A common advice this time of year is that we carve out time for introspection. We are encouraged to slow down, express gratitude for our blessings, take inventory of the past year, and set goals for the upcoming year. We are encouraged to ask questions like: “What were my biggest accomplishments?”, “What lessons did I learn?”, “What do I want to accomplish in the next year?”, and “What changes do I want to see in my life?”. These are all good and worthwhile questions but on their own they can still keep us on the surface of things. One way I have found to move beyond the surface in my time of reflection is to ask another series of questions in addition to the ones above. I am asking myself questions like: “What are the challenges I have experienced this past year?”, “How I have responded to those challenges?”, and “What perspective do I need in order to handle future challenges better?”.
We all experience adversities in our lives, whether directly or through the experience of those closest to us. These challenges may be related to health, relationships, the loss of loved ones, financial crisis, career setbacks, and so many other disappointments. The reality is that we can all look around us and identify something significant that feels like “it is not as it should be”. Taking the time to think about these seemingly negative things probably feels like a terrible exercise for this time of year! As each New Year begins, we want to start fresh, think of all the good things we hope for, and focus on the positive. However, handling adversity well is extremely critical to living well. Unfortunately most of us are not born knowing how to deal with pain and suffering. Then, when we are forced to face a significant challenge, we flounder about helplessly…oftentimes responding in ways that actually make our circumstances even worse. Therefore, there is value in taking the time to become more aware of how we naturally respond to challenges and to learn new ways to respond better.
To some degree, we could all admit that we have a natural aversion to suffering. If we think about it, a great deal of our time is spent in making sure we do what we can to prevent negative circumstances. Yet this is not always possible. Many things are outside of our control: an unexpected diagnosis; a relationship that unravels; a death in the family; a job loss; or something good that we are waiting for that does not come to pass. So many things in life feel like “this is not as it should be”. Our response to such circumstances can either help us flourish and grow in the midst of them or become immobilized and defeated by them. How I respond can be the difference between me simply surviving or actually thriving. The experience can cause my heart to expand in its ability to love or it can cause me to grow bitter and cynical. How I respond can be the difference between moving to a place of hopefulness despite my pain or staying stuck in despair and self-pity.
Now, how can we go about learning to respond well to adversity? I believe it has to start with giving some thought to the subject of suffering. This is no easy task. I think that there is a part of us that feels that by not thinking about it we can somehow decrease the likelihood of us experiencing pain. However, I have found that taking the time to think about adversity is not a morbid and useless exercise. Whether we are currently experiencing a pain of our own or not, thinking about suffering helps shape our perspective and helps us learn to handle it well when we do face our own challenges. Being aware of suffering helps us understand that no one is exempt from pain. Personally, one of the most powerful ways I have found to learn to deal with challenges is to look outside of my own circumstances when I consider the subject of suffering.
I was away in Haiti when my family’s tragedy occurred. I rushed home to discover that my parents and daughter were gone and that my relationship to my only sibling would never be the same. There is nothing that could ever prepare someone for such terrible news; yet, nothing could have helped prepare me to handle such news better than my trip to Haiti. Just days after my return home, and still in a state of shock over my loss, I quickly realized that the three days I spent in Haiti completely changed my perspective on suffering. My trip was less than two years after the 2010 earthquake that ravaged the country. In the midst of beauty, I saw severe poverty. Behind the smiles of the people I met, there was pain due to unspeakable loss. No matter what I felt coming home to face my own calamity, I knew that I could not respond to my own suffering as if I had not just witnessed the suffering of others. Although my own experience sent me into an emotional state of shock, I had also never felt more awake and aware of the pain that abounds in this world. It was also my experience in Haiti that inspired in me the courage to fight to stay afloat and to not sink into despair in the early days back home. It was during that trip that I saw proof that faith, hope, and love could remain no matter what comes our way.
Choosing to respond from a place of faith, hope, and love when life becomes difficult is not a natural tendency…at least not for me. Oftentimes, my go-to responses are based on doubt, fear, self-righteousness, and a deep desire for self-preservation. Responding to adversity from a place of faith, hope, and love becomes especially challenging when we have been wronged. When I believe it is “my right” to respond in fear, hate, or you-fill-in-the-blank…choosing to take the higher road feels practically impossible. My experience in Haiti impacted my perception of suffering in that it stripped me of any feeling of “it is my right”. All sense of entitlement was gone. The families I met were not exempt from suffering so how could I dare ask, “why me”, when faced with my own.
As I consider how reflecting on the suffering of others can help prepare us to deal with our own, I have to consider my own daughter’s experience. If anyone should be exempt from pain it should be children but that was not her story. Gaby’s terrible death radically changed how I perceive suffering. Any temptation to feel like something in my life is unfair or too difficult to manage, I am shaken back to reality when I consider her experience. Her life has encouraged me to wrestle with my fears, doubt, and anger in order to choose to respond to my own pain from a place of faith, hope, and love.
More and more I realize how critical learning to suffer well is to being a follower of Christ. Learning to respond to adversity from a place of faith, hope, and love is not optional for Christians. Suffering does not look the same for every Christian but no matter our pain, our model is the same: Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (16:33) The King James version says “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”. So what are these things that Jesus said? What was it that should bring His followers peace, even in the midst of tribulation? There is so much that can be unpacked from this chapter but the 3 things I remind myself of over and over again are that:
- We do not go through anything alone because we have the ultimate Helper, Comforter, and Guide:the Holy Spirit
- Joy is a sure thing! Jesus tells His followers that our sorrow will turn to joy. One day we will see Him again and we will have a joy that nothing can take away.
- Christ overcame! Because Christ died (in my place) and rose again, I CAN take heart and be of good cheer even in my suffering. Understanding the Gospel is crucial to suffering well. I know that in Him I have all that I need to be able to pick up my cross and follow Him.
The Gospel is the most powerful resource for teaching us to handle suffering. Faith in Christ gives us the power that enables us to respond to adversity with faith, hope, and love. In Christ, suffering is not meaningless. It is an opportunity to learn to rely more on our Heavenly Father and demonstrate His sufficiency to those around us thus bringing honor and glory to His name.
As I begin 2017, I look back at all the blessings I have received in 2016 and my heart overflows with gratitude. I also look forward to 2017 with great expectation for all that I pray and hope for in this New Year. As I do so, I am soberly reminded that when presented with challenges I have a choice, I can respond in faith, hope, and love thereby honoring God in all my circumstances. I don’t know how 2016 ended for you and I don’t know what you expect from 2017. Whatever your circumstances, I encourage you to fight to keep faith, hope, and love alive in your heart. Do your part and then look to Christ for the power to do what is impossible for you.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39