By Kim Nemchick
This year has been awful for my family. So bad that lately I joke that we need a warning sign on our front door that says, “ Beware all ye who enter here may be cursed!” I feel punished, exhausted, bruised and battered. Like life has served us up a steaming helping of suffering, with suffering for dessert. For the past 2 months, one of our family members has had at least one weekly medical emergency and needed to be rushed to the ER. (We know the ambulance drivers by name.) One of my other girls has three syndromes. Three! As if one major illness is not enough, right? I ended up on crutches for severe arthritis in my hip and knee. At the same time, the company I have helped to run for the past 6 years is closing, and since I am now on disability, I can’t help them with the exit plans. Our car died, then our oven died, and now I find myself clenched up, waiting expectantly to hear someone say the hot water heater isn’t working. Oh, and our neighbor plays the drums (very badly) all. day. long.
As a follower of Jesus, I have heard both the message of glorious abundance that Christians are supposed to be rewarded with for “walking the walk”, and in contrast, the message of suffering for the Cross, in which we are to consider ourselves blessed to suffer and rely on Jesus. So, am I not being blessed because I am making a mess of my Christian walk, or am I super abundantly blessed as evidenced by all of my suffering? And is our hope in the abundance, or is it in our learning to rely on Jesus? Is it because we don’t know what is coming down the pike that we can have hope? The Bible says hope is a by-product of suffering, Romans 5:2-7.
How could hope be produced by suffering when the two things seem so contrary? Perhaps because when we suffer, there is created for us a point of reference, a place of such pain that we BEGIN TO recognize the joys we have previously failed to notice. Failed to really savor. These moments can bring life into such clear focus for us. When everything is going well, things are going according to plan, are there fewer moments of reflection during which we say, “that moment brought me so much joy” ? Perhaps instead we just keep on chugging somewhat numbly through our days. When we suffer, our life is often brought to a sudden unexpected halt. We pause to grieve, to mourn our losses, to finally notice what we had failed to fully observe or fully experience before, that which had been mundane has now become treasured.
So then, we mark that point of reference in our pain, pushing aside what we originally thought would bring us fulfillment to stand in the stark contrast of our suffering and our joy. The joy is nothing without the suffering. And that sounds awful. The truth is that we need the suffering to help us grow our thick skins of perseverance. Because there always is a next time for suffering. Our world is failing on so many levels, that as a society, we have to create false constructs of fulfillment or happiness with the direct purpose of evading the suffering, when what we probably really need are the callouses our last bout of suffering gave us. We need to be hurt and healed to be strong enough to survive the next round of suffering. Because, without a doubt, it is coming.
This all sounds so dark. Here is the truth: all around us, all the time, things are always going wrong. God could take it all away in an instant, but what do we gain by that except pain relief? And if this life is a journey, He is outfitting us with equipment to survive it. He is offering to show us how to not only endure the pain, but to grow more powerful from the experience, and then to use the experience to provide perspective on our life purpose. Are we here to merely pass through life? To march ourselves through a series of steps to achieve happiness while dodging around painful circumstances to finally arrive in Heaven?
What if God is showing us how to survive in the wilderness, to not only build our own muscles but to help others to grow theirs? Muscle can only be built by breaking down tissue and allowing the tissue to regrow, stronger. And the most important muscle? The human heart. And this body building is not intended for just our own survival. The more muscle that is built, the more we can carry, and more importantly , the more we can help lift others. So, perhaps we are being broken down in order to be rebuilt in a more powerful, lasting form. And the breaking down freaking hurts. Is this what the Bible calls perseverance?
This is not to say that God is the author of our pain. We just happen to be born in to a fallen world, full of sickness and death, HIV and ISIS. God doesn’t need to add to that, we have taken care of that all on our own. He has the foresight to know what is coming and has already figured out how to use these circumstances to offer us the best possible growth and return for our pain. It is however, up to us to accept or reject the offer.
According to the Bible, we can move from perseverance to character building along the way. When does this happen? Perhaps when we realize that while we have processed the current pain, we understand there will be more coming, and not just for us, for our children, for our friends and for everyone. What does the character in us do as a response? Maybe it is the action of the muscle that has been built, to move us to empathize with others, to stop our daily routine to notice the hurt in others and take action. To know we are not alone in our suffering, and that we can be someone for others, in theirs. To not simply walk by, self absorbed. To choose to not fall into our usual patterns of plodding along, face lowered into our phone once again, but to recognize the change within us and to make choices accordingly.
Then from character springs hope. Hope is an intangible, almost indescribable state of being. It is the place in between doubt and surety. You can’t see where you are going but you have hope that you will get there. Not seeing clearly the path or where it leads. But believing it will take you further on to where you desire to go. Hope is the spark to the flame of faith. It is the first breath when waking from suffering. You get up and get dressed for the day because you have hope that the new day will in fact be new. Hope is the belief in the outcome that enables us to take the first steps. Hope gets us back in the saddle, so to speak. Hope puts the backpack back on us and pushes us to get back on the trail. It moves us, it is our reminder that in a world where there is pain, there is also incredible beauty and joy. A reminder that the joy has always been there, it exists in the midst of the mess, it remains despite the bitterness of suffering. Joy cannot be diminished or destroyed because it exists symbiotically with the despair. Would we truly see and treasure the joy if we have no perspective?
This perspective is like wearing 3D glasses. The despair is the red lens and the joy is the blue. Without both lenses you do not have the ability to see the movie of your life, clearly, in its entirety. Denying joy or despair is like removing a lens and trying to watch the movie and pretend you are not missing a vital element.
Now that we have our perspective glasses on and some muscle built, we are equipped for the journey ahead, both to survive it and better yet, to delight in it. Hope is the expectation, the belief in the unseen, the promise of life that gets us breathing again in the midst of suffering. Hope is the recognition of the ability to experience great joy in the midst of suffering, once we have the equipment to detect it.
While my family suffers, we also rejoice. We cherish moments. We dance in the kitchen (crutches and all) We make time to be with one another, because life goes by so quickly. We joke about our brokenness. We get really silly at the dinner table, We see, really see, the movie of our life. We know there will be more suffering, but we also know and hold tight onto the joy and onto each other. When we see someone suffering, we notice and we truly want to help because we remember.
He suffered as we suffer. He rose again, we rise again.