers help, hope, and a good dose of humour through speaking, writing, and counselling those affected by disability. Colleen and her husband, Toban, have five children and reside in Frisco, Texas.