Suffering 101, #3

Pessimists think every new day proves them right.  Days ago I spoke with a young man who hates his job so much that he feels ill when he arrives for work.  People in our congregation can’t find jobs.  There have been several bad traffic accidents in the community recently.  My brother-in-law has leukemia.  Parents have a daughter who won’t talk to them.  Perpetrators like Sandusky and Geyer prey on children.  As James MacDonald insists, you are either suffering, just come out of suffering, or about to suffer.

Since Adam and Eve remodeled their perfect Garden of Eden into a little house of horrors, nothing has been the same.  Yes, from sunsets to super bowls, from lovers to children and good health, life still offers much that is smileworthy.  Yet playing between commercials of happiness is a relentless daytime and nighttime lineup of dramas that stalk the planet: wars, illness, grief, drug addictions, tragedies, birth defects, poverty, broken marriages, natural disasters that kill, broken friendships, loneliness, etc.  To which different people react differently.  In previous posts we’ve discussed two ways suffering people react to their misery: throw in the towel in resignation, or get angry.

Then there are those who get depressed, who descend into a funk of despair.  I’m not talking about clinical depression which neither sufferer nor doctor can pin on circumstances, but an emotional and visceral reaction to life not going as planned.

Depression afflicts 15 million Americans over the age of 18 but that sterile stat fails to encompass the number of people who get “down” when their worlds are coming apart: discouraged, blue, see the glass half empty, doubt that things will ever get better, obsess, worry, withdraw.  It affects job, relationships, even physical health.

Some of these people are your brothers and sisters: blood-bought, justified, heaven-bound saints.  They won’t admit it even to those closest, but some are unduly eager for heaven’s future because of the escape it promises from this mean old life.  Christians, for whom life’s so bleak that prayer is hard or seemingly impossible.  Times when God’s promises ring hollow.

OK, some of these people are…, us.  I have this bent, and so do some of you.  We’re the type who are quick to catch the elevator to the ground floor when all is not well.  And anyone’s who’s been at the bottom has heard all the remedial cliches from well-meaning people:

  • Remember, there’s always someone else who has it worse than you do
  • Cheer up, it could be worse!  (that person gets annoying!)
  • Things will get better one of these days
  • God has something to teach you
  • There must be sin in your life
  • If you were really in God’s will, none of this would be happening
  • Just pray and claim God’s promises

Of course there’s some truth sunning itself in most of these statements.  Among some grievous errors.  And omissions.  Errors like the miscalculations of Job’s friends: “If you’re suffering you’ve sinned.”  Of course, every sufferer has sinned.  Isn’t that what Jesus died for?  And if it’s a truism that suffering follows sin, how about all the times when we sin but nothing bad happens as a result?

And what if tomorrow things actually get worse?  Pastors cringe when they hear suffering people say they’re banking on tomorrow getting better (we’ll delve into this reaction more in a future post) knowing there’s a good chance things will worsen.  Not just get worse before it gets better, but often it just gets worse and worse and worse.  The sick person dies.  The husband leaves.  Financial problems lead to bankruptcy; the addict goes to prison.

The most significant thing about such cliches though, is the great omission; something’s missing.  It’s the same thing that’s often missing when we’re despairing: a hope resting in Jesus.  Yes, the gospel is heaven’s hope for the dying, but it’s also today’s hope for the living.  A hope neither necessarily resigned to suffering, nor dependent upon an end to suffering for good cheer.  Put another way, because of a believer’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ, the summum bonum (highest good) is no longer things “going my way”.  In Christ we can appeal to the great Circumstance Changer, but we can also find contentment if in God’s sovereign plan life does not improve.  All because of Jesus.

When He explained in John 10:10 that He had come to give abundant life to followers, Jesus did not mean that He had come to make them rich, purge them of all sickness, guarantee them great romances, provide exotic vacations, or give them a boss who is always nice to Christians.  He did not mean puppies would never die, that the transmission would never go out, that friends would never turn on them, or that wives would always be faithful.

What He meant was that we can expect the Good Shepherd to have our best interests at heart as He fashions what comes our way.  Unlike the hired help who’s just there for the paycheck and has  little interest in the sheep, the sheep belong to the Good Shepherd.  He’s going to take care of them.  Lovingly.  Even in sorrow and disappointment.  When that doesn’t appear to be the case, God reminds us how limited is our understanding.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your waysand my thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Our disappointments are legitimate ones.  Who wants to lose a job, health, a husband, a child, even freedom?  Losses have real world consequences.  But we can’t both stare down at them and look up to God; it’s one or the other.  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,my salvation and my God.  (Psalm 43:5)  When God means most to us, a turn for the worse has no power to kidnap our joy.

Like a healing stream, a good long look at the cross washes the inescapable truth over me that no matter how badly things go, nothing begins to approach the magnitude of my sorry condition before an innocent Savior gladly paid for me in blood.  I was an enemy of God, a child of the darkness, under God’s wrath, lost and without hope for this life or the next.  Jesus changed all that.  His work not only changes how I look at things, it changes…, things.  The world or things in it that I cherish may be slipping through my fingers, but I will never, never, never lose my soul–or a place at my Father’s table.  I will never ever be abandoned or neglected.  I won’t even have my sin thrown in my face.  Ever.  Jesus has taken it all upon his pristine shoulders.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail  and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stall, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  (Habakkuk 3:17-18)