Each personal defense system was built to avoid or alleviate suffering inflicted by our family and then inflicted by the world, as soon as we stepped into it. When I called my contractor the other day, his kids were sheltering in place in the background and beating one another up. He said, “They hit each other one minute and love on each other the next until you can’t tell the difference.” One of them had just come up to say, even though dad was on the phone, “But Dad, he hit me!” We feel powerless to defend ourselves against our suffering but spend most of our time trying to access enough power to stop it and get through to love. Something or someone is always supposed to be fixing the injustices and afflictions of the world so we can get loved.
Or so we think. My friend’s dad got drunk every week for who knows why. It would seem it was because he felt bad about his life and had found a way to get relief. But his sons experienced his relief as terror, since he often came home angry. Their lives were uncertain when the thing they needed to feel most was certainty. Now that they are older, they struggle with anxiety, since everything feels uncertain and they feel left alone to get it under control.
Or so they think. The pandemic threatens to push them over the edge. As they are hypervigilant to avoid the disease, feelings from their deep memories are triggered. They’re trying to keep off or clean off the latest manifestation of the dis-ease they have faced their whole lives!
How do I feel OK with suffering?
Now that these friends are Christians, it seems even more evident that God should be taking care of them and helping them to avoid suffering. God should be that something or someone who is supposed to be fixing the injustice of the world. The logic seems clear, “If God loves me, shouldn’t he be a better father and spare me this pain?” Sounds good to me.
But Jesus plainly says: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I don’t think he meant to speak only to his first disciples when he said that, either. He meant to speak to you and me, too.
People want peace in the middle of their mess and they can’t get it. One of the reasons is because they have always been certain that their brother should stop hitting them! (And he should!) But he probably won’t. And the 1% probably won’t stop trying to make the economic depression we are headed into be anything less than as profitable as possible for them, either! There will be trouble. And there you go. Do you say, “But I don’t like trouble; trouble triggers my deepest fears; is Jesus going to save me or not?”
The Greek word thlipsin is translated a number of synonymous ways in John 16:33: trouble, tribulation, trials and sorrows, suffering, oppression, distress, and affliction. We can’t go one day without feeling these things. I called to cancel Direct TV – it was trouble; I forgot my mask when I went out; the contractors broke a ceiling fixture in the hall; the microwave fell off the wall and broke the stove; I hurt my back – and that was just one day! Then there is the perennial stuff: my friend was going to call and they forgot, my mother won’t speak to me, my father lost his memory – and I lost my job when they made us all shelter in place and then the unemployment compensation system crashed.
“Be of good cheer,” Jesus says, “be en-couraged, be filled with courage.” Other translations say, “Take heart, cheer up, be brave, have confidence,” because, Jesus says, “I have overcome the world.” Well, that is the problem! People believe Jesus when he says that but they don’t always feel it.
There are a lot of reasons we don’t get the peace
Most of the reasons we don’t get the peace Jesus promises have to do with how we see things. Jesus makes statements like the famous line above to his disciples because they fundamentally have to change their view of the world.
- We have to admit the world is a problem every day.
- We have to accept the world, including myself, is not a problem I am condemned to fix (or not) every day.
- We must come to feel mysterious, beautiful and loving forces beyond our control and even understanding are at work on our behalf. We we can trust Jesus to bring things to right.
How you see yourself, others and God starts out as part of the problem. But Jesus says, “Cheer up! You are going to overcome with me!”
Changing my point of view is all there is to getting peace? No. But if the “eyes of your heart are dark, how great the darkness!” If we follow around the anxieties of our unen-couraged selves and overlay them with habits of control or aggression or despair, we are going to prove impervious to peace. Saying it is God’s fault my brother hit me, or making sure my Dad knows it is not my fault, or just accepting being hit won’t end up in peace. We have to live the new life that comes with overcoming the old:
- Don’t rely on the passing away world,
- Bring what you have to the dying world and let your truth and love bear whatever fruit in bears
- Don’t just see, but trust the goodness of God Jesus has won for you.
Part of the big trouble we will always have in the world is not getting moved along by the trouble — getting used to trouble instead of suffering it. We’ve got to respond to Jesus when he is teaching us, not just know about his teaching. We need to overcome with him. In his memoir Albert Schweitzer recounted hiring doctors for his hospital in the jungle of Gabon. He said he never hired anyone who thought he was doing something grand and heroic. He knew the only doctors who would last were those who thought what they were doing was as ordinary and necessary as doing the dishes: “There are no heroes of action — only heroes of renunciation and suffering.” He heard what Jesus was saying. The Lord’s own suffering overcomes the world, not just his resistance to it and surely not his resentment of it.
We need to train for peace
We may not suffer with Jesus because we can smell hardship a mile away. But to get peace we will need to train ourselves to change our views and our habits to match the way to peace that leads through suffering. Sticking with Jesus in peace is not a spontaneous flowering of good character or the fruit of excellence, it is doing what we are trained to do. It manifests not in those whose training spared them hardship but in those whose training embraced hardship and taught them to overcome it. Gwen and I have been doing some reminiscing this week as our house is sold and our stuff is moved. The house itself taught us to overcome, since it was a constant problem to master. But, even more, it represents an era in which we both took on the suffering and trained to be our true selves. Gwen’s quest is represented by her education for psychotherapy and my quest is represented in spearheading the planting of Circle of Hope. Facing the troubles has been a sweet suffering all along the way, and it has been accompanied by an ever-deeper peace.
Some people are happy this moment in history, marked by coronavirus, may launch a change in the way we raise and train all our young, at all ages. It may exorcise the tide of “safetyism,” which has gone overboard. The grandiose people of the empire float on their high tide thinking they can control their destiny and prevent anything that can go wrong. They are either in denial and a menace to others, or deep in guilt and a menace to themselves. The virus is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.
That’s a big part of what Jesus was saying when he said, “Be of good cheer!” You are OK whether there is trouble or not! On the one hand, you have strength beyond yourself to create goodness out of rubble. Even more, on the other hand, Jesus is a living promise that your suffering is not useless, even if it is just reminding you that you need to be saved. Like the Lord’s suffering resulted in new life wherever he walked and resurrection after he died, so will ours.
That piece of logic might not help you feel peace even if it works wonders for me. One of my friends texted me: “If I can learn to trust an uncertain promise from the Lord I might just be saved.” I replied, “Yes. You may come to know another certainty that is free of the former manacles. You’re on the way.” At this point in my life, I don’t think it would be great if Jesus prevented all my suffering. I don’t blame God for the uncertainty of every day. Even at my age, I am looking forward to the unpredictability of what will happen next in love. I will have trouble, but it is trouble that is being redeemed, and then the fullness of overcoming!