I wanted to start this off by quoting a resource I had recently come across. Once, sometimes twice, during a week I get a free book that is considered a resource for Christians. It is a simple newsletter that lands in my e-mail inbox every Monday/Tuesday and Friday. I generally forget I have the limited opportunity to grab these publications but once upon a time one came into my inbox that grabbed my attention immediately. It was called Glorious Ruin: How suffering sets you free by Tullian Tchividjian. In my experience, books that attempt to explain how our horrible experiences in life are room to grow tend to bury our problems and never give anything tangible about how to pick ourselves up and move on. I have not even finished the Introduction to the book and already I feel I am obligated to quote the book as it addresses the glaring issue I have always come across without fail. It is likely that this essay will not cover all the ground it needs to and it’s likely that I will add to it in the coming months. Identity is no simple matter and I will not wrap it up in a single essay.
Here are the parts, from the Introduction (emphasis original):
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t share the details of a difficult situation without someone immediately offering a solution or a spiritual platitude? Have you ever responded that way yourself? The required cheerfulness that characterizes many of our churches produces a suffocating environment of pat, religious answers to the painful, complex questions that riddle the lives of hurting people. We will look at how this culture of mandatory happiness actually promotes dishonesty and more suffering.
…understanding the root and inevitability of pain is rarely enough to alleviate or reduce it. The Nobel Prize-winning social psychologist Daniel Kahneman has built a storied career proving the limits of self-knowledge when it comes to suffering. Even when we know where the hurt is coming from, we tend to respond in one of two ways: we moralize or we minimize.
Moralists interpret misfortune as the karmic result of misbehavior. This for that. “You failed to obey God, so He gave your child an illness.” Such rule-based economies of punishment and reward may be the default mode of the fallen human heart, but that doesn’t make them any less brutal! This does not mean that sin doesn’t have consequences. If you blow all of your money on booze, you will likely reap poverty, loneliness, and cirrhosis of the liver. Simple cause and effect. But to conclude that suffering people have somehow heaped up trouble for themselves on the Cosmic Registry and that God is doling out the misery in direct proportion would be more than mistaken; it would be cruel.
The second and equally counterproductive impulse when it comes to suffering is the one that minimizes. Have you ever heard someone try to comfort a grieving friend, saying, “Death is a natural part of life”? The intention may be compassionate, but the recipient seldom experiences that way. For them, you have just minimized their pain, implying that death and devastation are morally neutral, that our perceptions are ultimately what create the problem of pain–that if we were only able to detach from our emotions, we would experience peace in life, no matter the circumstances. And while there is a certain truth to that–Paul does ask, “Death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55 KJV)–in the moment, it can convey immense insensitivity. Moreover, we minimize suffering when we instrumentalize it. That is, when we subordinate suffering to the result it might achieve, or when we reduce it to a glorified means of self-improvement, as certain daytime talk show hosts might be accused of doing. Christians, of course, use spiritual language to minimize suffering constantly, even their own. The need to exonerate God in the midst of tragedy–even to shove Bible verses in a person’s face (regardless of how profound or true they may be)–can be just as harmful as saying something actively discouraging, as if God were small enough to be invalidated by our individual suffering.
Both the moralizing and the minimizing approaches are attempts to keep suffering at bay, to play God. It is safe to say that when we our faith (or lack thereof) feels like a fight against the realities of suffering instead of a resource for accepting them, we are on the wrong track. Writer and theologian Robert Farrar Capon has suggested that perhaps we need to “turn the question around–the message is for suffering and conflicted people. Christ on the cross meets us in our suffering and conflicts not in the promise to take them all away. He is simply with us in all our times” (emphasis original). Capon means that our hope is not “Jesus plus an explanation as to why suffering happens,” or “Jesus plus an explanation as to why you have this job, that spouse, or these circumstances or pain.” He is suggesting that God is especially present in suffering.
Tchividjian, Tullian. Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012. 2, 3-6. EPUB file.
It does no good to try to redirect the problem and reality of the situations of those around us. It would help no one to minimize or moralize a problem. In reality, it makes things worse. These responses make those who feel abandoned really abandoned. Those who suffer often have to stand alone. This is a problem that I’ve come across so often while seeking help that I actually resolved to stop asking, because every time without fail my situation only got worse. It was as if I was incapable of sharing my burden. I became so used to this treatment that the first time someone actually decided to sit down and force me to talk, I was both in shock and scared. I didn’t know what to do- it was as if the impossible was happening to me. I can say, with much regret, that this kind of support had come from those who were dear to me, not necessarily the other Christians that I was supposed to rely on. This integral body of Christ was divided at the cellular level, such that I was festering with no immune system to turn to.
It is from this kind of personal experience that I am coming from. I never want to subjugate others to this same kind of treatment. The suffering we have to fight through is no small burden despite how much we try to pretend.
Yet, I feel that the focus of this writing is coming from those who have already been defeated. Those who, in their lives, have come across struggles, personal questions, and given minimized or moralized answers that have left us short-changed. In the wake of this, I feel that we have become people who are simply discontent with how things are, and we wish it to be… different. Not every case is the same, and I do not mean to generalize them all or pretend that I will address every possible case. That’s an impossible task, and I only hope that, through this, I can reach the people who are stuck where I used to be in life.
Where we come from…
I had what some might call an overactive imagination. I grew up watching Star Wars and thus I grew up thinking about Star Wars. I wondered what it would be like to be Jedi, or a Rebel, or a Stormtrooper. I had shirts, actions figures, and toys of speeders. I reenacted fights on the bed in my room, creating a false terrain made of pillows, blankets, and a bunk bed. Each character had their own voice, and I decided who the commander was for each force. I even ran little scenarios and pretended that there was a legitimate skirmish where the battle lines moved. I was generally happy with this little setup and it entertained me.
At some point, I think late at night, I wondered why it couldn’t be real. Why did it have to be some kind of figment of my imagination? Real life seemed so dull in comparison to the colorful and spectacular worlds that populated my bedroom floor and the TV screen. This question persisted throughout my life until I became almost obsessed with it. I couldn’t mend the books I was reading with reality and it rent my mind in two: half of me was ticked that reality was so boring while the other half of me just wanted to get away from all the stress and responsibility. There was nothing fun about reality, it seemed, when compared to dragons or spacewars and supervillains and heroes.
I think it goes without saying that I wasn’t happy with who I was as well. I literally envied the housecat because of how easy their lives seemed in comparison- how agile and flexible. They seemed to have the image of perspicacity and wisdom in their faces, while they had a sassy passive-aggressive side that made them at least entertaining to toy with. I didn’t care that they didn’t have opposable thumbs and that they couldn’t build structures with LEGOs, only chew on them. Even the thought of being an alien in Star Wars was entertaining as well. Maybe a Mandalorian Bounty Hunter with an inclination towards the force, who could prowl the undercity of Coruscant chasing criminals.
But I was just a young boy who felt that he was limited by who he was. Just a human. An unnoticeable dot on a slightly larger blue dot in the terrifyingly large scale of the universe. Surely, somewhere, what I wanted to be existed? Why couldn’t I be it? Instead, I’m scrawny white boy with a bowl in his chest that made me dread going to the pool when others were around. I felt, and still feel, handicapped in my identity. I wanted to be something more. I wanted to be attractive, successful, and placed in a world that didn’t seem to be falling apart at every seam.
There’s a comparison trap that we always fall into. It might be the only thing I managed to glean from one of the support books I’ve read. We compare ourselves to other things and grow discontent when we don’t meet the standards. I’m not attractive, I can’t sing well, I have a thing in my chest, I… It goes on for quite a while. I’ve failed society’s standards and I’d failed my own. I fell into depression for a little while as a result.
I picked up escapes, however, to deal with what I felt was a cosmic joke of a life. I read books, and when that didn’t do enough good for me, I started writing. Originally, it was a deviation off of an already existing fictional universe. I took it as an inspiration next and threw away what I already had and started again. And again. And again. I didn’t want to focus on school, which was boring and what felt like a waste of time learning stuff that was far too easy for me.
I had become so discontent with life, and who and what I was, that it was beginning to become damaging.
I don’t claim to have all the answers. I never will. I’m only comfortable talking about what I already know, whether I’m actually right or not. I don’t pretend to know all that is to be known in this universe. I try to speak primarily from experience and things learned firsthand, or from the firsthand accounts of others. I needed to say this before I get on to the next part. But I also need to make it abundantly clear that while the above is true, my words are not meant to be dismissed simply because it doesn’t match perfectly the cases that exist out in the world.
I didn’t believe in God for more than half of my life. I attended church with my mom, talked whatever talk, and had some superstitious reasoning that the universe just happened and that God was some mythical thing. But not one of power, if it even existed. Now my world is flip-flopped. Everything has its meaning from God and that is all I want to see. God made this universe and us and He made it Himself. I don’t believe it because it seems cathartic (someone else’s assumption about my beliefs, mind you). I believe it because it has become the only possible explanation that has made sense.
I wanted to argue with God initially. I wanted to pray to God to get an A on a spelling test in the first grade and then not care when I did get an A. God was a tool, if He amounted to anything at all. After a while I just thought about God as something that people talked about, but was just some ghost or something that did nothing. I was wrong, and I realized that when I noticed whatever creative potential there was in the universe, I had. Even LEGOs and K’nex, though just toys, were something that I was able to create something amazing with. That idea got me thinking.
Eventually God stopped being a myth in my mind and a real living thing that was the reason for everything. But I was frustrated by His existence, as it seemed to get in my way. I didn’t like going to church until a couple of years ago. I’m twenty now. I’ve had plenty time to live and develop as a person and I like to think that I’ve moved in the right direction.
It wasn’t until recently that I stumbled across a train of thought that I hadn’t touched in a long time. I was so upset with how shortchanged I felt, that I began to wonder if for some reason I just wasn’t making sense. This God that I speak of made this universe and me. Every single thing is unique. I am something more than handcrafted.
With everything that I hate about myself, this is the way God chose me to be. I may have been born with something that could kill me in the future, but I am this way for a reason. If I try to complain about how shortchanged I am, I’m God’s masterpiece telling Him He could have done better. I’m telling God “You should have made me something else. I don’t like this. I should have been different than this.” It would be arguing vainly at God. It often came to such a strong degree that I rejected Biblical teachings just to match what I had in mind for how things ought to be. I ignored the normative nature of God’s creation in substitution for my own idea. In shortest words, I saw myself as being more than God- that I knew better. I was throwing away my second greatest gift from Him: who I was.
Coming to Terms
It’s not easy. I still complain. I still am uncomfortable with myself. It’s only a recent realization that I still struggle with fully realizing. It’s a work and progress and maybe it will always be. Trying to understand something so complex will take time. I just know that, God made me this way and put me here for a reason. I don’t know what it is yet, or if I’ve already done it or not, but I have a reason to exist, the way I am. I was dysphoric about who I was. I’m not that way anymore, but I still think about it. I wonder what it would be like, to be a dragon, or to be futuristic soldier fighting for good.
But I’m not. I’m not for a reason. If God holds His promises, even in the slightest degree, then I know that whatever I desired will be surpassed and I will be surprised by what God has in store. Until then, I only wish to be the best I can be, as God meant me to.
This has been an abundantly personal exploration, one that I will revisit and add on to later, about the philosophical implications. I’ve only touched once about the relationship between Man and God. Soon, I hope I can bring more Scripture into this instead of speaking about the direct normative interaction.