The stories we engage in novels, memoirs, films, and the stories of our lives all share common elements. Some of those elements are: a hero, a villain, a guide, a problem that needs to be solved, a solution, and a transformed hero. By the end of the story, the hero is not who he was when the words “once upon a time” were first uttered.

When Christians talk about how our stories are wrapped up in God’s larger story, what usually comes to mind, and what most people are pointing out, is how our stories are caught up in God’s ultimate story of Creation, Fall, Rescue, Redemption, and Restoration. And we usually focus on the bookends of our stories with the transforming solution thrown in for interest and context. We focus on who we used to be without the gospel, how God saved us through Jesus’s life, work, death, and resurrection, and who we will be in heaven. There isn’t much talk about the middle of our stories unless they contain additional elements of transformation and resurrection—recovering from addiction or surviving stage four cancer or healing a marriage that was on the brink of disaster. Few people talk about the middle of our stories when transformation and resurrection are absent and leave empty spaces we hate to acknowledge.

In her book, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace when Suffering Lingers, therapist and author K.J. Ramsey writes about the middle places most of us want to ignore or deny or gloss over. She invites us into the uncomfortable cracks between the elements of our stories and shows us how God meets us, holds us, and offers us grace when our stories are full of subplots of suffering, chronic illness, and brokenness that last and linger. Ramsey is a witness who proclaims what she has seen and experienced chronic illness and other devastating experiences so those of us who are listening can know we aren’t alone.

When describing God’s presence in our pain and how avoiding our emotions and clinging to selective truths from Scripture won’t heal us, Ramsey quotes Cistercian monk Thomas Merton:

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most.

Ramsey adds, “God continuously invites us to know his presence in our pain, but we often miss his invitation because we are too busy dismissing his messengers. When we paint over pain with insistence on truth, we are discarding the substance of our greatest comfort.” When we respond to suffering with exhortations to ourselves and others to dismiss our feelings and cling to certain truths of Scripture (while ignoring verses that support the importance of our emotions), we miss out on the soul healing that occurs while we continue to suffer from our addictions, cancers, or broken marriages. This soul healing is often full of mystery and tends to occur in the darkness when we can’t clearly see what God is up to.

Ramsey points out that Jesus said we would suffer, but he also said we can expect peace while we suffer. Ramsey writes this about Jesus’s forewarning:

When we step courageously into the reality he named, we show the rest of the church and the watching world that God has not forgotten the weak, the poor, the odd, or the needy. When we let suffering be seen as part of our stories, we remind others that suffering is a valuable, sacred part of following Jesus Christ.

Ramsey also writes about noticing God’s presence and receiving God’s grace and love. When we wish our suffering would turn into something more comfortable for everyone around us, we encounter God’s grace. We come face to face with our God who draws us close in the middle of our stories that have no guarantees. When we inhabit these places, Ramsey says this is what will happen:

You’ll see the surprising truth that the parts of our stories we most fear—and even most hate—are the places we can most be enfolded into God’s lasting story of love. We’ll find that the body of Christ holds the grace we need when suffering lingers—grace embodied in the life of Jesus, who chose to absorb all the pain we cannot handle, and his abiding presence in us by his Spirit and with us through his people, imperfect though they may be.

Grace exists in the spaces between the more acceptable elements of our narratives that don’t conform to the pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps themes most Americans (we) prefer.

While we are renaming and disguising our suffering so it will be more palatable, we can become numb to reality. Ramsey says, “We remain allergic to our actual lives, addicted to maintaining an illusion of control, desperate to whip our bodies and stories into submission to the story of self-sufficiency and the glory we think it affords.”

It’s hard for us to be honest about our tendencies to dismiss and ignore long-term suffering. It’s hard for us to admit we’re turning our heads away from the truth. But if God shows us our tendencies to dismiss and ignore and helps us embrace our true storylines, we can be transformed into people who experience greater intimacy with the Triune Lord and trust in God’s goodness in the middle of what seems like an absence of goodness. Ramsey writes:

“In suffering’s clouded place of mystery and worship, we are changed. In the place of mystery, pain becomes a passage. Our suffering is the dying of an old world and the emergence of a new one. Out of chaos and cloud, God forms the stunning shape of our new hope and new world, our union with him.”

I’ve flipped through This Too Shall Last several times to try to find holes that prove Ramsey missed something. I searched and re-read so I could point out what else I think she should’ve covered. Did she write about how lonely suffering can be? Yes. Did she write about hope? Yes. Did she write about what it looks like to suffer in community? Yes. Did she include science and research? Yes. Did she write about others’ stories of suffering and not just her own? Yes. Did she talk about how sin fits into all of this? Yes. Did she talk about repentance? Yes. Does she have a robust theology of grace instead of a lukewarm semblance of something that might be grace if you tilt your head a tad to the right? Yes.

You get the picture. She didn’t leave anything out. Or, if she left something out, I’m unable to put my finger on it. This Too Shall Last is a comprehensive exploration of what we experience in the middle of stories of suffering that we wish we didn’t have to endure. She offers us this reminder: “You don’t need another before and after story; you need grace for the middle of your story.” Ramsey shows us who we are, who God is, and how God catches us—and continues to hold us—when we fall in between the cracks.