The end of the school year always puts me in a reflective mood. Much like December, the end of the school year is a time to think back on what went right and wrong. It’s a time to appreciate what went well and is worthy of replicating, and what didn’t go as planned and needs to be scrapped or revised.
The end of the year is also a time to be grateful for the many amazing things God has done at our school throughout the year: state championships, honors, graduations, and other victories. At the same time, however, I mourn friends I’ve lost along the way this year, the illnesses I’ve walked loved ones through, and defeats we’ve endured. All these things, good and bad, lend bittersweetness to life.
This is the way of the Christian life, isn’t it? No matter how often we try to avoid discomfort, manipulate security for ourselves, and attempt to reach a state of peaceful equilibrium, life is full of sadness and pain. In these 15 years I’ve almost completed as your head of school, it seems that for every one of my former students I’ve married, I’ve buried almost the same number. Suffering is an inevitable part of this life, not something we have to look for, but something it’s futile to escape.
It was with all this in mind I read 2 Corinthians 12 the other day. You know the passage: Paul is sharing with the Corinthian church about the famous thorn in his flesh. We don’t know what that “thorn” is: whether temptation, illness, or conflict. That it is a mystery is probably intentional, so that we’ll all identify with our own issues in a way we wouldn’t if Paul had actually identified his struggle. Paul prays multiple times that God would remove this thorn from him. Keep in mind this is the same Paul who routinely heals and drives out demons in God’s name, a man powerful in the Spirit. And yet, God keeps the thorn right where it is, tormenting Paul. In response to Paul’s prayers for relief, God responds, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
In the past, I’ve read that passage and couldn’t help feeling as though Paul was getting a consolation prize from God. Previously I read it as if God was saying, “Well, Paul, I’m not going to give you the best thing, which would be relief from the thorn, but, hey, at least I’m giving you my grace. That’s still pretty good, right?” Living hard and serving as a pastor/headmaster all these years, empathetically assuming other people’s pain in addition to my own, has made me realize something: God’s grace is actually first prize, and my thorn is a gift to drive me deeper into Jesus.
I’m such a distractible guy. Just give me a few good days, and I stop pressing into Jesus. I start resting in my own smarts, competence, and contacts. But, push on me for a few days, put me under some real pressure, and I start crying out to Jesus. I start remembering my ability to live, to breathe, and to thrive rests only in Him. I start clinging to Him, like I was made to do. Then, I find an unexpected, paradoxical gift in the midst of my struggle: inexpressible joy.
Joy tells me that I am Abba’s son, His beloved. My girls called me from college in March and asked me if I wanted to go with them to Salt Lake City and run a half marathon the weekend of April 21st. I didn’t look at my calendar; I didn’t think about the fact I was running about 3 miles a day at the time, in no shape to run a marathon. Instead, I immediately responded “absolutely.” Without hesitation. Because my girls wanted to spend time with me, and I am passionate to spend time with them. Joy is the contentment I have when it finally hits me that my Abba enjoys being with me, having me draw near to Him, even more than I want to be with my girls. That’s incredible joy, and I rarely realize it without being pressed into it by suffering and grief.
Tim Keller has observed that everyone on earth suffers grief. It is an inescapable part of life. The paradox of being a follower of Jesus is that our grief actually activates the joy we have as God’s children, so that we can experience full joy and full grief, simultaneously. Experiencing joy never means pushing grief aside and pretending like it doesn’t exist. God never asks us to be so disingenuous with our pain. Instead, He expects us to feel it fully, and to allow it to cause us to cling more deeply to Him, and to drink from the wellspring of His joy, His presence, His hope.
There will come a day when grief will be a distant memory, when we’ll never mourn again. In the meantime, however, our lives are an inevitable paradox of grief and joy. This is certainly part of what Christ means when He said He came to bring abundant life, in all its glory and sadness. This is the best gift we could ask for, even if we didn’t know we really wanted it.