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Wrestling with Suffering

I started a new job as an Art Teacher at a Juvenile Detention Center in August of last year. Prior to teaching, I volunteered at the facility through my church. As you can imagine teaching justice-involved youth comes with a unique set of challenges. I’m at the center of a lot more angst and less excitement than I ever was as a volunteer. I also know a lot more about the residents– now my students.  Their stories are more pronounced in their daily classroom behavior. It can be a hard thing to carry.  I can’t imagine how hard it is to live the stories. 

When I returned from India after a year of serving children and young adults with disabilities in foster-style homes, I went through counseling. Toward the end of my sessions, I came to the realization that there were things I would most likely always live with. Not sure if I would identify it as a thorn like Paul, but it’s definitely something that bothers me. It never felt fair that I could leave India, and my foster children, and come to America and enjoy my life in the Nation’s Capitol. I felt guilty and it took me a while to experience joy in even the smallest of things. I can say after time, and counseling, the feelings of guilt have diminished but the feelings of unfairness never went away. I’ve just learned to wrestle with it. 

I ask why have my students had to suffer in this way. Why have I been so privileged to grow up in a two-parent household, with educated parents who loved me, in an extended family that loves me? It doesn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem fair when I lived in India and it doesn’t seem fair as I serve my students. 

In general, I wrestle with the concept of suffering. It may be because of the amount of privilege I’ve grown up with. Or the fact I didn’t hear honest sermons about suffering until I was in my 20s dealing with my version of trials. 

At times I vacillate between feeling torn apart by the suffering in the world to not dealing with it by keeping my distance by telling myself I’m not directly affected by it. 

I don’t completely understand suffering in the world and while I find some compelling thoughts on, I know I’ll never really understand. I’m at a place in life where I’m at peace with not having all the answers and I’m slower to give answers to those complicated questions. But I will share more of my wrestling thoughts and half-baked conclusions. 

We need to be honest about suffering.

Some Christian circles probably do a good job of this, but I know the prosperity gospel camp I grew up in, did not. Suffering is a part of living. Tom Branson (from Downton Abbey) said it best “You will be hurt again and so will I because being hurt again is part of being alive.” It rains on the just and the unjust. 

When I was new to sharing my faith, I wanted to “sell” Christianity. I wanted to prove how right I was by ensuring a better life for all who believed in Jesus. I quickly discovered how untrue this was. In fact, quite the opposite is true of the Christian life. Jesus warns his disciples that they’ll be persecuted because of him. As someone who likes to be prepared and set proper expectations, I appreciate the heads-up. 

We need to be aware of our privilege. 

It wasn’t until I lived in India that I realized I was materially rich and should heed the warnings given to rich people in the book of James. Up until that time, I identified solely with counting it all joy, and kinda overlooking and ignoring scriptures to the rich because that wasn’t me. I mean I grew up lower middle class and knew some rich people, but didn’t think my material possessions qualified me as rich. 

And I think identification is important. We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. How we identify ourselves is the lens we use to read the Bible. It seeps into our interpretation, our correction—our receiving and our giving. 

And I gotta be honest, as an American, I think we suck at correctly identifying ourselves in scripture. We are the rich, gentile, pagan, often outsider, sometimes pharisee, Sadducee, and every religious thing in between. And as a believer, we’re adopted, accepted, and beloved and are tasked to find our identity in Christ rather than things and accomplishments– which is why our first step must be to have an honest look in the mirror of scripture to see who we are and where we’ve been. 

With all these half-baked conclusions I still wrestle with wondering if the ‘blessings’ that we have as Americans are really blessings. Am I more blessed to suffer less? Consider the warnings given to the rich vs. exhortations given to the poor:

  • “Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.  But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower.  For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.” - James 1:10-11
  • “I can guarantee again that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom…It is impossible for people to save themselves, but everything is possible for God.” Matt 19:24-28
  • “Command those who are rich with things of this world not to be proud.” 1 Tim 6:17-19
  • “But, if we have food and clothes, we will be satisfied with that. Those who want to become rich bring temptation to themselves and are caught in a trap.” 1 Timothy 6:8-12

And there’s many more where that has come from. I haven’t reached a conclusion but I hope to heed the warnings. 

Finally, there are times I identify, and you may too, as being oppressed, in the midst of persecution or suffering. And at times it may not feel ‘as bad’ yet, it’s felt and there’s no need for oppression olympics, or comparing of sufferings.  It rains on the unjust and the just. And maybe you find yourself wrestling with someone else’s suffering. Know there’s patience to be gained. There’s a reward in the waiting. There’s resilience earned. And hey, it’s Black History month, surely you can find some black brothers and sisters who’ve persevered to encourage you. Know it’s okay to accept, identify, and wrestle.

Photo provided by the author.  For more information about Sarah’s Covenant Homes, where I served, click here. 

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