As a now almost-40-year-old, I’ve come to accept that suffering is an unavoidable part of life. While still always unpleasant, I’ve learned the need to endure the hard times, as well as the latent pain that permeates existence even during the best of times. In my more mature moments, I can personally testify to the truth that Paul writes about in Romans 5:3-4, “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
But 2020 has. been. a. year.
When the cracks start to show
Like a beating rain, this year has exposed cracks that have been hiding just under the painted surface of my worldview and worship.
If I’m honest, I wasn’t properly prepared for what 2020 had to offer personally, but particularly as a parent.
In just the last four months, I’ve watched my kids endure isolation, fear of illness, loss of friendships, arguments about politics, protests, and riots. Also, I work for a ministry that serves the church in Iran, so my kids are aware of the arrests, persecution, and threats that people around the world face for their faith. On top of it all, on a personal level, my wife and I had a miscarriage, I’ve undergone surgery for an injury, and a young neighbor was hit by a car.
I’ve spent more time exhausted, exasperated, and discouraged than I’d like to admit as my carefully manicured idols of comfort, security, prosperity, and control crumble before my kids’ watchful eyes.
So, when the Rooted team reached out to see if I would write something about the Old Testament and suffering, I wavered. Did I really want to think deeply about suffering, my idols, or my parenting? Wouldn’t it be easier to escape into a good novel, TV show, or glass of wine?
But I found myself re-thinking through the stories of the Old Testament. As I did so, I continued to be struck by the massive amounts of suffering in the Bible – and how worshipping the God of the Bible has never been a ticket to an easy life.
A pattern of hardship, suffering, and heartache
Wilderness wanderings. Famine. Failure. Plague. War. Illness. Exile. Enslavement. Death. Grief. Abandonment. Betrayal. Disappointment. You name it, and there is a story in the Old Testament that speaks directly to it. If misery loves company, then the Old Testament is a good place to go when you’re miserable.
And while it’s embarrassing to admit, it’s at exactly this-many-years-old that I’ve realized a truth within the Old Testament narrative: suffering and hardship are not the exception, but the norm, particularly once you’re a part of God’s family.
If you read the story of Israel, or of any king or prophet, you could make the argument that being chosen only makes their lives harder. The Old Testament good times, when or if they eventually happen, are seen as temporary glimpses of a future “age to come” in a “promised land” as a “new creation;” a place where – finally – suffering and hardship will be no more. Often, this place seems a long way off.
A Bubble that is not our home and not our future
The more I think about it, the more my Christian experience seems out of touch with the biblical narrative of hardship. I realize I’m writing as a white American male here with a particularly privileged experience, but it should give us pause that for so many decades, many within evangelical Christianity in America have been able to isolate ourselves so successfully from systemic suffering. Sure, we’ve had our ‘hard times,’ but those were often temporary and few and far between.
As a result, our bubble of privilege has enabled us to believe in and perpetuate amongst our children idols of comfort, security, prosperity, and control – things we’ve looked to for meaning, purpose, and hope.
These idols are now being painfully dismantled before our eyes, exposing our weakness, selfishness, mortality, love of wealth, and our hardheartedness to the world around us.
As a parent, these past months have been a brutal awakening. I’ve realized I found more comfort in this world the way it was then I should according to the Old Testament narrative – a privilege I acknowledge was not shared by everyone. And I’m increasingly realizing how I was inadvertently teaching this hope for privileged comfort to my kids.
The other day, I caught myself soothing my kids’ disappointment about not being able to go to Target by saying, “Don’t worry, one day this will be over and things will go back to normal.” Is that really the best I can give them in that moment – that one day they can shop again whenever they want?
The good life as we’ve often defined it – with hopes of education, plenty of wealth, an important job, with decent health – is a flimsy aspiration to give our kids. It can all be taken away from them in a moment; if the biblical narrative is anything to go by, we should expect these things to be transient at best.
I want my kids to know what I all too easily struggle to remember in the ‘good times’: that this broken world is not our forever home, not the way it is now or the way it was before. We are not meant to get too comfortable in the world no matter our circumstance, but instead to always look and work for a redeemed world, a new creation that comes through a cross.
When idols fail, Jesus remains present
As hard as it is to admit and lean into, this moment provides an incredible opportunity to disciple our children (and to be led ourselves) into a deeper understanding of what actually gives life meaning. For it’s when our idols are cast down that we can truly begin to search out the deeper truth found only in the One True God. For unlike our idols, Jesus is real – and Jesus is alive on the other side of his cross. Therefore, we know that he is present in the hardship, and holds before us true and lasting salvation.
I want to get better at orienting my kids around the present and future hope of new creation in Jesus, rather than placate them with dreams of things ‘going back to normal’ – as if somehow life before was the best God had to offer.
I want to hold up the story of the Hebrews’ exile out of Egypt for my kids. While God was clearly writing the story, the whole process was certainly not easy or straightforward. Slavery, plagues, and Egypt’s army in hot pursuit – only to face a wilderness of monotony and a ‘promised land’ filled with giants. Perhaps now, in 2020, it’s easier to sympathize with the people’s desire to return to their previous life in Egypt. But what kept Moses going amidst it all? What was the hope held out before him (cheat sheet: read Hebrews 11:23-12:2).
I also want to learn to be better at helping my kids hold together joy and hardship in tension. I want them to grow in their ability to cry out to God in pain and anguish, trusting that God sees and cares. The Psalms and prophetic books are particularly laced with hope amidst horrible circumstances. A passage like Psalm 22 is a useful place to turn with our kids, exploring the emotions and circumstances of the psalmist – as well as searching the heart of Jesus when he quoted this passage from the cross.
And finally, I want to be better at repenting before my kids for my role in current circumstances, as we saw people like Moses and David do, and as the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel constantly ask God’s people to do. I want to work as an ambassador of God’s new creation against the systemic issues that have caused and continue to cause suffering in this broken world, reorienting my heart and desires in Christ. I want to take up my cross, die to self, and rise to new life in Christ – and then, with God’s grace and the power of the Spirit, do it all over again each new day.
Rather than get offended by the plethora of “OK Boomer” and Karen memes, I want to better understand the systemic hypocrisy that is felt when so many today look upon the track record of America – and particularly those who call themselves Christians. Because more often than we’d like to admit, rather than identifying with the persecuted and suffering pillars of faith in the Old Testament, our actions and hardness of heart more closely corresponds to the ‘stiff-necked’ people of God or the oppressive Philistines, Amorites, Assyrians or Babylonians.
A living hope
My family’s citizenship is in heaven. This is a reality that remains even if the pandemic persists, the economic downturn deepens, or political tensions increase – for Jesus has risen from the dead and is seated on heaven’s throne. And while we will continue to get glimpses and foretastes of the living hope of the new heavens and new earth, I want our lives to point towards the sure hope we have in Jesus that one day when he returns, all things will finally and fully be made new and sin and death will be no more.
Until that day, I want my family to learn to work and live within the discomfort and hardship, knowing “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4), praying always, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!”