Received an email from a good friend a few days ago. He had just made a visit to his home town. A large part of the visit was spent with three people with very serious medical conditions. Two of them were not expected to last long. All three were suffering severe discomfort. My friend ended his mail by saying, “At least all of them know the Lord, so that’s a consolation.” Indeed it is good to know that whatever happens all three were God’s. Still, I was floored by the email, reminded again that in this life, Christian and non Christian alike are not spared from the possibility of incredible suffering.
A few weeks ago, a member of my church care group began to weep during the singing part of our meeting. When we asked her why, she said she had just come from being with a some good friends, whose 1-year-old child had died. The child had been an answer to prayer, coming after a number of miscarriages. One afternoon, the child was being cared for by grandma. Grandma dozed off in the heat of the afternoon. The child crawled over to a fish pond and drowned. The only response I could give was to allow the Holy Spirit to pray for us “with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8:26b NLT).
There are some Christian communities that discourage Christians from saying “I am surviving” when they are asked as to their welfare. As children of the living God, these groups maintain, believers should always be “thriving.” I wondering if these same folks will tell the people mentioned in the paragraphs above that they must say that they are thriving?
Look at Paul’s sharing in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11:
We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. And you are helping us by praying for us. Then many people will give thanks because God has graciously answered so many prayers for our safety. (NLT)
Paul was not whining. He was just being honest. He wasn’t flashing his pain. He shared about an extremely painful experience he had gone through so that he could help the Corinthian Christians learn some powerful truths — about trusting in God and the power of prayer among other things. No glib triumphalism here though. He had gone through a rough time and he said so.
Paul does call us to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4). But I think we need to distinguish joy from happiness. Happiness is a positive emotional response to a good circumstance. Joy is more akin to hope and faith. It is an unshakable confidence in the Lord, that whatever our circumstances, He is still sovereign and will work all things out for good (Romans 8:28). It is possible to have joy even in the midst of tears.
Creath Davis defines joy in this way:
A delight in life that runs deeper than pain or pleasure. From the biblical perspective it is not limited by nor tied solely to external circumstances. Joy is a gift of God, and like all of his other inner gifts it can be experienced even in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984, 588.)
So yes, a follower of Jesus should rejoice at all times. But this is very different from saying that a Christian must play mind games and pretend that a tough situation is otherwise.
Of course we do come across people who tend to exaggerate, people who are given to hyperbole. These folks may say that they are “surviving” when their lot is not bad at all. But this is a different issue. All of us should be careful in our use of language and discipline ourselves to neither play up nor play down the difficulty of a situation.
But clearly there are those who are undergoing or have undergone extremely difficult circumstances. When they say they are “surviving” they give glory to God because they are saying that the Lord sustained them and carried them through very tough times. What they are saying is akin to Paul saying that he was knocked down but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:9b).
Some people have to face extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Let us not make them also feel guilty because they have chosen to be honest about their circumstances. We are unable to enter their skins and see their burdens through their eyes. For some, to survive is victory enough, even as we await the ultimate victory of Christ’s return. There will come a day when we can say much more then “I am surviving.” But for some, for now, surviving is thriving.