I have a favorite kind of person. I know we’re all God’s children and we’re not supposed to have favorites, but I do. My favorite people are those who have suffered and it has strengthened and weakened them in the right ways.
I love the hope found in people who have suffered and are still suffering, but still endure. They still laugh. Heck, they’re the funniest people I know. Those who have faced and are facing horrendous things, who still hurt, and can hold the hurt and hilarity of life in tandem.
This wasn’t always true, because I didn’t understand. I used to think the best sorts of people were those who had tied up their pain or strife in a neat bow, with a happy ending to boot; those who knew the reasons for their suffering, who could tell you exactly why it was part of God’s plan and how they overcame.
In my six short, and very long, years away from America I lost a lot of innocence about how the world works for a great number of people. I was shaken, broken, undone. I didn’t expect that. I expected hardship, sure. But I expected to be able to have successes I could point to, to overcome the hardship, to come out the other side unscathed. At the very least, I expected object lessons from my suffering.
In going out there was sincerity, but a certain naiveté. And while the grace of Jesus feels as sweet as ever, the way he asks us to walk in has become increasingly gritty. I’ve seen things I can’t unsee. Things that have rocked me to the core, that I still get nightmares about, that I’m still traumatized from. I experienced deep joys, yes, but also deep sorrows – many without answers. Some of these wounds have turned to scars. Others are still raw and tender.
I have a chronic illness now. I’m still dealing with PTSD. I struggle to feel safe. I can’t add up all the suffering I’ve seen with any assurance that it will all be ok, that I’ll be ok. I’ve seen too many people not be ok to believe things just work out for everyone. God is good and God is just, but I’ve seen too many marginalized lives to believe anymore that everything just works out for everyone.
Holding a young child recovering from a deep stab wound suffered when the person holding him while fleeing tribal violence was hacked to death with a machete, while a country dissolves into a bloody civil war, will cut a person in some deep places. Suddenly the pleading psalms make a lot more sense. Suddenly my faith is about more than just my personal piety, quiet prayer life, and attempts at witnessing. Suddenly I’m thrust into a world where the beatitudes do and must have very literal implications on my life and those around me.
Suddenly Jesus’ face is much different than mine. It is the face of someone who doesn’t need me as a savior, and instead has things to teach me about being saved.
When you encounter that kind of hurt head on and let it rock you – there is a price. But the reward is you get to meet Jesus in the faces of the hurting. And you don’t get to stay the same.
These last few years have taken so much but, my God, have they returned.
Thank God I had to see hurt and pain I couldn’t fathom, had to feel some of these things for myself, had to experience loss and grief. I thank God I can’t say things mindlessly to people who suffer anymore.
Thank God I was able to be broken, and learned God is there to be found especially in the most broken of places. Thank God I learned how to lament, how to sit in hard things. How to face what cannot be faced, see what cannot be unseen, and fall down and get back up again, scrapes, scars, wounds and all.
And still be able to say God is good. And it’s not that God is good despite – it’s that God’s goodness is even here.
Maybe, even, suffering can be a grace.
Maybe that’s what Paul was getting at with the thorn in his side. I was always happy enough for that to have been true for him, silently hoping and sure that wouldn’t ever be true for me. Because, though I’d faced some hardship, the world was mostly a good place, kind enough to me and the people I loved. I had no reason to believe it wasn’t a generally safe, good place, that I would ever be unwell in any serious sense of the word. Or at least not in any way that couldn’t or wouldn’t be remedied. The world had never been a terrifying place for me or people I loved. But that changed. My world split wide open, my eyes finally opened to what a terrifying place the world is for so many both near and far.
I don’t think suffering is ordained by God, and I don’t believe God wants his children to hurt. The world is full of evil and free agents – God is always on the side of those who suffer, and the end game is always hope, redemption and resurrection. So I don’t think suffering itself is a grace, but, I do think, sometimes there is possibly grace to be found in it.
This doesn’t mean we go around telling people that suffering is a grace. This isn’t something I will ever tell anyone who is suffering – it’s not ours to declare to anyone else. Because there are many days in pain, in life lost, in stagnated vocation that I still want to scream. I’ve found grace in it, but there is still pain. I, and many I love, still suffer.
I went out with my ideals and came back broken.
They were simpler times. Not easier. But simpler. I didn’t know my complicity in white supremacy. I knew people with hard lives but didn’t have any friends who were refugees or former child prostitutes. I wasn’t asking myself hard questions about the intersection of my life with my neighbors. My work was fulfilling, but there was an innocence. I’d experienced some hardship, but there were many injustices in the lives of others I’d never even considered. I learned I can’t speak to the brokenness and injustices of faraway places if I’m not asking hard questions about the place where I come from, too.
Because of all of it, I love Jesus more than I ever have. I’m fonder of him than ever because there’s so much evil, corruption, and oppression and he doesn’t stand for it. He asks a lot of us – caring for others as we do ourselves is a doozy of a start — but one look at the world and it’s completely justified.
For better or worse, I don’t recall ever reading stories of naïveté restored. And in my case, I hope it cannot be reversed. Though it would be nice for my PTSD to chill out a little bit, I don’t want to see the world as a mostly non-threatening place again. I don’t want to go back to those sincere, simpler times, to the person I once was.
I’m glad the road I travelled made the scales fall from my eyes. I’m glad for my scars and even, most days, for my wounds. They are marks on a road I am so grateful to be traversing.