As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Who ever imagined Times Square in the Big Apple would empty into a ghost town or the streets of Toronto would clear like smoke? Shuffling behind Asia, we've surrendered our Starbucks ritual, vacations, graduations, and worship gatherings. And in so doing, we've torn from the social fabric of our humanity: community.
What has really upended our life in the West is the power of choice the pandemic has compelled us to forfeit. In our technological prowess and the comforts it secured for us, the loss reveals a people who are culturally not very good at suffering. Many of us aren't competent in it spiritually, either. Our response to adversity causes us to confront our worldview—not necessarily the one we formed from Bible study or seminary. The worldview we practice.
In his recent talk Peace in Times of Uncertainty and Suffering, Timothy Keller points out that the generations throughout the centuries understood the inevitability of suffering. But since World War II, we have lost something of this sober awareness in the trappings of our new high-tech world.
We failed to see that this world of our own making offers its own problems. Our high-speed autonomous travel, case in point, expedited the Coronavirus in its early proliferation. In affording us superpowers over time and distance and the ease of procuring news, communications, and take-out, technology has fed our delusion of strength. Not only have we made advancements at a cost, we find they are just props. They make no dent in the mountain truth that life is fragile.
No amount of genius can keep the storm from brewing in the air we consume. Our title doesn't matter, nor our bank statement. Our alma mater, family pedigree, the trophies on the mantle, even our work ethic provide no protection from the invisible enemy that lurks in the spaces of our existence. We are no safer in the plush seat of Congress than if we slept on the subway. The good, the bad, and the beautiful find themselves leveled. All human. All dust.
I've long admired the fortitude and resilience of the generations who forged lives in times that were leaner, in places that were starker than ours. But I now realize the mettle and grit of people like my immigrant parents stemmed organically from their understanding of the nature of life. They knew that suffering isn't an occasional visitor but our home, sure and intrinsic as the cells that make up our body.
Where life became dire, from the Holocaust and South American crisis to the economic burdens that brought immigrants to American shores, people set upon new lands in the distant hopes of something better. And in their quest, they expected only more hardship. They exchanged one life for another through the currency of pain.
But in the U.S. and parts of the world that look to the Land of the Free for inspiration, even (and perhaps especially) those good at suffering endured it for the whispers of the American Dream, the fantasy that they would one day come to an end of their striving and be able to put their feet up. Progress is, after all, a natural human ambition.
And so here we are, postmodernists who in many ways have redeemed the labors of our forebears and who've taken science and technology to astonishing heights, caught surprised by the mere prospect of suffering.
In his talk, Keller cites Dr. Paul Brand, a pioneering surgeon in the treatment of leprosy who spent half his medical career in India and the other half in the United States. In the U.S., Dr. Brand said, "I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all cost. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it."
At the outset of the present crisis, an assemblage of molecules laid bare our sense of entitlement. The store lines were too long. We had to cancel the birthday party. Hadn't those of us who've enjoyed an education, three meals a day, a roof over our head signed off on the line, exempted ourselves from the human condition? I decline discomfort beyond the common cold and pesky neighbor. Indisputably, the heroes among us have accepted a different deal, serving the needs of the public and the sick at personal risk. But we did expect our rice, beans, and eggs to stay faithfully available on the store shelves. Which brings us—because there's been no problem with the supply chain—to human nature. Our sin nature.
We can speak of our learning and sophistications, but here we are hiding our toilet paper. Running on fear and greed, we—even time-honored Christians—are afraid to trust. I am willing not to hoard, but I can't bank on you. Our crisis has exposed not only how vulnerable we are but also how we understand our existence.
Somehow the ground shifts under our feet when we pursue happiness as our birthright. Those who have faced life-altering illness or tragedy know this. No, we can't always get what we want when we want it. When our four walls narrow, when sickness, loss, death threaten, do we really believe that life owes us nothing? What adds to the hardship is the trouble we have reconciling our physical and emotional losses with God's loving sovereignty. We can shake our fist, crawl into our fear, or trust the Lord as predicaments shave the fat off our life down to its essence.
Adversity reduces us to our core beliefs about our place in the world. If we search, we remember we were the debtors. And our God paid what was due him not with an easy bank check but with his very body, in physical, emotional, spiritual suffering that didn't end with him but redeems our own pain. "He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross" (Col. 2:13-14).
Those who seemed to have experienced the most of God's glory, power, and goodness—in and outside Scripture—lived in distance from what they wanted, for a time or beyond (Heb. 11:13). In that space between what we want and what we get, we get to redefine our values and priorities and always come up with a choice. We can accept the gift of the moment, our cup of clean water, the time slowed with family, the shows of nature all with fresh wonder and gratitude. The clouds hung over blue mountains like balls of white fire outside my house this morning, a mind-blowing mix of molecules. I feel my smallness before the majesty of nature and the mysteries of suffering, and surrender my list of demands, only to discover that there is plenty of beauty and hope for the taking.