Can healthy hurt? Is suffering from God? No one likes to suffer, or see others face painful circumstances, yet these common, human questions, and all of the various ways we ask the same, are as much about expectations as theology. If we expect pain, loss and difficulty, we have a very different resulting attitude than if we expect ease and pleasure. Our response to life’s intrusions is different if our world view considers them good/healthy rather than bad/unhealthy. Our response to pain and difficulty can be quite cultural and I would never have believed it had I not been confronted with the cultural response to suffering and loss of the rural Angolans (see below). AW Tozer writes excellently about expectations in a brief message entitled “This World: Playground or Battleground” which you can read here.
It seems that few Jesus-followers today embrace Jesus’ primary emphasis of relationship with Him eternally and His prediction that this life would involve alienation, trouble and difficulty, using Himself as an example of what His followers would encounter. There is much church emphasis today on temporal healing and self-fulfillment as we dismiss Jesus’ admonition (and example) to deny pursuit of self-pleasure, embrace crosses (pain and difficulty), seek Him and His kingdom (first) before any personal needs or wants, accept confusing “thorns”, and run toward difficulty, loss and suffering (and those encountering the same). Jesus demonstrated (in how He lived and suffered), 1) that light is most useful and beautiful in darkness (confusion, pain, loss, etc) and, 2) how to selflessly serve and suffer well because He intimately knew His Father and He knew where He was going at His life’s end.
Are we willing to embrace Jesus in our loss and pain in order to bring far more attention to Him and His goodness than we could through earthly pleasure and success? If you are suffering today, please know that your life can better point to your Father (and lead others to Him) by suffering well, and demonstrating the fruit (Gal 5.23) of His presence within you during your trial, than you can by (even miraculously) being healed of your calamity. Intimacy with Jesus (and the fruit of this intimacy) in our suffering is other-worldly whether we are healed or not (Paul’s thorn).
Suffering is experienced by every single human being, and miraculous healing by few, which is why those who suffer with counter-intuitive peace, trust and joy cause observers to wonder about the source of these qualities (because the observers are accustomed to suffering with confusion, fear, anger, anxiety and frustration), about whether there might be purpose in suffering, and about even the possible reality of eternal life (good beyond the suffering). Although Jesus demonstrated that He will rarely miraculously end our suffering, He also communicated that there is so much in this life more important than our trial, however intense. The pain of Jesus’ suffering and death, and of our Father’s loss through the same, were not comparable to the eternal joy that so many would experience as a result.
One of the most arrogant and destructive words in the English vocabulary is the word, “should”. We would be wise to eliminate it, especially in the church. If it is directed at another, we are expecting a free human being to behave in a manner that suits us, and we have a delusionary illusion of control over their behavior and the world around us. A “should” attitude in any relationship (with oneself or with another) places a burden on the recipient impossible to bear. “You should” and “You should have”, for example, with their accompanying arrogance, have destroyed far more marriages than infidelity!
If “should” is directed at ourselves, we are expecting a singular result outside of life’s normal complexity and chaos. If we combine “should” with the word “have”, it is especially destructive, because it lacks our Father’s grace and is spoken from hindsight, with it’s accompanying perfect vision, which was not present during the circumstance about which we speak. If ever tempted to use the words, “should have”, we would be wise to stop and forgive before these seeds of control and judgment germinate into bitterness and destroy us from within.
The words “should” and “should have” are virtually never spoken among our rural Angolan friends, in fact I believe I’ve never heard them. Rural Angolans live with daily hard labor, little sustenance, no options for improvement, much life-threatening disease, and death/loss as an always present reality. And yet they also live in gratitude and with an easy smile and tangible humility, yielding a pervasive, attractive and sober joy which permeates every interaction. They also expect nothing from life and nothing from each other!
When used among the religious among us, “should” disregards our Father’s rule over the events of our lives and of the lives of the people with whom we interact. It reveals a lack of trust in either our Father’s care, His goodness, or His ability to intervene in our circumstances. The use of this word elevates us to god and judge and we would do well to recognize the destructiveness of using the word “should”, confess its every use as sin, and never use it again.
We would also be wise to apply to all we do the attitude of the early Jesus-lovers (Ph 2.19) – “Lord willing”, and that of Jesus in the Garden prior to His crucifixion, “This is my desire, Father, but I surrender to your will/desire/pleasure…”
I have been reminded these past few months of my short-sightedness, the destructiveness of expectations and the healthy kingdom perspective of, “Lord willing…”. I had many (good) plans for these recent months in Angola, yet we have been thrown some “unexpected” (and expensive) curveballs that have required acute reorientation, sudden plan changes and a great deal of flexibility. Firstly, in May I had a life-threatening case of malaria which damaged my lungs and threatened my pre-existing heart condition, taking me to South Africa for evaluation and (excellent) treatment of both my lungs and my heart vessels.
On the heels of this experience, our son, Luke, was diagnosed with testicular cancer and urgently returned to the US from Mozambique for surgery. We are so grateful that it appears that his surgery entirely removed the cancer, but Luke now faces the disappointment of having been medically discharged from the Peace Corps while he endeavors to reorient his life/direction in light of these changing circumstances.
During these same months, we’ve seen Betsy endure a radical worsening of her arthritic hip pain, to the point of very limited activity, moving forward by several years (our “expectation”) her need for a hip replacement surgery (her x-ray change in one year, along with the rate of her pain increase, have both been quite remarkable). She is now scheduled for the surgery in the next month or so (we find out this week), requiring both of us to remain in the US for her surgery and recovery.
None of this was even in our thoughts, let alone our plans, when we returned to Angola from the US in March, refreshed and ready to dive in to our work. I have a new appreciation for my lack of control of life’s events, along with a new affection for, “Lord willing.”, and the heart condition necessary to sincerely speak this phrase.
I am reminded again that we far more “respond” to life’s circumstances than we “determine” the same. It is certainly “Both… and” rather than “Either…or” – one of life’s many tensions between two extremes. We also know that our Father graciously invites our participation in His activities in this world among those He loves, but we would be wise to participate humbly, acknowledging our short-sightedness, rather than with an arrogant and delusional attitude that involves “shoulds” and expectations.
So we will wait in the US for Betsy’s surgery, perhaps for two weeks and perhaps for a month. We will try to emulate the rural Angolan people we so love and admire, who are never surprised by the unexpected because they expected nothing prior to the unexpected, who are never in a hurry and never frustrated by waiting (because they began with no expected time frame), and who are ever grateful for small and simple pleasures (because they didn’t expect them).
We will keep you posted and so appreciate your continued prayer and support for us and for our beloved rural Angolan friends, who we look forward to serving again soon.