During my stay in Ethiopia, half a world away from the techy thrum and modernity of America, I have had a rare occasion to simply “put the world away for a minute” as Zac Brown would say. I’ve had more of our friend, Father Time, to myself to simply reflect. I’ve spent much more time in a quality manner, thinking and praying, admittedly a lot more than I ever have in the States. Like all college students, I have immersed myself deeply in thought about my future and what experiences lay ahead that make up my destiny. In these times of profound silence, late at night, early in the morning, and in the occasional break I have at the orphanage, I think I have hit upon something that, as an American and a Christian at the same time, I think is very much a stumbling block for many (including myself) in their journey of faith. I believe many Christians, especially in America, have mistaken the pursuit of happiness and pleasure for the pursuit of comfort. Perhaps I am completely mad in this line of thinking, but read on and ask yourself if I have struck a chord that resonates as a bit off kilter.
Spending time at the orphanage has spurred interesting conversation amongst the staff and me because I have been very eager to learn about their culture, language, and culture. While getting to know these folks, they have slowly opened up to this foringi (foreigner) and I have seen something that is even more subtle and amazing than their steely faith in the face of such impoverished conditions: they are joyous. At first glance, many Americans (including this one) simply see their lack of material wealth, their dirty conditions, and their rusty tin roofs over their heads. Why is this? Because we perceive what we think is wrong in their country. Again, why do we perceive these things as wrong? I am venturing that it isn’t mainly because we desire others to be as wealthy as America is, but rather because Americans use the words comfort and happiness interchangeably. We would portray happiness as something closer to comfort in material wealth rather than satisfaction in the pursuit of something much deeper, much more eternal. And yet, these humble Habeshas are joyous in their conditions. So, what is so wrong with their living conditions? Nothing. Instead of looking outward in this situation, I decided to look inward to American values and what Christianity has become in much of America.
Now, I am not advocating against attempting to increase standards such as quality of life, living conditions, etc. That is absolutely against commands given by Christ, and caring for the poor is an essential staple in the New Testament. This is entirely different. This is weightier. In Ethiopia, they rejoice and are joyous in their conditions, conditions which others may deem as worthy of the label “suffering.” In America, we become angry when our air conditioners break, when our nose is runny, and when we have to get up early. Why might this be? It isn’t simply a reaction against things gone wrong, it is a reaction against discomfort. Another disclaimer I need to state upfront: I am not bashing America nor am I bashing our living conditions, amenities, or ways of life. What I am attempting to get at is much deeper, and is of much more eternal consequence.
Back to the Land of the Habesha. One might ask the question of the social workers at Hanna’s Orphanage: why are they overjoyed in their meek living conditions, in their country where no one can even own land (the government leases all land out, no one owns it), and in their job where they deal with occasionally militant orphans that they neither birthed nor asked to raise? Why? In my last essay, I talked about the necessity of actions in pointing to what your true colors. In this one, I want to paint a picture of people in the midst of suffering.
What I perceive that is the case in much of America (very much in my own urges and desires also) is that we do not truly pursue happiness. We merely run from discomfort and call our temporary rest happiness. Do you see what has happened? Instead of pursuing a pure satisfaction and pleasure, we have become the thing pursued: we are shadowed incessantly by this nasty thing, discomfort, and we are running from it daily with our eyes looking backwards, careening forward into uncharted seas where only more discomfort awaits. For those of you who may object that there are more ambitious folks out there who are daily in pursuit of goals that would provide satisfaction and happiness: there is an inkling of satisfaction to be had in the pursuit of something, but when you achieve it, what then? Don’t kid yourselves; we all get caught up in pursuing things for the sole purpose of only avoiding discomfort. CEO’s cutting themselves paychecks $200 million and up, just because that makes them happy? Women having abortions because it is their ‘right’ to murder unborn children? Men getting drunk to ‘get away from the world’? People buying lottery tickets as a means to rise above current conditions? Pastors too lazy to get out of their pulpit and actually talk to a homosexual, and instead, resorting to hate speech that is absolutely groundless on the basis of Christ’s commands? Worst of all, Christians too prideful to admit to their sinful nature, all in the name of their ‘righteous’ image? I realize that all CEO’s making above $200 million do not squander it and give to many charities that are admirable to say the least. Also, women may be facing a real choice when their lives are at stake during a birth, and worse, some do not have a choice whether or not they get pregnant if they have had the terrible, hellish experience of being raped. In these cases, this is a difficult choice that I would rather die than face. I also realize that not all pastors scream hateful slurs against our homosexual brethren and sisters. Finally, it is would be folly for me to assume that all Christians are absolutely unable to face the fact of their sinful nature. But, I want to make a point. It is not a political point, nor is it a moral point. It is much more widespread than any man made law or legalistic teaching: Do you see what each of these questions has in common? All of these people, and there are an infinite multitude of others that I dare not get into, have done these things to avoid one thing: Discomfort in all of its many forms.
It may not sound like it, but I need you to trust me when I say that I write this as a complete hypocrite and as a sinner preaching from the dirty corner, not from the pulpit: I daily find myself in pursuit of only a temporary alleviation of my discomfort. Americans have mistakenly, in my humble opinion, substituted comfort for true, lasting happiness. We must face it: we run from pain and suffering. We are cowards.
So where do the orphanage social workers come in? They embrace this suffering because of something they hold to be of greater value than their current condition: their faith in the resurrection is above all; above wealth, above health, and above friends and family. The resurrection of Christ is indeed their hope because it validates that something infinitely greater in value awaits them when they face the maw of death: eternal life and satisfaction found in the Creator.
I cannot hold back any longer. I am in no way ready to face some of the pictures that I am about to paint for my audience, but I must show this one point to be true: all people suffer at one point or another in some way, but as Christians, we must rejoice in this suffering. We were not called to run from it, in fact we are called to embrace all suffering in its forms as a purification of our faith. The great John Piper says it best when he writes that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him, in the midst of suffering.”
One of my favorite sermons of all times, C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory (link here), points to the fact that Christians must not seek comfort merely in the things of the earth, but rather pursue happiness in something higher and much sweeter:
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The other side of this coin is a darker one indeed, though we must embrace it’s reality with rejoicing: suffering in the name of the Gospel. In America, there is no persecution. Declines in health are swiftly remedied by medicinal fixes. There is a mechanic for the car, a store for clothes, a grocer for food, a movie theater for good times, and a church for Sunday. You see? We run from discomfort. Yet, in places like Iran where Pastor Nadarkhani remains jailed for his faith, and China where evangelists are still persecuted, the Spirit is moving like a roaring lion.
If you still have doubts about the place of suffering in God’s sovereignty and even in His plan, consider that in Stephen Neil’s History of Christian Missions, he cites the sufferings of the early church as a key factor in its spread: ‘the blood of the martyrs is seed’ (Tertullian, Apologeticus). On the fringes of the Gospel’s expansion, the blood of martyrdom is the fuel that ignites belief amongst even the most errant of sinners. These missionaries have spent their lives and the very blood running through their veins to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Some may say that they have failed because their lives were taken from them, but I submit that this could not be further from the truth. They choose this suffering that they might see the great commission come to fruition and indeed you and I are enjoying this faith that has come to us while we sit cozily in our arm chairs. This did not occur by tranquil processes of sharing the good news and accepting it wholeheartedly, but by hundreds perhaps thousands of years of persecution for Christ’s sake. Jim Elliot had it right when he wrote before his death at the hands of Natives that ‘he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.’
So, let me sum up. This exposition on suffering and how Christians should not flee it was not meant to be anti-American, nor political, nor masochistic in nature. It was meant to present reality. The Gospel was spread to the world through the blood of many martyrs past and this will continue until every single person on earth has heard its news. All animals are equipped with fight or flight mechanisms, but suffering will always catch its prey. Only in due time. Thus, it is a matter of how each member of the Body responds. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him, in the midst of suffering.
For the nonbeliever who reads this, I implore you to question yourself about whether you truly seek happiness, or if you seek comfort. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I have answered all the questions for myself, because these things that I have written challenge me just as much as they probably challenge you. I cannot pretend to write these thoughts down as if they were an everyday reality to me. Do you strive for a career where you name is known by many? Where you make enough money to buy a small town twice over again? Where people praise your merit and your talents and your person? You seek comfort. When I ask myself these questions, I must admit that the answers are not always in line with Christ’s teachings and indeed would merit my condemnation. Thank God for Christ’s sufferings on the cross for my sake! When I beg you to pursue happiness in Christ as your utmost, I am as much encouraging myself, a sinner, to do the same. As C.S. Lewis put it, when we pursue heavenly things, we get a little bit of earth thrown in, but when we pursue merely earthly ransoms, we get neither in the end.
For the believer who reads this, take heart. Suffering is the most powerful tool through which the Gospel is communicated. In an earlier essay, I wrote that a man’s soul is measured by his actions, but perhaps we should go a step further: in the midst of suffering, we find the strength of a man’s convictions. Our desires are indeed too weak; we must seek a higher pleasure in Christ alone. Is it so much of a tragedy to give up lesser pleasures for the utmost treasure? We will suffer, but we do not have to do it in vain. A nonbeliever is most moved when Christians rejoice in Christ in the midst of suffering. This is the reason Paul wrote that if the resurrection were not true, that Christians would be the most pitiable of all creatures: because their attitude in suffering was not justified at all; there was no reality beyond this cold heap of earth which spins on its ends in deep, unorganized space. On the contrary, however, our joy in Christ is greater than any mortal danger and thus must be vindicated by our rejoicing in the midst of any suffering!
Therefore, we must go forth in pursuit of happiness, in pursuit of Christ, and willing to accept pain and suffering for a time before we truly experience eternal comfort in Christ. As I conclude on the necessity of rejoicing in the midst of suffering, I will end with G.K. Chesterton’s notion: ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.’ Let’s ask ourselves this question: to what degree are we willing to suffer for true, eternal happiness?