Does anyone else suffer from a vague fear that things are not going to be ok? That suffering is coming? In conversations both in person and online, I am hearing one of two things:
- blind optimism that everything will be fine, as soon as there is a vaccine; as soon as all businesses can reopen; as soon as we win the election (I have heard this from both sides of the political divide). Or,
- vague anxiety about more suffering. Things are going downhill, and the worst is yet to come.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins tells the story of the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral James Stockdale was the highest ranking US official in the Vietnamese POW camp called the “Hanoi Hilton” from 1968 – 1974. He suffered torture and the worst conditions you imagine in a POW camp. Stockdale emphasizes the importance of confronting the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be, without losing hope. He explained: “I never lost faith in the end of the story.” Some of the men survived that 7-year ordeal, and some died in the camp. Collins asked Stockdale, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale answered right away,
“The optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Unrealistic optimism is dangerous, he says, and it is necessary to acknowledge that hard things may continue. Stockdale says his ordeal was “the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.” He would not trade the suffering because of what it brought about in his life.
Last weekend, I listened to John Mark Comer on The Bridgetown Audio podcast, and his teaching from the first chapter of James provided a new perspective on my vague anxiety. (I recommend listening to the whole thing). Suffering is not necessarily something to fear. It is possible that trials and suffering can come out as a net gain – something we can “consider pure joy.”
He started out by stating that the number one cause of death in Portland for the last seven months is suicide. Not Covid-19, not cancer, not heart disease, which are the usual top causes of death in Portland in any typical year. People are suffering trials of many kinds right now, all over the world. There is a cascade effect of pain because of the pandemic, economic decline, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest. Even an upcoming election, which may typically be a source of hope for some, has a foreboding effect in a time when the US is more divided than at any time since the civil war. (There is sociological data to support this – and we all feel it).
There is real pain during all of this. Not too much is critically wrong with me or my life right now. But I do feel fear:
- I’m afraid this election will divide our country even deeper
- I’m afraid my kids will grow up in a this deeply divided society, and they won’t see “the church” transcend the divide
- I’m afraid my industry won’t recover quickly enough for me to keep a job I love
- I’m afraid for our society – that we are moving further away from God because people are not seeing us embody the loving, self-sacrificing nature of God
- I’m afraid that our world is not moving toward restoration and wholeness, but away from it
What is useful, according to the Stockdale Paradox, it to face facts. Elections do not fix a country deeply divided. Perhaps a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready within a year, but it may be only 70% effective, and it will not replace what has been lost.
But don’t lose hope. James 1 says,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
According to this passage, without facing adversity and discomfort, we would be lacking something. That makes me wonder – what am I lacking by trying to maintain an easy, comfortable life in 2020? Maturity. Wisdom. Peace that comes from a certain perspective (expectation) and the perseverance it takes to attain that peace.
Perspective – Realism
An easy life is the exception not the rule. It is clear that suffering is a when, not an if. In this world you will have trouble. We can expect it and be ready to face it.
Perseverance is the capacity to continue to bear up during hard years with inner strength and hope. Comer says,
“Hope is the expectation of coming good based on the person and promises of God.”
He also said,
“Hope is about the future, but it is for the present.”
What are we supposed to be hoping for? Personally, I hope that I won’t suffer!
But suffering has the potential to set us free from attachments – the things we think we need to live a happy life. If our happiness is tied to our career, income, health, relationship status – we will know it in a year like 2020. For me, I think my current happiness is tied to my ability to maintain peace. As an Enneagram 9 (The Peacemaker), my happiness feels tied to my ability to find consensus, to help people come together. 2020 is easily exposing this attachment in me.
It is a small thing in comparison to what most people are suffering in 2020. But it is one of the things that is causing this vague anxiety in me.
In light of the Stockdale Paradox and James 1, we shouldn’t prematurely assume that the trials of 2020 are just going to be done when a new year rolls around. But we also shouldn’t write 2020 off as a loss just because it has been a year of suffering. When James says “Consider it pure joy”, the word consider is sometimes translated as “count.” Like if an accountant has two columns on a balance sheet – PROFIT and LOSS – we should consider trials in the PROFIT column.
- What do you know now, that you didn’t know in 2019?
- What has come of this hard year, that you can consider profit rather than loss?
Friends, I wish you strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
“Suffering is an invitation to live and tell the story truer and more satisfying than pain-free ease. It is an invitation to know and be known by the God who entered the human story intent on transforming death into life.”– KJ Ramsey, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,– “Great is Thy Faithfulness” lyrics
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Photo credit: Courtney Stegenga 📸