“Send your kids to Grace and we’ll teach them to suffer” doesn’t seem like a winning tagline. In a way, though, it’s an idea that’s both a true and beautiful consequence of living and growing together in this redemptive community of Jesus- followers.
Over the past week, I have had the privilege of both observing and being invited into the mourning of several of those close to me and to our community. I have watched and grieved with them as they lost loved ones, and as they relived losses by commemorating the anniversaries of their seasons of grief. Although I am no stranger to suffering in my own life, and while being invited into the grieving of others means sharing a small piece of their suffering, I have learned infinitely more than I could ever teach from the simple, humble lives of these precious saints whose boots I am unworthy to clean. As they have generously shared their lives with me, I have learned that suffering is a fierce and dreaded teacher, but through Christ the most beautiful and perhaps most necessary one.
“Through Christ” is an essential caveat, one that requires special mention. Deep suffering is devastating; there are no two ways around it. It rips one’s soul, cleaves one’s heart, and sets one’s mind on fire. Christ’s admonition to “take up one’s cross and follow me” is no glib or half-hearted calling. If there were no transcendent meaning, no higher and better future for which our present suffering is a deposit, affliction would be irredeemable. As my pastor says, Jesus is all the hope we have, and He is all the hope we need. In Him, suffering is the only way to pierce through our self-seeking, deluded attempts to numb ourselves with too much of what is good to give us what is truly great- the only things we’ll really need in the New Jerusalem, after all.
When I think of people who I admire, my heroes in the faith, they are all close friends of suffering. David Brooks, in The Road to Character, says that “recovering from suffering is not like recovering from disease. Many people don’t come out healed. They come out different.” My heroes have a depth in their lives that I long for, a spiritual grounding that has been tested by the worst this life has to offer, and been found true. Their current realities have cut through the routine superficiality of life, revealed all of that to be what it truly is, and unearthed those things that were really important: like painfully breaking through a wall in your heart with a pickaxe and shovel to realize that there’s a treasure chamber behind it. They realize that there are fewer things in life that are really essential than they once thought, and that there is way more to them than they once believed.
My heroes and teachers have shown me that all of this control and independence I think I have is a complete illusion, and, contrary to filling me with fear, it instead provides a peace and weighty comfort greater than I could ever otherwise know. A heart that has been to the place where it can truly, deeply, profoundly utter Job’s words: “though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” is truly free.
My heroes are the most grateful people I know. Their suffering has burned away their entitlement, for the most part. It’s easy to think that we deserve good things when we have so much. But, when they are taken away, when we lose them forever, our self-righteousness and sense of privilege is stripped away with them. Having nothing is a brilliant teacher that everything we’re given is a precious gift to be treasured and appreciated, never hoarded or squandered. Gratefulness, leading to holiness, is the result.
My heroes have used their suffering. They haven’t retreated from others who are hurting to avoid reliving the pain, to keep from enduring it all over again. Instead, they enter into the suffering of others, opening themselves up, to derive meaning from tragedy. We don’t know nearly as much about mental illness and depression in this community as we ought, but we are so much more aware of it, and it has become so much more destigmatized, because some of my suffering friends decided to use their suffering to create new understandings. Others have comforted those who are sick, who have lost others like them, providing for their physical and emotional needs in ways that the rest of us cannot, try as we may. Empathy and desire to pour into the lives of others are the eventual fruits of Christ-filled suffering, and it is one of the most wondrous paradoxes of life.
All I have to offer my heroes are my prayers, my tears, and my love. Although they never would have chosen it themselves, or I for them, they have been God’s Hand to transform my life, the lives of our community, and the lives of our children who have walked with them and learned from them. I pray you know who you are, although the irony is you’re probably too humble to realize or acknowledge it; I love you, and I am immeasurably grateful.