Blessed. It’s one of those words we’ve worked hard to distort within the Christian culture. It means different things at different times. Sometimes it means we got something we wanted. Other times it means we’re doing well in business or baby-making. Other times being blessed is synonymous with being spared a speeding ticket or just being lucky. We’ve trivialized the idea of blessing and we usually regard it as incompatible with suffering. There’s a trite saying floating around:
You’re too blessed to be stressed.
I’ve seen it on bumper stickers and well-meaning Facebook statuses.
It’s the idea that stress and blessing cannot coexist. Pain and blessing are mutually exclusive: one of them is ultimately going to have to bow out. We treat them as if they are opposites—difficulty or joy, death or life, blessing or stress.
Any one who’s lived a decade or longer knows that this can’t be true. We’ve formed this human construct out of our own need to control and explain the failures and losses in life. Loss is real, but blessing is bigger. It’s this idea that forces us to say that everything has to have a reason, even if it’s not true. There’s got to be a reason for deep pain and deep suffering. There’s a bigger plan for genocide or sex trafficking or soul-killing abuse. We are so uncomfortable with suffering that we’ll do anything to make it better. We tell hurting people that God will “use” their pain to show his glory, as if God is heartless and utilitarian. We tell people it’s better that a dying person leave this horrible pain. We insult and wound hurting people with pithy theological statements. We minimize their anguish when we tell someone dying with cancer that they are “too blessed to be stressed.”
How offensive. How un-Jesus.
But, we don’t do it to wound. We are deeply uncomfortable with suffering so we offer empty words of comfort and the church hugs accompanied by “It’s going to be okay” whispers.
It’s because we hate pain.
And we’re right to hate it. Suffering is horrible.
We are surrounding by deep pain—loss, dead-ends, repeated heartache, sadness. And this deep pain lives within the church, too. Suffering knows no boundaries. Suffering doesn’t know that there are people and places it shouldn’t touch.
It’s easy for us to read the story of Exodus as an incredible movement of the delivering God—the God who hears Israel’s cries of oppression and comes down with plagues and a sea-splitting wind. But I can’t get past this question: “Where was God when the slavery began?” The Israelites' journey is not a story of easy faith. It took serious guts to leave Egypt. The trying journey out of slavery and through the wilderness facing war and hunger was not going to be fixed with a “blessed not stressed” bumper sticker.
Being the people of God means that somehow blessing and stress can cohabitate.
If the psalms teach us anything, it’s the raw emotional response of a broken humanity, longing for deep connection with God. The Psalmists shout that life is awful and everything’s gone to hell. We read these statements about a sufficient God as if they come out of a big can of flowers and sunshine. But these deep theological truths came out of experiencing a God through the $#!* storm, not through standing in line at the fair.
My cousin Allyson is a young mom of three boys. Allyson also has a terrible form of ovarian cancer that is killing her body. Everyday, she struggles under the weight of her illness and the boys that need her to care for them.
Her faith has had to shift with the abrasive realities of life. She has both a brave faith and a strong sense of how awful life can be. I trust her understanding of God because she doesn’t feel the need to conflate the ideas of pain and purpose. She doesn’t have to defend how she is both faithful and potentially dying. She doesn’t need empty words of comfort to help her through the darkest place imaginable.
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. The nearness of God is my good. I have made the sovereign Lord my refuge. I will tell of all your deeds.”
We say these words in worship. And they are great and true words about a capable and healing God. But, worship doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It would be naïve to think that worship can’t happen in the midst of grave circumstances. Rejecting anxiety and stress is not a prerequisite to worship. Claiming that life is good is not the grounds for declaring the truth about God.
Psalm 73:25-28 is a powerful proclamation. But the psalmist does not write as one who learned these lessons at youth camp. The psalmist writes as one who knows the satisfaction of God not through the good but because of the pure hell that life can be. He says, “Everything in me breaks down. Everything in me is crushed. My heart has been shredded beyond repair. I can count on nothing to take care of me. And yet, somehow, God remains.”
“I sing because I’m happy… I sing because I’m free”
And there are these days. But maybe I sing because even in the worst place, God is.
We don’t need to tell hurting people things that aren’t true. God forbid we minimize their pain so that we feel better. God forbid we promise things God has not said.
Instead, in our pain and in the face of a hurting world, may we live in such a way that shoots out light-filled reminders that, somehow, in the midst of everything, God remains.