Is It "All For the Best??"
In the first post of the new year, I concluded with, "How do we find joy in and through suffering and in how can we find our joy in Christ rather than circumstances?"
Thankfully, there are so many helpful answers in Scripture and in the writings from wise others. One that I've been relying on heavily is Peter Lee's Joy Unspeakable: Finding Joy in Christ-Like Suffering.
It's such a perfect find, because it connects suffering with another topic that I've been mulling over for years...Union with Christ. Like other recent writers helping to resurrect a rather forgotten bit of theology, Lee points out that being a Christian means that we are united to Christ...and that means united to Him in triumph and glory, as well as in suffering. Here are some great tidbits:
We tend to see suffering as something negative that should be avoided at all cost. According to Peter [Note: he's referring to the Apostle Peter], sharing in the sufferings of Christ is not a negative experience, while sharing in his glory is considered good. For Peter sharing Christ’s sufferings is good, but sharing Christ’s glory is better....
Christian suffering is rarely seen as a form of fellowship with Christ. It is more commonly explained as a necessary but unfortunate experience that we must tolerate until we gain the glory of Christ. As true as this may be, this view does not portray Christ-centered suffering the way that Peter sees it—as a source of joy. We hear about Jesus’s sufferings that he endured throughout his life and then distance ourselves from it. After all, we instinctively avoid anything that pains us. The suffering of Christ—so powerfully and eloquently portrayed in the Easter season—remains separate from the sufferings of his people. Believers do not fellowship with Christ in his sufferings because that invitation is not made by God’s church, either in Sunday school classrooms or the pulpit.
His source passage for these comments is I Peter 4:12-13:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
I was breathing in the book of Isaiah last year, which was powerful and helpful. But, in terms of a "how to" response to suffering, Peter (both the author, and the apostle!) says it so, so clearly. I was indeed surprised at the "fiery ordeal"--not just this year (which was the hardest), but for many years. I jokingly went into 2021 saying (I know, I know, I'm the one who cursed this year!), "I just want one good, peaceful year!," and my brother wisely responded, "How about praying for a good, peaceful week?" Yes, indeed! Everyone has encountered difficulty in life, but there's difficulty, and then there's difficulty. I'd been through many hard things, but the past few years have been harder than many. I won't rehash them all again...snippets are peppered through last year's blog posts. But, the past year brought things up to a new level.
Was it suffering for Christ? Partly. I made changes in life, partly due to taking a moral stance on how to engage in my profession (i.e. working in higher education) with integrity. I also left a situation that involved suffering for myself and others mainly because I thought I was no longer able to effect any positive change to alter the situation for anyone. I make mistakes every day, but I try to live as a Christ-follower with intentionality in all things. Did I think that I deserved to have it easy? Maybe. I was a little taken aback when it was not, but was able to fall back on a theology of suffering, understanding that it rains "on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). And yet, I was surprised by the unrelenting nature of the suffering, and the many forms of it. Hence, this study to help myself and others not be so very surprised. After all, the apostle Peter warns us about it! If you're suffering, it's not strange. It's life.
But the next sentence in I Peter 4 tells us to "rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ's sufferings." Peter Lee, and other excellent teachers, point out that we aren't to rejoice that we're suffering--in the fake, plastered on smile referenced in my last post (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/smile-first). It can be hard to respond to others going through pain, and it's often easier to avoid and say that it's not so bad (if it's happening to ourselves) or it's all for the best (if it's happening to someone else). Sometimes Christians mistakenly think that they have to feel happy about all things, including suffering, but I'm not aware of any denomination in Christendom that explicitly teaches that.
Now to take a brief detour...I have always loved the Godspell song, "All For the Best," (https://youtu.be/LQURd7pIFyA) mainly due to how very fun it is to sing. However, the overall thrust of the song, and particularly the lovely soft-shoe chorus, is exactly what the Peters are not talking about here. That is, putting on a vaudeville smile and just telling each other that each hardship is "all for the best." I can say from experience, that that particular comment is not all that encouraging in the midst of pain, and many narrative accounts on grief and suffering say this clearly.
Instead, the apostle Peter is talking about rejoicing insofar as we are suffering. The New King James Bible translates this as, "rejoice to the extent that you partake in Christ's sufferings," which is a little more clear perhaps. And part of the rejoicing is about future glory. So, it's not that the Godspell song is so very wrong (in the lyrics, it's "all for the best" because "when you go to heaven, you'll be blessed"), it's just that the focus is off. The emphasis, as Peter Lee points out, is on sharing in Christ's sufferings, which is what connects us to Him so that we share in His glory. It's a two-part deal.
Shockingly, Peter Lee says we don't just have to "tolerate" sufferings, gritting our teeth as we act like martyrs. It's clear that the early Christians through the medieval Christians had a very different view of suffering than we do today--more on that in future posts! As Lee says, today we "distance" ourselves from Christ's sufferings. While His suffering was once and for all, and He is not perpetually on the cross, our current trials are now. He told us that we'd have these trials.
One consolation perhaps is that terrible people have great difficulties, too! And, even if it looks like they don't (see Psalm 73 for a meditation on why do the wicked prosper??), psychological research again provides some helpful truths, this time about hedonism. It's as if we're not able to be happy for very long, even when things are going smoothly. Here's a helpful article on a classic theory--the hedonic treadmill, named after the human tendency to pursue one pleasure after another, after another, and so on: https://positivepsychology.com/hedonic-treadmill/ Some great tidbits include:
"Studies have shown that our circumstances don’t account for most of our happiness."
"The theory of the hedonic treadmill states that regardless of what happens to people, their levels of happiness will eventually return to their baselines. Take this theory with a classic example: say you get married, move into a new house, get a promotion, lose a job, suffer an accident, etc., over time, you’re likely to return to your set point of happiness."
"If someone is fortunate enough to experience an abundance of positive events spaced out over a relatively short period of time, the constant influx of happiness may lead a person to believe that his or her general happiness has increased. But that’s not what the research suggests."
"...a notable piece of research on the hedonic treadmill studied two sets of people: One was a group of people who won large lottery prizes, and the other was a group of accident victims who were now paralyzed (including quadriplegic and paraplegic people). The research revealed that, in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). Of course, the lottery winners and paralysis victims experienced initial reactions of happiness and sadness, respectively. The effects didn’t turn out to be long-lasting, and people in both groups shortly reverted to their previous levels of happiness."
Why on earth is it a consolation? Well, it's a great consolation for anyone tempted to say, "Forget this! I didn't sign up for caring for others, or suffering patiently. I might as well just keep running after things that make me happy!" Because, honestly, there's no remedy. Even if you had all the money and the world and just kept buying thing after thing to please yourself, and you got rid of everyone in your life who annoyed you, and had power and prestige...eventually, you'll go back to some kind of a baseline of happiness. You won't be all that more happy than you are right now, because happiness is largely not based on circumstance (it's more like 50/50...innate tendencies vs. circumstance). Those of us who follow the lives of celebrities (my hand is up....I just love reading biographies!!) know this to be true. Some of the richest, most successful people are deeply, deeply unhappy. Suicides, drug overdoses, erratic behavior...all of these things serve as warning signs that you can't buy your way out of suffering and unhappiness.
Interestingly, and as the above article mentions, the field of positive psychology is currently exploring the hypothesis that practicing lovingkindness toward others is one of the few ways to move the needle toward happiness--and this involves positive meditations and thoughts about others.
As Reformed Christians like to say, "All truth is God's truth!"
So, we can't escape suffering, and we're not just to tolerate it. If one follows Christ, the suffering has meaning. One of the reasons it's there is to connect us to Christ. The passage in I Peter 4 ends with this verse (19):
Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God's will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.
Sounds pretty consistent with the research literature, with one extra key peace: entrust yourself to a faithful Creator.
We're going to need more on this line of thinking--more next time on what it means to fellowship with Christ in his sufferings!