Sunday, November 21, 2010

Musings on Suffering and Change

One of the things I was most struck by in my course about how people change was the discussion of suffering. Tripp and Lane based this chapter around James 1, so it really shouldn’t have hit me the way it did because I’ve loved this passage since I memorized it as a high-schooler, and some of my very favorite professors in college were those that taught classes on the theology of suffering and were deeply affected by suffering that has resulted in the death and in some cases suicides of family members.

But still… it hit home for me, both for myself and because I am walking with a dear friend through dark days within her marriage.

God never promises that his children would escape a fallen world. In his wisdom, he has chosen for us to live in the middle of its brokenness…. James wants to protect his congregation from the painful shock of surprise. He wants them to live with a healthy biblical realism. … we live in a world where trials are a normal part of life. They are not an exception to the order of things; they are the rule.

Do you expect an ordered, predictable calm where your plans are unobstructed? Do you assume that people will agree with you and affirm your choices? Do you believe you can plan your way out of stress and avoid situations where you feel overwhelmed. Our experience becomes more difficult when we carry unbiblical, and therefore unrealistic, expectations into them. …
 The truth is that I think I often answer this question as a "yes". I am surprised when I find myself suffering. I seem to have bought into the mentality that if I just do the right thing and believe the right thing, I will avoid pain and tough times. There is both pride and naivete in my answer. I have spent a lot of time musing on the purpose of suffering in my life, and what the real meaning of James' statement is, "consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds..."

A second thing struck me. The authors muse on James' treatment of trials coming from two areas - difficulty or blessing. We don't usually think of good things as being trials, but if our response to them is wrong, they become trials and temptations in our life, just as a positive response to trials can actually make them a blessing.

The key is not the situation, but the response.
Do we really believe what James is saying about trials and how we respond to them? For example, someone might say, “Jim makes me so angry!” In that statement, Jim is responsible for the anger that person is expressing…. Here is the humbling truth: Trials do not cause us to be what we have not been; rather, they reveal what we have been all along. The harvest the trial produces is the roots already in our hearts.
Since walking through this time with my friend makes it all too easy to apply things to her and forget to apply them to my own life, I sat down and thought about moving to Dallas and how hard that was for me. I expected it to be difficult to say goodbye to Chicago, but I figured I'd be able to settle down okay. The loneliness and long transition really took me off guard, and I had a really hard first year. Initially that was an outward, morally neutral trial. It is okay to struggle with loneliness, okay to be sad when things are hard. There were real reasons why it was tough to adjust to Dallas (no car to allow me to get involved in things, no church home for a while, new culture).

On the other hand, I then had the choice of how to respond to the suffering I was going through. I don't think it would have been good to stuff the emotions, to pretend I was okay, to attempt to avoid all tough emotions. However, looked back I can see that I often chose to isolate and pull away from people instead of open myself up. I felt sorry for myself and compared "back then" to my present in a way that became unhealthy at times.

The initial suffering was neutral. Eventually how I was doing was my own fault, though, because I was choosing to respond in a way I shouldn't have.

Don't think I'm being too self-critical here, real analysis is good and I'm definitely one to excuse my own flaws rather than be too hard on myself most of the time.

It also made me think ahead to this upcoming year with a new baby. I know new babies are an incredible gift and I really am so excited, but it is tempered by the awareness that the first year as a mother has been incredibly difficult for a number of my friends. How will I respond? Especially considering I will be attempting to balance work and new-motherhood, and Isaac will attempt to balance work, school, and taking care of the baby while I work. We'll likely be exhausted, as well as financially stretched and adjusting to the change of life and the constant needs of a baby.

It could be that we're the lucky ones who find the newborn stage easy. That'd be nice. But if this year is painful for us, how will we respond? How will I respond? It's OKAY to find it hard. But how I respond to the difficulty is my responsibility. Do I feel sorry for myself, wallow in self-pity, complain, allow myself to sink into resentment or be carried away by hopelessness?

That's just something I'm thinking about and wanting to be prepared for. Since the presence of suffering in our lives is not a surprise, it's good if I'm prepared for it and am ready to face it.


Melissa said...

i really appreciated this post since i have been thinking a lot lately about my own reactions to suffering in my life. thank you for sharing! i have the tendency to wallow and to be carried away by hopelessness myself, so i can definitely relate.

Charlotte said...

Looking back on what I've been through since I've had my child (and "what I've been through" is not over), I'd say the best advice is to stay in a constant state of prayer with everything and anything you are doing, no matter how small/big/challenging/unchallenging. I wish I had and it's something that's always on my mind as I continually fall short.