Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?
Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.
This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.
While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.
It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.
Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.
So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.
Can life make any sense? Or are you doomed to make the same mistakes and hope Fortune will smile on you once in a while? In all the apparent randomness of our world, what’s surprising is for anyone to claim to have the answers. Because as we all know, no one can have all the answers. And that seems like that’s just what I’m doing here and what my church St John’s is attempting to do in October as we seek to do a series of online talks on honor, joy, fulfillment, meaning, certainty, and the most Aussie value of all: a fair go.
But whether you think there’s an answer or not, your response and attitude to the big questions of life like meaning and fulfillment will impact how you live. I was encouraged to watch our pastors David ask his barista about why she believed fulfillment was the important question and Ronaldo who interviewed his barber in a similar way. Despite all the corruption in the world, I was reminded that in each of us the pursuit for life remains. Whether it is man’s search for meaning as Victor Frankl recognized or Pascal’s observation that “all men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
So why ask these questions? Because while I believe no one but God alone has all the answers, everyone looks for them. But why would we look for something that we would never have a capacity for? As CS Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Without joy or fulfillment, meaning or certainty, honor or equality, death is the only logical choice. We need these answers. Not because we can know all of them. But because we were made to know the ones that matter to us. We need them to live a proper life.
I suppose what I’m saying is not to waste this opportunity. You can avoid thinking about these things. You can live hedonistically only for your own pleasure. But that is still an answer. And we would love to know what you think. How is it working out for you? Join us online athttps://www.facebook.com/stjohnscathedralparramatta stay tuned for Oct 18th, 25th and Nov 1st where we’ll answer a survey of the people of Parramatta to provide some and not all of the answers. But we hope they’ll be the ones you need.
Can you be always happy? As a human being probably not. There just always seems to be something in the way – a date who’s late or a dog who won’t stop dropping his doodoo in your bathroom. But it doesn’t stop people from trying because the drive for your own happiness is universal. You try to get to bed earlier so you can wake up refreshed. You try to jog to lose weight and feel better about yourself. You try to read more books. You try. But you can’t stop. You can’t pulling your phone out as soon as you get up. You can’t stop shouting at your wife. And you just can’t stop…well, being you. All of these failures take their toll, leaving us with a vague disappointment and an even vaguer cynicism. We’ll never be happy.
Why is it that we seem stuck on a treadmill of happiness? We pursue it at every moment but can never grasp or find it. Maybe it’s because we’re too often searching to change our circumstances rather than first letting ourselves be changed. Happiness is not a thing. It is not the weather, rainy now and sunny later or blazing hot and chilling cold. Happiness is a perception. It’s our attitude to life. When joy shows up it can happen anywhere, no matter the circumstance. We can always find that reason to be thankful or to rejoice or to hope.
Happiness doesn’t mean being okay with what’s going on. No one rejoices because their child got cancer. No one should rejoice when they’re lied to or exploited. It doesn’t exclude being disappointed or angry. Happiness can spring out of these areas. Because having an unshakeable joy means having the right view of what’s really happening. It’s hopeful that wrongs will be righted. It knows that things will not always be that way. And it trusts that all that’s happened, happened for good reasons. Can you see what this means? Happiness is personal. It always has been. From when you were a child wondering if your mom would return to school to pick you up till now as you wonder if you’ll be there for your kids. I wonder if joy is the answer to the question: can you trust me?
Not if the universe is impersonal. Not if we’re just loose collections of atoms floating from here to there. Not if we came from nowhere and go to nowhere. Not if all that is all that will be. Existence is simply an accident without rhyme or reason, purpose or plan. Goodness is simply what helps us survive and those we want to survive. The will to survive is the will to power. And so all of life will be a fight for life before an unwanted death. After that all memory of ourselves will be wiped away. And in a billion years when the earth no longer ceases, the universe will scarcely have remembered the land we soiled.
Happiness doesn’t come from accidents.
An unshakeable joy comes from an unshakeable person. It comes from seeing the Creator behind creation. And it’s so hard to come by because we’re so short sighted. I think it can be hard for Christians to accept that it was meant for Jim Eliott to die to the Huaorani he wanted to reach. It’s hard for Australians to accept that it was meant for many ANZACs to forfeit their lives in the battlefields of Europe to keep Australians free. We ask: How could this amount of suffering produce any justifiable good? We just can’t see it. But if only we knew. If only I knew. What would I be? If I knew what glory would reveal for me. All I see all glimpses of light. But I long to see the mirror of delight.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
Our hearts intuitively seek happiness
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson
The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.
3 problems with living for happiness
- Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
- The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
- I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.
Why living for meaning is better
While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.