On Times of Suffering and Uncertainty

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I love the staff I get to work with at Village. From Pastor Mauricio and his evangelistic heart to Kwang Kim and his enthusiasm for people and for the Lord; from JoAnna Flynn and her masterminding of how to disciple parents and children to John Jordan and his ability to turn seemingly everything into a full-scale ministry to change Washington county and the world, I love our staff. I could say something about each and every one.

Specifically, I found myself appreciating Pastor Paul Choi yesterday. He is brilliant, compassionate, and has a lively creative side many don’t know about. He is also deeply spiritual. Many of the thoughts I ponder at Village have their genesis in something he said.

Today is no different.

Pastor Paul is leading some people through the book of Ecclesiastes, which has a bleak look on our toil for achievement. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:11

This scripture is a hard one for many of us. We grow up with a sense of life being linear—things are supposed to go up, not go down. This is often called, the myth of progress. Our lives don’t always progress from good to better. Many of us have also been indoctrinated into the idea that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. God does love us. And God does have a wonderful plan for our lives eternally, but that doesn’t mean we’ll always prosper or be free from pain in this life. Didn’t Jesus suffer and die as part of God’s plan for his earthly life?

Life doesn’t always move us forward and things don’t always progress linearly. Therefore, if we have never developed a robust theology of suffering or a Christian practice of endurance and hope, these times can leave us exposed as Christian communities.

I’ve found myself this week trying to wrap my heart and mind around the wide-range of experiences felt by our congregation this week: from church members suddenly losing their jobs to elderly dealing with life in quarantine; from small business owners dealing with immense uncertainty to parents struggling with crippling depression and anxiety; from those who are crying out to God in these moments to those who seem apathetic or indifferent and everything in between.

It is in these times that we are able to borrow from those who have gone before us and from other communities who have suffered or wondered where God is in the middle of seemingly capricious disasters. How do we live with these few days under the sun and what is the meaning of our toil?

Pastor Paul’s encouragement to his leaders was this: We are either going to emerge from this time closer to Jesus and with more integrated lives or we are going to emerge from this season further away from Jesus and with less integrated lives. It’s either the one or the other.

There is a simple truth here even though it can feel infinitely complex. You see, faith begets faith and unbelief begets unbelief. Put another way, hope inspires greater hope and doubt can become contagious. If we continue to love others we will grow in our love and if we turn inward our love will grow cold. Ultimately, if we continue to wrestle with our doubts and fears with our eyes on Christ, we will grow in Christ-likeness.

The scriptural focus is to bring our human experience back to God. To turn our faces toward Eden. If we face our circumstances armed with the laments and prayers of the Psalms, we will find that even when our soul is downcast and the tears are on our cheeks we can still cry with the Psalmist, “I will yet praise him.” The formula of the Psalms regularly reflects this pattern: acknowledging our first-person experience of pain and then ending with the commitment to still praise God. Here is one of my favorite examples in Psalm 42:

“As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Might One
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

I’m glad I get to serve with pastors like Pastor Paul. Churches aren’t just about programs, but about the men, women and children who we love and get to serve. As ministers, we long to be there and go through trials with our people. We want to find, and help others find, the way into the calm presence of Christ.

Pastor Paul is right. In three to six months, we will either be walking closer to Jesus or we won’t. The Apostle Paul who suffered continuously and greatly knew this as well as anyone. He wrote to the small and struggling church in Rome,
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (emphasis added) Romans 5:1-5

Somehow, our suffering is connected with our hope. It belies spiritual neutrality.

Village is mobilizing as a church to try and meet as many physical needs in our church family and in our neighborhood as we can—meals, assistance with rides and more. Over the next few weeks, we will become knee-deep in new ministries with our local partners and the city to try and demonstrate tangible love and concern for others. I pray this is an accurate reflection of Jesus’s heart in this moment and a light to our community.

I also hope we will find ourselves knee-deep in the mental, emotional and spiritual needs of our community. Today, I was gutted by hearing from a friend of an unexpected life challenge. Our felt experiences are very real and very messy. I think we can only do this, however, if we first acknowledge that suffering is a part of the human experience and one of the ways we grow spiritually. There are some things that God can only teach us in times where we don’t have all the answers and when we can’t fix or numb the individual and collective pain.

Maybe, this season will reveal and correct heresies that the American Church has harbored—heresies of comfort and consumerism? Maybe, as a multicultural community in Christ, this will be an opportunity for us to learn—one from another—the unique characteristics our cultural faith traditions bring to the subject of our trials? Our suffering will produce perseverance, character, and finally hope. Let’s go through this season as those who would grow closer to Jesus.

So, may we reach out to God in a more disciplined and intentional way now than before; and, may we reach out to others in a more intentional and creative way than before—by texting a friendly emoji, calling just to say “Hi!”, or dropping off a meal.

Whatever we do, may we not deny, hide from, or try to explain away the emotions we are going through. Let us be honest with our emotions for ourselves. Let us be transparent with our emotions for our children. And let us authentically voice our emotions to God with all of the poetic and heart-felt language we can muster that we might arrive together at the resolve: Put your hope in God. For I will yet praise him, my savior and my God. Psalm 42:5

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