“Keep on the sunny side!”
As a self-proclaimed optimist, I used to employ this phrase in all kinds of situations. If I faced a hardship? I should keep on the sunny side. If I talked to someone going through pain? Well, they should keep on the sunny side, too. Underlying this trite optimism was the assumption that the worst-case scenario rarely ever happens.
But what happens when it does?
The past year has been an extended exercise in seeing worst-case scenarios come to fruition. At first COVID seemed like a distant problem. But my refrains of “it won’t affect us” turned into “the shutdown won’t last that long” which turned into “surely things will be normal by next year.” In my sunny-side optimism, I couldn’t envision that 525,000 Americans would die or that countless millions would endure crippling loneliness, job loss, grief and anxiety.
But this reflection is also deeply personal. Our family endured our own worst-case scenario just prior to COVID shutdowns. I was blessed to escape with my life. One year later, the wounds have healed, but the physical and psychological scars remain.
We’re not the only ones to suffer. You’ve probably experienced your own hardships in the past year, some of which trivialize my own. So what do we do when the worst-case scenario does happen? What lessons can we take away from this year of suffering?
Here are a handful of humble reflections.
The question is not whether we will suffer, but how we respond when suffering arrives.
1. Suffering is unavoidable.
Our culture tells us that we deserve health, wealth, happiness and success. We may not formally embrace the “prosperity gospel,” but these themes infuse the cultural waters in which we wade. We assume that we should have a certain level of comfort, a degree of normalcy.
God doesn’t promise any of these things. This is not to say that God does not care about our experiences in this life or that our life will be void of joy and satisfaction. But God ultimately promises joy and satisfaction will be found in him alone.
While God doesn’t promise earthly comfort in this life, he does assure us we will suffer. Sometimes we suffer because of our own mistakes or the mistakes of others. Other times we suffer simply because we live in a fallen world filled with diseases and dog bites, COVID and cancer.
Suffering is unavoidable. The question is not whether we will suffer, but how we respond when suffering arrives.
2. Suffering is clarifying.
We rarely pause to take inventory of our lives. We’re usually too busy, moving from one task to the next, or too distracted, lulled by the technological devices that steal our attention. But when suffering arrives, everything else stops. We’re forced to pause and see what really matters.
I experienced this pause in the weeks after my incident, and you probably experienced it when lockdowns began. In these moments of clarity, we discover that our ambitions, achievements, standard of living, hobbies or work don’t matter quite as much as we thought they did. What does matter are the people in our lives and the Sovereign King in charge of the universe. Suffering is clarifying. It reveals what really matters.
3. It’s okay not to be okay.
I’m not the same “sunny side” person I was a year ago. I have physical and psychological scars to remind me of that day. And you know what? That’s okay. I’m open with the fact that I’m still walking this journey, and I freely admit I’m a pastor leading with a limp. I’m discovering that it’s okay not to be okay.
Truth be told, none of us are the same as we were before COVID. Some of you have lost loved ones, wrestled with anxiety and depression, fought feelings of loneliness or experienced some other tragedy. We all have extra baggage and wounds from a year of suffering. Be honest about these facts.
You don’t have to put on the mask and fake that you’re fine. When we admit our vulnerabilities, we find others in the church who resonate with our pain, people who have walked similar paths of suffering. And, oddly enough, we are strengthened by the very act of admitting our weakness.
Oddly enough, we are strengthened by the very act of admitting our weakness.
4. God meets us in our suffering.
This time of year, we reflect upon Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. One beautiful aspect of the Easter story is the simple but powerful truth that the Son of God suffered. He felt the sting of grief (John 11:35). He extended compassion to the sick and suffering (Matthew 14:14). He endured ridicule and humiliation (Matthew 27:29-31). He was stripped and publicly exposed (Matthew 27:35). To top it all off, he experienced agony as nails pierced his hands and feet and a crown of thorns was shoved on his head.
Jesus endured unimaginable suffering. As a result, he can empathize with us when we suffer.
On the days when the worst-case scenario happens, we can boldly approach his throne. When we roam “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), Jesus meets us there. This truth that God meets us in our suffering can give us the greatest hope of all. We may feel alone, but we’re not. Our God understands.
I’ve suffered. Odds are you’ve also suffered, perhaps to a much greater degree. But as Charles Spurgeon once said, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.” Suffering may be unavoidable, but suffering can bring clarity, deepen community and draw us near to Christ.