On Thursday, November 15, a ferocious ice storm hit southern West Virginia, downing trees, knocking out power, and causing major property damage across several counties. Our family lost power for over 30 hours, and six large trees came down in our yard. The children were cross, sitting in a cold, dark house and unable to get on the internet. More importantly, they were unsettled. To them, electrical power is a fundamental fact of life. It is always there – you flip a switch and…shazam! When you need power, it is suddenly there. They could not imagine living like my grandmother, raised in rural southern Arkansas, whose only power was fire in candles, oil lamps, and stoves… or sunlight.
Our children are no longer little, and the greatest trauma that they experienced from the ice storm was the discomfort from hours of cutting, chopping, dragging, and otherwise cleaning up the mess. They have experienced far greater trauma in the past, including the deaths of family members, cancer diagnoses, financial stressors, and parental unemployment. Previous generations had it worse – my grandparents’ house burned to the ground after only six months of marriage. They lost everything. My great-grandfather died in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, leaving behind a wife and eight children.
Unwanted and unexpected events, including tragedies, are part of life. We try to prevent them, constructing stronger buildings, improving health care, designing safer cars, and the like. These efforts are partly successful. But still tragedies come. Sometimes disasters occur due to forces beyond our control, but other times they come directly from our own actions – drunk driving, domestic violence, or a drug overdose.
The Modern Response
A culture that rejects the possibility of a loving, just, and all-powerful God struggles with the presence of suffering in the world. If there is no afterlife, there can be no hope of justice in the hereafter. Therefore justice can only occur in the here and now. If there is no existence beyond the grave, what transcendent meaning can suffering have?
It should be no surprise that many people in the current day reject anything that might cause them suffering, and do all they can to eliminate it entirely from life. Suffering of any type (mental, physical, emotional, social, etc.) is unacceptable, and woe be to those through whom it comes, whether they intended it or not. To allay someone else’ suffering is good, but only if you can do it with no harm, and minimum sacrifice, to yourself.
Forests of academic papers decry the wounds of the world and the permanent disability which they cause. Young adults refuse to have children because kids are too expensive, too much trouble, and would interfere with their personal freedom and fun. They are happy to thank others who suffer and sacrifice, but would not dream of doing it themselves.
The Christian Response
In the past, parents believed, and taught their children, that hardship built character – making each individual and family stronger than they were before. Speaking often from a Christian worldview, they might have quoted Romans 5:3-5:
“Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”
In this passage, the Apostle Paul was talking about both tragedies caused by nature and those caused by others, such as persecution. Many other places in the Scripture teach that hardship, and the struggle to overcome it, is to be handled with faith, love, hope, and joy. Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and all of the other faithful servants of God went through intense pain. Job faced disaster, Isaiah was executed, and God told Ananias how greatly Paul would suffer for His name’s sake. The righteous man thrives because he is firmly planted by streams of water (Psalms 1:3), and this planting comes upon by a faithful study of God’s word, an intimate personal relationship with God Himself, and a good dose of suffering.
Alleviating suffering is noble, and is a major part of my work as a physician and minister. However, intentionally sacrificing one’s own time, talents, health, and even life to suffer for others and to give glory to God is far nobler. Just as the trees that had shallow roots toppled and died during the ice storm, so people living for pleasure and appearances topple and die. Just as the trees that had deep roots survived and even thrived during the ice storm, so people living for the glory and enjoyment of God, as manifested by their service, sacrifice, and suffering, survive and thrive through the storms of life. The greatest man, Jesus Christ, made the greatest sacrifice, suffered the most, and had the deepest roots. My prayer is that we all sacrifice a little more, suffer in proportion to our service to the Lord, and grow deep roots.