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.
We live in a world that loves a happy ending, that acknowledges that even though bad things happen, if we hang in there, it will all work out for our ultimate worldly success and prosperity.
“No pain, no gain,” we tell each other, as we indulge in inspirational movies and stories and binge on social media posts about ordinary people who overcame abject poverty, a challenging disability, or some other immense struggle and achieved incredible or unusual success.
But what do we do when the pain and struggle are ongoing, and the happy ending doesn’t appear? Like a mirage in the distance, the happy ending, “good life,” cure, or end to the suffering of ourselves or others might be always just out of reach.
In every church are people facing severe illnesses in themselves or their families as well as those who live with chronic physical or emotional pain. Some are barely treading water as they experience relationship breakdowns, grief, employment struggles, poverty, addictions, and numerous other great challenges.
There are those in active treatment fighting acute diseases and other people, like me, who have lived with chronic and/or disabling health issues for years or even decades. For many, each year has been marked by sincere prayers for healing that has not (yet) come.
And suffering is not limited to our congregations: in every community the world over are people in desperate need. It’s estimated that globally up to 811 million people face serious hunger, even though there is more than enough food to feed everyone. Further, because of wars, injustices, and other tragedies, there are at least 84 million displaced people worldwide. The recent war in Ukraine has brought into sharp focus for many the plight of people who must flee their homes to save their lives.
I could go on with more statistics, but put simply, we live in a world that hurts.
As Christians, we are called to trust in and follow Christ, even through the suffering and pain of a world in trouble. However, often it seems so easy to do anything but trust and follow. I’ve noticed two disparate pitfalls Christians can fall into, neither of which honor God.
First, the suffering of this world can be so overwhelming that we shove our heads into the sand, only focusing on our own lives and those closest to us such as our families and dearest friends. We close our eyes to the struggle all around us, nourishing and building only ourselves. “After all,” we might think, “there is too much hurt in this world for me to make any difference.”
In doing this, we miss the opportunity to make a genuine loving impact in the lives of those God has brought across our paths and to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We miss the chance to ease the pain and suffering of others dearly loved by God himself.
Alternately, we might dedicate our lives wholly and completely to trying to fix absolutely everything and anything we possibly can. The problem, however, is this is a sure path to burnout, grief, and an overwhelming sense of failure—because we are not God with infinite energy, wisdom, and power. There always will be more we could have done, one more person we could have helped, just one more way we could have made a difference.
We can become so focused on giving and giving and giving and fixing and fixing and fixing that it can become an unbalanced obsession with doing good. The focus might be on ourselves and how good we are, with Jesus left on the sidelines. We completely forget it is Christ who is ultimately the great healer.
In our forgetting, we take our eyes off Jesus and become like the branches described in John 15:4, which teaches that no branch can bear fruit by itself if it is removed from its vine. Christ is our vine, and we must remain in Christ if we want to continue to healthfully bear fruit and make a difference in this incredibly hurting world.
Both patterns, as opposite as they seemingly are, ultimately take our eyes off Jesus and weaken or break our trust in him.
However, fortunately, Jesus offers a third way, one that brings us rest for our souls, calm for our spirits, and direction for our lives. In the very next chapter in John is a verse many Christians are familiar with: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
However, fewer may recognize the lesser-known beginning part of this verse: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.”
The wholeness of this verse reminds us that no matter what difficult situations or troubles we face, we can take great heart, find deep comfort, and receive true strength because Christ has overcome the world. And, in and through Jesus, we are offered peace.
It is from this place of confidence, relief, and soul-refreshing peace that we can then most clearly hear and accept Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
No matter what we face and encounter, either in this very moment or in the days to come, we must keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Then, from a pinnacle of gentleness and rest, we can reach out to follow Christ toward one of our core callings, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Neither hiding away and only focusing on bettering our own lives nor rushing at such break-neck speed we burn ourselves out into oblivion, we can instead follow Christ’s example to truly make a difference in a world of people who are hurting, to offer refuge to the refugee, food to those who are hungry, and difference-making love to all who hurt.