On Suffering and Joy (A Lesson from the Garden Tomato)

September 24, 2012 | 38 comments

I’ve always known this in theory: Joy, at its core, is linked directly to the core of a person. It isn’t an emotion, nor is it dependent on the surroundings. It is happens on the inside.

I think about this kind of joy when I lower the garden tomatoes into the boiling water.

I stir. Those plump red orbs bob and bounce in boiling water.

I’ve known saints who’ve endured the blistering sufferings of this life, and I’ve seen the agony as they’ve gone through the fire. I’ve sobbed with them as they grieved incalculable losses, faced fears of Everest proportions, received word of hopeless diagnoses. And I have secretly feared that the horrors of life would snuff out their innocent light.

But I’ve witnessed their joy in suffering: It is not slapped-on happy. It is the gentle hand that reaches back around, maybe years later, to find the people  who are just now passing through the waters. And true, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I’ve seen it enough to know that joy can look exactly like this — like an age-spotted, gnarled hand on the shoulder of a 40-year-old woman.

Steam rises from my pot. The water churns the tomatoes for fifteen seconds, but right there in the heat, it might feel like forever. Especially when all you want is out.

If you’re going through hell, Winston Churchill said, keep going.

I spoon out the tomatoes, placing each in an icy bath — part of the blanching process.

I remember, too, the saints who’ve endured the coldest journeys. They’ve never felt the experiential God that others sang about in the sanctuary. Yet I’ve seen this: how they press in behind the Savior anyway, picking up a cross and walking behind their invisible King.

In the heat and the cold, I’ve watched parts of people die. I’ve watched parts of myself die.

That’s not all bad.

I pick up a tomato from the icy bath, and am surprised at how easily layers of once-tough skin peel back. The tomatoes are soft in my hands.

A harvest glistens under the kitchen lights. This is the rawness of the miracle, such beauty to behold here, all this fruit still intact.

I don’t think there’s a “right way” to suffer, to grieve, to endure.

But I’ve seen the sacredness of suffering, how the heartbroken have crawled on their knees through the trenches, and come out, somehow, miraculously with a heart intact, a heart more tender to the sufferings of others.

They know the pain of the fire, the loneliness of bitter-cold, and the vulnerability of this peeling back.

And yes, I’ve seen people recoil. I know people who had too much burned and peeled away. The rest turned hard as stone.

I’ve known a woman who shuddered in the cold, dark night of doubt for years. I used to look at her in the mirror every morning.

But I know this too, because I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. I know that saints are born in the fire of adversity, and in the cold of doubt, and in the peeling of holy refinement.

The saints don’t wear wings and halos, but every morning, they put on denim and T-shirts. They don’t play harps on fluffy clouds, but they sing in my church choir. No one ever gave them a medal of honor, or a gilded certificate, but I can run my finger down the church directory to find their names. Their dates are etched in granite at our church cemetery, across the road from the steeple.

I’ve seen how true saints can wear the mismatched pairing of suffering and joy.

I’ve seen how people can reach the bottom of their souls, to find that even when their lives have been laid bare, their heart is miraculously intact.

And it is a thing of arresting beauty.


“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”

~ Isaiah 43:2


by | September 24, 2012 | 38 comments


  1. ro.ellott

    Oh Jennifer…pure beauty here…yes…the heat and the cold is what softens the outer, hard part of our hearts …joy and suffering…two of our companions to accompany us through this life…to bring us to His beauty. Hope lydia is healing well…happy monday…and this post makes me long for my garden again…and the fresh salsa that came from all the tomatoes…love it:)

    • dukeslee

      Hi Ro!

      Lydia is doing great. She went to school today, so we were pleased about that.

      We’ve still got quite a few green tomatoes on our plants, and I’m hoping I can harvest a few more times before the freeze comes.

  2. Kel Rohlf

    Jennifer- This hit the spot. I love the analogy of hot and cold seasons in life. I felt that doubt even yesterday, as I tried to worship in the sanctuary. I sat through one song about brokenness and healing and then by faith, even though I didn’t feel hope in the moment, but really a lot of doubt and anger, I stood and let the words of “In Christ Alone” fall out of my mouth. I wanted to feel them in my heart, but I just couldn’t yesterday. Joy comes in the morning and I am reminded of the grace of the trials and the coldness of doubt and how together they preserve my faith somehow.

    • dukeslee

      Kel … I hear you. Standing with you, friend, and even when you weren’t “feeling it” you stood up in the sanctuary. Faith is the believe in the unseen, even when everything else tells us that it’s not real. You are living that out. May you know in the deepest parts of your soul today how dearly loved you are.

  3. Brandee Shafer

    “It’s unfortunate and I really wish I wouldn’t have to say this, but I really like human beings who have suffered. They’re kinder.”
    -Emma Thompson

    • dukeslee

      Ooo. Good quote, Brandee.

  4. Linda

    I know the truth of this Jennifer. I live with one who has gone through the fire – still suffers daily with health problems – and has a heart turned toward God. Lives lived in such a way speak gospel to a watching world and encourage those of us who watch.
    Your writing sings song of grace dear one. Praying as you form them into a book.

    • dukeslee

      Oh, Linda. You do know. You really do.

      Thank you, too, for those prayers. You’re a gift to me.

  5. Amanda

    I was really struck by the ice-bath, “cold of doubt.” I have been there. I have seen people there. Such a hard place to be! But I have to say thank you… It’s a great picture of the way God can use suffering. I feel like I understand the mystery a little better.

    • dukeslee

      Me, too, Amanda. That place was the cold place from which I functioned for many years.

      Glad you’re here, Amanda.

  6. Susan

    Beautiful, Jennifer. Yes, the saints move among us, ordinary people living out their faith. It’ll be awesome to get to Heaven, share stories and see the hand of God orchestrating the events of our lives.

    He is AMAZING.

    • dukeslee

      And yes, in that day, we will understand the meaning … and all the “whys” will find their answers.

  7. michelle derusha

    Oh you know I can relate to that bit about cold of doubt (still do, from time to time).

    Lovely prose here, Jennifer – it really sings.

    • dukeslee

      Kindred souls, you and I.

      Thank you for your kind words, Michelle. Means a lot, coming from you, o skilled writer that you are.

  8. Vicky

    My first impression of your post was “wow”, she is really blanching tomatoes. I don’t know anyone who does that anymore. Then when I got to the analogy of suffering I was sucked in. I loved it and what you said is really powerful. Suffering builds our character, Christ’s character within us. Beautiful life lesson.

  9. viviene

    I LOVE that verse from Isaiah!! And we were just talking about “joy in suffering” with my girls last weekend.. =)

  10. Jody Lee Collins

    Jennifer–the encouraging thing here is the fact that God still/always speaks to us in the every day ness of our lives. Blanching tomatoes, pruning roses, watering dry trees… Such a revelation in red. And the heart at the end. God is so clever!

  11. Erica Hale

    I loved this, on so many levels. I have canned so many peaches in the last seven years (and have a big box of tomatoes waiting right now on my counter) and I can just feel how easily that skin just slips off, leaving nothing but the sweetest fruit. And I’ve spent some time bobbing around in simmering water of late, and needed the reminder that yes, God makes good things from the hard times and oh, “the peeling of holy refinement”…..thank you for that!

  12. Connie@raise your eyes

    How I long to meet Isaiah in Heaven and tell him what his words have meant to me over all the years of fire.

    I love this from Valley of Vision “If my life is to be a crucible amid burning heat, so be it, but do Thou sit at the furnace mouth to watch the ore that nothing be lost.”

    • Lisa Auter

      Connie, I am fortunate enough to have a copy of that amazing book; can you tell me which prayer that is? I’d love to bookmark the page. That is a great verse! Blessings to you!

  13. Lisa Auter

    Humbled at how inspirational a tomato can be. No, truly. Humbled at how God shows up in every. single. thing.

  14. Amber

    Thank you for this and for your encouragement on my blog lately. I appreciate your kindness being sprinkled throughout Blogville! This was very timely for me, today, of course. The Holy Spirit speaks through you! 🙂

  15. Candi Dickerson

    Thank you for this post, Jennifer. Your words and the comments here whispered life to me this evening. I needed reminding that my lack of emotional connection with truth songs or scriptures or prayers doesn’t negate their truthfulness. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve “fallen away from God.” My lack of feeling my faith just might mean I’m tired. I needed reminding to stand in the sanctuary and sing truth anyway. Thank you. Truly.

  16. JB Wood

    Wisdom, here, Jennifer. I have had that specific word from God, when in the midst of the question, the suffering: “Just keep going.” Literally, that was the word. That was it. It was somehow comforting, despite the lack of specifics… Just keep going, and that is enough.

  17. Jean Wise

    This is beautiful – I felt like I was standing next to you as you prepared those tomatoes. I have been growing in seeing God in every moment – even the mundane household chores and this illustrates that so perfectly. thanks for the encouragement and wisdom here today

  18. Salina

    Jennifer, what a beautiful post. I saw myself in your words and like you, I also saw that same lady through myself looking out of the mirror.

    I’ve been writing a lot about hope lately, how we are never far from it, and once we realize that, oh how different are lives become.

    Thanks for the blessing this morning.

  19. ~Grace & Peace

    You were able to articulate the feelings of this little boiling tomato right now. It goes so well with what I’m learning in my Philippians class – rejoice, always, no matter the circumstances. Our home is in heaven, this is all temporary.

    Thank you.

  20. Jon

    Thank You!

  21. nancy ruegg

    Thank you for the reminder “true saints can wear the mismatched pairing of suffering and joy.” They may be mismatched, but are stunning when worn together–a gleaming and radiant ensemble that reflects the Light.
    ‘So glad to hear that Lydia went to school today!

  22. Sheila Campbell

    What a beautiful analogy – the thought that blistering heat and bone chilling cold that peel away outer skin simply reveal soft inner fruit.

  23. Amy Sullivan

    Pure poetry and a little cooking lesson too.

  24. Dolly@Soulstops

    yes, God is the Master Chef, when it comes to creating joy out of suffering…thanks for the encouraging words, Jennifer…glad to hear Lydia is back at school…blessings 🙂

  25. Diana Trautwein

    Oh dear Jennifer- you have captured this multi-layered reality so beautifully here in this post. Thank you for this gorgeous analogy, so close to home and so reflective of life as we know it. In times of heat, cold and peeling away – we are never out of God’s sight or loving concern for our well-being. Thanks so much.

  26. David Rupert

    Dropping a perfectly good tomato in the boiling water seems cruel. Until you spoon it out in February

  27. Alece Ronzino

    this was beautiful, jennifer. thank you.



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