The Young and the Suffering - As Seen on Sunday
You suffered. You felt betrayal on the cross.
We suffer. We feel betrayal on this earth.
You loved us enough to suffer on our behalf.
We love ourselves enough to desert our covenant at the first signs of personal unrest.
Teach us to love.
No one wants to suffer. So why does Jeremiah extol the virtues of suffering to young people? Why is it good to bite the dust, turn the cheek into the punch, and carry the weight of hardship while you are still young?
I want to suggest three ways that the struggles of our youth are actually beneficial. Not only do we benefit from them individually, but our communities can benefit, but only if we approach our plight with our hope in God and our eyes toward the future.
The Struggle is...
Yes, the struggle is real but it can also be helpful. Struggles can (in)form us about life, teaching us lessons that help us navigate the choppy seas. They also produce a ritual of coping. Sometimes our mechanisms are not healthy, but that doesn't mean they have to be. Finally, the struggle of youth can give us the courage to fight for the future that should be. It turns our natural optimism into a driving force for personal and social change. Let's look at these areas more deeply.
When we are young we are dumb. At worst. At best we are naive and nothing cures a case of naivete like good, old-fashioned hard times.
When we are young we don't know what we don't know and we barely know what we actually know. We develop theories of the world and how it should work and quickly become disillusioned when it doesn't work that way.
If only we had a teacher to reveal to us the truth of the world.
That, of course, is a most ironic statement. Especially to American youth who are provided teachers almost as instantly as they emerge from the womb. Aiding my parents in teaching me this world was Mr. Rogers and the Sesame Street posse. My daughter had an entire "Baby First" network that aided in the development of social and cognitive skills. Let's not forget all the technological advances that put the "app" in application - as in the application of knowledge to our malleable minds.
Still, all the intellectual preparation can never prepare us for the emotional gut punch of betrayal, the sting of corruption, or the agony of loss.
We are, after all, feeling creatures. We desire. We imagine.
These are not intellectual pursuits - these are the pursuits of the heart. And there are very few teachers of the heart. There are very few teachers that can inform our feelings - our emotions. Sure many will attempt to intellectually explain emotions - but it is here where we can go back and say that we don't know what we do know. We don't know intellectually what we do know in the heart.
Suffering is a teacher of the heart and the mind. It lives as a guide between the two worlds that we struggle to keep apart. We tend to build an intellectual wall to protect our emotions or emote profusely so we don't have to think. Suffering gives us a language, it provides a life where the cognitive and emotional are inextricably linked.
Suffering helps free us from the illusions that blind us and rob us of our destined humanity. Pain is a great teacher, not because it changes our mind - though it will, but because it shapes our hearts.
Perhaps this is what Jeremiah meant when he said it was good for the young to suffer. The experience could teach the young generation that this is what happens when you look to other gods to fulfill the desires of your heart. The pain you feel when you are young will shape how you act when you are old. We are formed by the experience and will set out to not repeat it.
But to not repeat the past we need new formative processes that will change the trajectory of our lives. We will need new rituals that will form and shape our desires.
Nothing sends people scurrying for new rituals like painful and traumatic experiences. A heart attack will get you to the gym even though you've known for a while that you should be regularly attending.
And notice the operative phrase regularly attending. The gym experience is not a one-and-done fix. A new ritual has to be created.
Pain and suffering shake up the foundations of our lives. When our foundations crumble we instinctively look for new rituals to bring some stability to our unstable lives.
We turn to rituals at the slightest appearance of dis-ease, whether biological or psychological. It does not take much to send us scurrying to the comfort of our liturgies to "escape for a little while." There are many types of rituals that we partake in. Some good. Some bad. Consider the following rituals or liturgies that we partake in to ease the pain:
- Meeting at the bar to drink away the depressions of the work day
- Turning on the TV as soon as you get home in order to turn you over-worked brain off for a while
- Eating sweets at night to bump your naturally deflated blood-sugar levels
- Bingeing Netflix because your house is a mess and cleaning sucks.
- Cleaning your house obsessively because you feel your life is completely unorganized
These are rituals that mostly remain unconscious to us (we don't know what we really know). But we turn to them because they provide us something.
Perhaps Jeremiah was hoping that the suffering of young people would result in them adopting God-honoring rituals?
If you can learn to seek God for refuge when you are young then perhaps you will seek Him fro refuge as you get older. Perhaps this is what Proverbs 22:6 is getting at when it says,
If our culture-rich rituals distract us from our daily lives, how much more will establishing God-honoring rituals sustain us in the times of blessing and the times of pain and suffering?
But all of this is just hypothetical, right? It's theoretical. You don't really believe in this abstract concept of faith and religion. No. We're too smart for that. Right?
Well, there is one more benefit to times of suffering. It turns the hypothetical into somethign very real.
Faith in Jesus moves from some abstract concept to concrete truth when it is proved valid. This is part of the reason why we deliberately try intellectually "prove" the validity of Christianity. We so desperately long for a "correct" worldview that we philosophize, theorize and theologize our minds just so we can be sure that what we believe is true.
But the knowledge of the mind has a long journey to the center of the heart. As long as life stays in the mind life will be nothing more than a theory. But a life lived from the heart will be full and alive.
Suffering is one way to bring the knowledge of the head into the life of the heart.
The faithfulness of God is proved to us only after it has been proved to us.
We can theorize about God's love and faithfulness all we want. We can hear the stories of others, read it in his book, and sing songs about it.
But the faithfulness of God is made real to us when we most need it be real to us.
When we are at our lowest.
When we have suffered much.
When our illusions have been stripped away.
When the reality of the world rages.
When our lives have fallen apart and we feel like dying would be a better choice.
When our enemies win and mock us.
Even when it seems that God himself has forsaken us...
The Suffering of Jesus
"Eli, Eli lama sabbacthani!"
"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
The words of Jesus on the cross. His father turned his back on on him. In Jesus' greatest moment of suffering, it appeared that he was betrayed and left alone to die. The story of Lamentations is the story of Jesus on the cross.
Jesus knew that God would be faithful and that his will would be done. But in the moment it felt like all was lost.
Still, he held on to hope...
And the theoretical love of God, the theoretical promises that were made to the people of the Old Testament, the theoretical covenant between God and man was no longer theoretical.
In Jesus the theoretical became actual.
And this is why we still have hope.
The covenant between God and people is forever established with the sacrifice of Jesus.
And even though we default on the contract, God never did and never will.
I pray that you find this true in your struggles.