One of the reasons I love being around students is because they haven’t quite learned how to make their emotions “presentable.” Exhibit A: One night during small group, one of my girls shared: “You know, we’re girls. And sometimes girls just start crying, and we don’t know why we’re even crying! Like the other day, I was just driving through my neighborhood and saw this duck that often hangs out near my house. I noticed that had lost its mate, and I just started bawling!”
(Cue appropriate hashtag: #thestruggleisreal.)
But, actually, the struggle is real.
I often find myself telling girls that adults experience the same exact things—the discouragement, the betrayal, the confusion, the doubt, the fear, the frustration; it’s just that, when you get older, you learn how to mask it all more effectively. The struggle, the angst, the tangled web of emotions, the heartache that they experience as teenagers isn’t just a result of the fact that they are in a period called adolescence. It’s a result of being a broken, sinful human in a broken, sinful world. Suffering, while often first poignantly experienced in the halls of middle school, is a human thing, not a teenage thing. Nevertheless, I think that adolescents can teach us a lot about this frayed world in which we live.
If you haven’t seen The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you should. After seeing it for the first time, it became one of my top five movies. The story is that of the quintessential plight of the American teenager, and, as such, it is a story about suffering—about broken, sinful people in a broken, sinful world. It’s narrated by a 16-year-old boy named Charlie, whose short life has already been wrought with deep suffering. Childhood sexual abuse. The death of his favorite aunt at age seven. The loss of his best friend to suicide in eighth grade. The burden of watching his older sister endure an abusive dating relationship. Continued psychological trauma from his own abuse.
Charlie knows what it is to suffer. And yet, he also comes to know what it is to experience deep joy with a group of social misfits just like himself. In the beginning of the movie, he is writing a letter in which he says this: “So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”
In a message I gave at youth group, I used this movie throughout in order to illustrate the reality in which we live. Theologians often call it “the already-not-yet”—the overlap between the old order of things and the new order of things that has been ushered in by Christ. We live by faith in what Jesus has already accomplished, and we live by hope in what He is still coming to do—to restore all things. Because we are still waiting for the broken, sinful state of things to pass away, we will always find ourselves in the midst of suffering, both within and without. But the suffering is not all there is, for we are given the guarantee of our salvation all throughout the pages of Scripture. Like Charlie, we too are both happy and sad, and we’re often still trying to figure out how that could be.
In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples that their lives will be filled with weeping and mourning and pain while the world will be living it up and rejoicing. He isn’t saying that we will never experience joy and pleasure and goodness in this life, but He is being honest about the suffering that we will experience in this world.
See, what Jesus is saying here is that reason that God’s children will often groan and ache in this life is because, for us, this is the worst part. If you’ve staked it all on Jesus, this life is the worst you will ever have to experience. But for those who don’t know Jesus, this life is best thing they will ever experience. It makes sense, then, that they would be rejoicing and living it up, because, in a sense, they have to. This is all they’ve got. But for us, the best is yet to come, and so we are free to groan now because it truly is the hardest part.
Jesus also uses an illustration to explain this to them. He gives them the example of a woman in labor. If you ask any woman when she experienced the worst pain during her pregnancy, she’ll tell you it was at the end—right before she had the baby, while she was in labor. That’s what Jesus is saying about the time we’re living in. The reason it hurts so much is because we’re so close to the end. Jesus is coming to make everything sad come untrue.
At the end of the film, Charlie’s two best friends come back from college to visit him. They had a tradition of driving through this one tunnel, taking turns standing in the bed of the pick-up truck with their heads back and arms spread wide. In this closing scene, Charlie gets into the back of the truck, and his closing monologue plays. He refers to that moment as “that moment you know you’re not a sad story; you’re alive.”
I love that line because that’s the message of the gospel. You are not a sad story. You are alive. But sometimes, we still feel like it’s all just a sad story, don’t we? Still, the whole of Scripture screams, “This world is not just a sad story! One day it will be fully alive. ‘Behold! I am making all things new. Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.’”