During His last evening with His disciples, Jesus encouraged them with this statement: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” While I am not so encouraged by the tribulation part and the need for courage, the truth that Jesus has gone before me and has, in fact, overcome the world, is encouragement indeed. But what did Jesus mean by this statement, and more to the point, what does it mean for us? What constitutes tribulation? What does courage look like? And what does it mean for us in the here and now that Jesus has overcome the world?
A few months ago, my husband and I were blessed by a wonderful trip to see our grandson and his parents in the Midwest. It was a spectacular visit, but like all visits, it came to an end, and it was time to return to New Jersey. As difficult as it was to say good-bye, there were people, pets, and ministries pulling us home. Upon our arrival at the airport, we were informed that our flight was delayed an hour. By the time we got through security, my husband received a text message that our flight was delayed another hour, even as the overhead monitors announced that it was canceled. The hour that followed was filled with confusion and concern as we tried to determine our flight status and find a way to get home. After our fight was finally and officially canceled, we were waiting for an airline representative to re-book a flight for us. A woman who was waiting with us commented in a rather superior tone that our flight cancelation was, in the long run, not a big deal and implied that my growing concern was not only unnecessary, it somehow represented a moral or character flaw. I did not have time to process her comment and my automatic sense of guilt until several hours later when we finally boarded a plane bound for New Jersey.
From one perspective, the woman was precisely correct. In God’s eternal kingdom, a canceled flight and delayed trip home during our time on earth is completely insignificant. For that matter, it could hardly be called a trial. As many of my Christian friends would remind me, there was still a great deal for which to be thankful. And it is equally true that as still others would remind me, it could have been far worse. But I find these responses to my trials in life—even and perhaps especially the “small” trials—to be deeply unsatisfying.
The Apostle Paul reminds us numerous times in his letters to believers pretty much like us to develop and nurture a thankful heart, to praise God at times in all places. For some, that means looking for something for which to be thankful in a negative situation. Others compare their situation to others who are in a worse position to prompt gratitude or at least get to a place of peaceful resignation. But I believe that we are missing something potentially important if we don’t allow ourselves to feel the pain and frustration of a fallen world.
It may seem inconvenient and distracting to allow—or force—ourselves to feel the discomfort of an unfortunate situation. It may also be very uncomfortable for to feel that we aren’t good Christians if we aren’t smiling and praising at all times. Please consider, though, that our praise might be deeper and more meaningful if we give ourselves permission to feel pain. Dr. Larry Crabb, a Christian psychologist and counselor who has had a major impact on how Christian counseling is viewed and practiced, stressed in his writing that it is okay to hurt. I would go a step further and say that it is good to hurt when our experiences have hurt us. This is precisely the point at which we are able to deeply connect with our passionate God who likes our fallen world even less than we do.
David, a man after God’s own heart, records his distress as he is being hunted by King Saul in many of his psalms. Psalm 13 is a good example: “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?” David continues his lament, describing his continual sorrow and the advantage his enemies have. But by the end of this psalm, David turns to the comfort of who the Lord is: “But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.” Please notice with me that David doesn’t change his mind about his circumstances. They are still desperate. But as he grapples with his emotions before God, David is able to take comfort in who God is.
The Apostle Paul, one of the most vocal proponents of praising God, has this to say about his suffering: “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation beings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Rom. 5:3-5). Again, please notice that the comfort and praise comes not from the tribulation but from who God is. Paul’s words give us the opportunity to see our trial through the lens of the God of redemption. Without minimizing or denying the pain, we can rejoice that our Lord will work through the pain to work great good on our behalf.
We cannot argue with Jesus’s words to His disciples. Truly, we do have tribulation while we are in the world. Trials—big and small—are part of our being inners in a sinful world. While we cannot avoid trials, we can allow them to draw us near to God. As we allow ourselves to feel pain and engage emotionally with God, as we at times wrestle with him as Jacob did, we become more and more able to see the Lord as He is and to appreciate His work in us and through us.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul admonishes his readers to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Rom 12:15). We have the wonderful privilege of extending our personal emotional engagement with the Lord as we encourage others in their suffering. Not only can we give ourselves permission to hurt, we can give others that privilege as well. One of the most destructive influences I see as I counsel hurting people is the well-meaning advice of friends and family to simply get over their hurt, to look for the good, to think about those who are suffering more. All of those strategies involves a good deal of self effort, and none brings the sufferer emotionally closer to God. But if we walk with others in such as way as to bear their emotional burdens, we make it easier for them to experience a passionately loving and redeeming God.
Moments before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He wept at Lazarus’s tomb. May we consider this model as we walk before our Master—may we weep with those who weep and weep at the suffering of ourselves and others even as we develop and grow a redemption mindset. A deepening emotional engagement with the Lord and with others will make our praise all the more powerful.