My best friend from college, Mary, never answers her phone. She has been going through some tough stuff lately so I call her regularly to tell her voicemail I am thinking about her and hope she’s doing okay. So when she answered on Thursday night, I did not believe it was her. In fact, I thought she had changed the message to say “Hi Janey” because I call so often. But it was, in fact, Mary. We were talking about different things going on in our lives and she told me about yet another tragedy in her life (there have been a lot lately). She then said something interesting, “Whenever I am around Christians (she had just returned from some sort of retreat), I feel like we compete to see who has the worst problems and the most difficult life.” After a week of wondering what I could possibly write about, Mary gave me the answer.
Why do we compete for the worst life? It’s completely opposite of how most of us would think. Usually, we try to have the best life, the nicest, biggest, cheapest apartment (I live in New York where people freely discuss how much or how little they pay for rent- it’s not even remotely taboo). We try to have the nicest clothes or the best car or the smartest children. But I have noticed among Christians the same problem that Mary noticed. We all want to have the most difficult life.
I remember small group from the beige church and if someone shared a struggle or a sad thing, usually people would “hmm” or “yeah” while she spoke and then would share their own experience with that struggle or something sad. I remember in fifth grade Sunday School, I heard someone talking about their mom hitting something with her car. I immediately rushed into the conversation and said, “One time, my dad hit a rabbit. It was so sad.” That was a big deal for me- we had hit a rabbit on our vacation and I made my dad go back to make sure it was okay. It was not. Then my teacher informed me that this classmate of mine’s mom had hit a child with her car. I still feel awful about my statement.
I think we try to make our lives seem more difficult for a few reasons. I think part of it is what I addressed in an earlier blog post about testimonies. I think we believe that unless there is something major to triumph over, our story is worthless. It makes sense from a narrative perspective. Who wants to watch a movie where the hero just has to walk upstairs to get his princess? Or who wants to watch a movie about two dogs and a cat in the backyard? No, we want him to have to cut through huge briar forests and defeat the evil witch (Sleeping Beauty). We want the animals to have to walk all the way across America with some sassy dialogue and humorous antics (Homeward Bound) to get back to their families. Without difficulty, our stories seem much more boring. But we need to shift our thinking- we are not the heroes of our own stories. We are the princesses needing rescuing. I am going to write more on this later.
I also think it’s in reaction to what we are often compelled to do- be prideful and brag about our great lives. I can feel that reaction in me. Because we do not want to portray Jesus as the great white rabbit’s foot that can fix everything if we just carry him with us, we dive into a different picture- one where Jesus doesn’t fix anything on earth and in our lives and where our lives continue to suck or even get worse. There are two ends of the spectrum: those who preach the Health and Wealth Gospel and those who preach the Despair Gospel (if that makes sense). The first group is often quite popular, a la Joel Osteen, because they talk about Jesus like a self-help guru. We can live our best lives ever, make a lot of money, feel better, lose weight, fix whatever it is that ails us, etc. by believing in Jesus. Who doesn’t want that to work? Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, authentic Christianity says that there are bigger problems than our poverty, our illness and our weight issues.
This is where the second group tends toward a gospel of despair- the world is broken, we are sinful, nothing changes until we get to heaven. Our lives are more difficult because that is how we can know we are Christians, if our lives suck. There are flaws in this too, obviously. Whenever I hear people say that the world is in a downward spiral and we’re only a few steps away from the apocalyptic chaos depicted in Doomsday, Waterworld (a great movie if you watch it as a comedy rather than the drama it was intended to be) etc., I am always drawn to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s what I studied in school and I love that period of history because it shows how God does in fact care about people and our lives on earth and prompted thousands to move together to change things. I know it may not be the best example but you cannot convince me that culture is falling apart when only forty years ago, our entire culture shifted and serious wrongs were righted. And, Christians are not the only people who suffer. Everyone does. Suffering is not what makes us a Christian. It is what makes us human.
But back to the problem at hand, why do we compete for the Toughest Life Award? As I said, I think part of it is a desire for a better story and part is in reaction to the misguided Health and Wealth preachers. But I think part of it is also things we learned in Sunday School. We learned that Christians’ lives are not perfect just because they are Christians. And we learned about the saints (thank you Sacred Heart Catholic School) and martyrs of the faith. Job was held up as an example of how Christians should respond under duress. I think somewhere in my mind, I equated great suffering with great faith. I somehow came to believe that God did not want me to be happy, he wanted me to be sad. I walk around in great fear of the next tragedy. Whenever my life seems good or fun or like what I want it to be, I get anxious. I worry that something will happen to my family or my friends. I have become catastrophic. And I do not think I am alone.
I think deep down, I believe that God will continue to test me (again, see Job- it’s hard not to think we have to stand up under serious pressure to make God happy), because I am good enough to handle it. I think of Bible verses about how God will not give us more than we can bear. When you carry that idea through, you see how easy it is to believe that the best Christians, the ones who are suffering the most are the ones who can bear the most. Therefore, (I feel somewhat like a lawyer here), we think that we must suffer greatly to be great Christians.
But here’s the deal- we are never good enough to handle it. Yes, we may not collapse in a heap on the floor when tragedy strikes. We may have incredibly difficult lives (this is in no way to diminish those very sad experiences people have). But, we do not have to be cheerful or joyful or respond silently as Job did to be good Christians. The truth is we, on our own, are not good enough or strong enough to handle it. I wish someone had told me that suffering is not a test; you do not get a score. It’s like those kids in high school who would tell you what they got on the SAT, not just for your information but to make sure you knew how smart they are. Note to those kids- we get it- you’re smart. We do not have to “pass the test” on how to suffer well. It’s okay to be angry and hurt and cry out to God. Hell, Jesus did on the cross.
So what does this all mean? Does it mean we should quit telling our friends about our pain? No. It does, however, mean that maybe we should listen to one another before sharing our own problems and maybe we should take a moment to make sure we are sharing for the good of others and not to let them know we got a 1400 on our SATs, even if we did (I did not, for the record). And ultimately, we are not expected to suffer well. It is not an indication of whether you are a good Christian. Suffering is an experience we share as humans and we should say thank you to the God we can cry out to, rather than thank you for the suffering ‘cause it’s a chance to show how awesome I am. Though if anyone has prayed that prayer, I give you major points because it is hilarious.