Corban University, Suffering and Hope

I was invited by a Corban University student to speak to a group of 140 young women. It was an honor, and in the midst of a world that groans with evil and suffering, it was a thing of beauty to stand before a roomful of women with passion, hope, and an eagerness to serve God with all of themselves: all their gifts, their passions, and even the brokenness they emerged from. I was privileged to hear their own stories, albeit briefly, to hear their experiences, their battles, and ultimately how God has woven hope through each of their stories by the magnitude of his grace. It was a small glimpse of God’s kingdom, a beacon of light in the midst of a very dark world.

Many asked me to provide a transcript of what I spoke on, so I’ll provide it here for reference, and for any who may be interested.

 

I come to thee in the all-prevailing name of Jesus,
With nothing of my own to plead,
no works, no worthiness, no promises.

-The Valley of Vision

Much like the author of that poem, I am not significant. I come here to you tonight with nothing of my own to offer you.

I live an altogether simple life. I am married to a wonderful man, he’s a fourth year medical student, intelligent and compassionate, he is gifted, and his gifts compliment my own; he is also flawed, and his flaws often bring to light my own failings, he sharpens me as he loves me. We have two small, hilarious boys, they are challenging and beautiful. Our life together has been full of ups and downs, mundane moments and adventures all bleeding together. In itself my life is pretty unimpressive. I spend most of my time at home with our boys, teaching, cleaning, disciplining, cooking, playing blocks and dress-up, and occasionally writing. My name is not one that will be written in history books.

But my God is great. And his grace has always been evident in every single moment of my life, even when I’m not paying attention, he is present.

He was there when we lived in England and I struggled with depression.

He was there when I delivered our first-born son who’s first breath was followed by a cry and it seemed like he would never stop crying.

He is there every morning as my boys’ greet me with sleepy bed-head.

He is there when I unfurl small, angry hands and teach right from wrong to a sweet, but very willful boy.

He is there when I narrate the story of grace and love in words a 3-year-old can grasp, and I find my own heart understanding it just a little bit more.

He is there when I overhear that same story, retold by a child’s voice to his younger brother.

He is there when my husband and I laugh together as kindred spirits who are knit together by lives shared.

He is there when we fight stubbornly and my heart aches with our division.

He is there as I rejoice with my best friend’s pregnancy.

And he is there as I weep over 57 million babies murdered within what should be the safety of their mother’s womb.

My life is small, and a century from now no one will know my name–except perhaps a handful who would call me their ancestor. But I have a different legacy to leave than a mere name or a handful of human successes. I have a God who has woven his grace through every small and giant step of my life, and his name will be known forever and by every living thing.

And he offers this same legacy to every single person who follows him.

When I was invited to come and speak I said yes before I had time to think about it. I said yes because I remember life at your age. As I prepared to come, I tried to think of what I wish I knew in hindsight, or what impacted most. I tried to distill my thoughts into what is the most important thing you could take away from tonight. And the answer is always the same: it is simply Jesus.

If you hear nothing else from me today, just hear Jesus, hear what he has done for you, hear his sweet voice calling you out of death and into life.

As college students, and especially as women in our country, you will be praised by most people for your successes. You will be told of your potential to be something great, perhaps to even change the world.

And maybe you can feel that praise swell in your heart. You might feel yourself to be successful, to have earned your achievement. Maybe you even feel like you don’t receive enough recognition for how hard you work or how good you are.

Or perhaps you hold a secret in your heart, that you don’t quite live up to all the praise that’s given to you; that within you are really just faking it, and covering or trying to make up for your mistakes. Maybe you feel your own deficit, and you might feel darkness close around you at your failure to be good enough.

Maybe you vacillate between these two extremes. Maybe you feel like you just need the right circumstances to make it all work. You might think you just need your future goals realized in order to secure yourself enough, and then, then you can be better at prioritizing your time, money, and relationships. You might think when you get married you’ll be better, then you won’t struggle with lust, or doubt, or loneliness, or you might be waiting to finally graduate, or have your career solidified, then you can be kinder, more patient, and you’ll be able to commit your time to God.

But I need you to hear me when I tell you: You are not good enough, I am not good enough. And our potential selves aren’t any better. No job, relationship, nor adventure will ever change that. Marriage will not take away lust, a job will not fulfill you, and having a life dedicated to ministry won’t ensure that you are doing God’s work. We cannot run from our problems, or make up for them. Ultimately, you, me, every one of us have a deficit of goodness.

It is because of this deficit within the human heart that we have abortion, slavery, racism, war, corruption, inequality, abuse, terrorism and events like Paris and Beirut. Humans are failures at being good, and we are very good at being failures.

And this is a painful reality that no one really wants to own up to. For most of history no one has wanted to admit the truth of the human heart and its deficit of goodness.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher in the late 1800s, he was brilliant and hopeless. His philosophy was a huge influence for Hitler and his quest for the superior, racially perfected and perfectly progressed man. Nietzsche’s ideas underlie a good deal of thought in the 21st century too. He said,

The fundamental question that concerns the Greeks is whether their ever more powerful demand for beauty, for festivals, entertainments, new cults, really grew from lack, from deprivation, from melancholy, from pain.

I think we can hear truth in his words. Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing when we spend hours looking just right, striving after the beauty we see all over Instagram? Isn’t that why we keep headphones in, turning up our music to drown out whatever thought might arise? Isn’t it why we turn on the television, or scroll Facebook mindlessly?

Americans, and most of the developed world approach life this way: we keep ourselves entertained, beautiful, religious and busy so that we can tune-out reality, the pain, our failures, and ultimately our unavoidable death.

We allow ourselves to be lulled by the bread and circuses, or maybe for us non-Romans, coffee shops and Pinterest.

The reality of our own failures, our lack of goodness despite our best and constant efforts is debilitating to face. We know deep down, no matter how beautiful and healthy we are, we are all doomed to death. Reality is bleak and we would rather pretend it isn’t real.

Now, Nietzsche was considered a nihilist (which is an arguable title, but that’s for another time), so his understanding ended with pain and a sense of hopelessness and a pursuit of human power. His conclusions are one of four responses we all have to reality.

The reality is: we are not good, life has suffering and pain, and we are all destined to die.

We could follow Nietzsche’s line of reasoning and find life without meaning, goodness unattainable, and thus pursue and worship power, putting our hope in the progress of humanity working toward what he called The Super Man. This is what Hitler sought, and this is an underlying ethos for many people today. Progress is a very popular idea.

The second response is to continue life like the Ancient Greeks, or most of our culture. We could continue to pursue Hedonism: to look for our own pleasure. We can turn up our music when our thoughts betray us and keep looking for entertainment and maintain a comfortable apathy. We can lower the standard of goodness to make it palatable to our lifestyle.

The third response is to work hard. And when that doesn’t work, we work harder. When we make a mistake we can let guilt move us to work harder to make up for it. We can hate our selfishness and move past it by sheer power of will, we can give everything of ourselves away until we are an empty shell.

But these three options don’t offer us much in the way of hope. They do nothing to slow the passage of time or to impede death. And they do nothing for the sickness in our hearts.

But there is a fourth way. There is Jesus. Jesus who came into this melancholy, this reality that is painful and hopeless. He touched the diseased, welcomed the unwanted, and sat with the oppressive tax collectors, the harlots, the hedonists, the power hungry, and the religious. He came and he showed us what perfection actually looks like, and he revealed that we are even farther from it than we had once thought. He confirmed by his perfection that we are not good, and we are in fact wicked, we are the enemy of goodness. But he didn’t just leave us there in the hopelessness of ourselves, Jesus died. He bled freely over our evil, and then he left behind an empty tomb as a promise that we too can rise again and leave behind our evil and live instead in his goodness.

So, when we fail, we turn to him, we give it up, and he forgives, and instead of trying harder, we let him make us new. Then we can give everything away and be filled. We can pour out grace and love infinitely and still be full of joy and hope.

With Jesus we don’t walk in our own success, because we recognize on our own we can’t succeed at anything that matters on an eternal scale, instead we walk in his victory, and his accomplishment.

Then our eyes are open to reality. We will see the pain and suffering of this world, and we won’t pretend that we can rise above it by our strength, or make up for our failures, or wallow in doom; instead we can recognize ourselves as wretches and human messes, and we will cling to this God who bought us out of the slavery and the failure of self-reliance.

We won’t ignore or work our way out of suffering, we will enter into it willingly and passionately with a defiant hope.

If we embrace Jesus and follow him, like the pick up your cross, lay down your life kind of follow, then we don’t see suffering as impossible or shameful, as though it is something to be avoided because it is a road-block to Christ.

Instead we open ourselves up to it willingly, and we see suffering for what it is: reality. It is not a road-block, but an avenue to know the riches of the grace of our God who offers hope in the midst of the deepest hurt and most painful circumstances. We enter it together, and we fully proclaim that we are weak. I am weak. But Christ is strength.

I am weak, and I see a boy drowned on the beaches of Europe and I can do nothing, but Jesus is strength, and he tells me “act”, and by him I am suddenly sitting beside a Muslim woman who looks around this roomful of Christians signing up to aid refugees and she remarks, “Christians really do care.”

I am weak, and I try and fill my day with “important things”, and my son’s voice begs over and over for time together, and everything falls apart and I am impatient and unkind, but Jesus is strength, and by him my son’s voice says desperately, “mommy, I just need Jesus,” and I hold those tiny hands and say, “I am sorry, I need Jesus too.”

I am weak, and I see the startling number of women who are getting abortions, and I think of my friends who are still wrestling with the guilt of their own, but Jesus is strength, and by him I am writing to get grants for a pregnancy alternative center and standing in a dark room, watching a 9-week- old dance on a fuzzy ultrasound screen, and this woman who’s face was once hardened for death suddenly weeps and she chooses life for her baby.

I am weak, and I see the devastation of feminism, and I can hear Satan whisper that same temptation in my ear, “does God really say?” But Jesus is strength, and by him I walk in femininity that is his design: that is strong in its yielding, powerful in its submission, loud in its quietness, and fierce in its care and hospitality. I choose to stand as one of few in a culture that tells me femininity is something to be ashamed of or chosen on a whim, and instead I choose to embrace it as an ordination given by God.

Frederick Buechner says it this way,

You are weak, but he is strong. You are a pig, but he is a hero. Your legs are broken, but his are not, not a bone in his body is broken.

We are all pigs wallowing in mud, exchanging the glory God created for us for deprivation. That moment Eve lent her ear to Satan, when she decided she should determine her own fate, and Adam followed her without a single protest, death entered. We ripped ourselves away from Love. Suffering became the truest place of life because we were severed from our Creator we suffer. So too, suffering is the greatest avenue to understanding the God who bought us out of it.

If suffering isn’t familiar than we aren’t paying attention. Our own lives may be easy (or maybe not), but we are no longer living just our own lives as Christians, in Jesus we are a living body. So, when part of our body in the Middle East has their head severed from their body, we ought to feel as though our body has lost a member, because we have. And when we learn that 57 million babies have been slaughtered legally in our own nation it ought to bring us to our knees. We ought to deeply feel the world’s suffering because we are part of it, and we are left here to enter into it.

By ourselves and our own strength, we are selfish, insignificant and failures, but with Jesus we are new. We are given his goodness, and he does the work. Jesus calls us to action in him.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way,

When the Bible calls for action it does not refer a man to his own powers but to Jesus Christ Himself […] ‘Without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5) This sentence is to be taken in the strictest sense. There is really no action without Jesus Christ.

When we become daughters of God, it is his power at work, and every single moment of our lives becomes eternally significant, and the suffering in the world and in this moment becomes important because in it we see reality: the crush of sin, and in Christ we have a hope to offer in the midst of it.

But we often treat Jesus like a loyal buddy who we can turn to when we need a favor, and when things go our way we ignore him. We read his words and pick what sounds good, fitting him into what we want giving ourselves Christianized version of self-help pep talks. But Jesus has done more for us than offering a few helpful hints to a good life, he gave us his good and perfect life.

And deep down we know, if we pay attention to this Jesus he will ask too much of us. His standard and demands are too high, he requires that we love this world that is full of hate and suffering and the kind of love he demands is impossible.

It is a Love that enters into the grief and mess of an unwed mother who is pregnant for a third time, while speaking the right balance of comfort and painful truth.

It is a Love that befriends the refugee who is alone in a country not their home because their home has been reduced to rubble in a civil war.

It is a Love that hears the cry of the depressed and the panic of the anxious and weeps with them while offering patient words of truth as a light in the darkness.

It is a Love that pleads the cause of the oppressed, seeking to bring justice to the woman who has been enslaved as an object to be used for sexual exploits.

It is a Love that enters into the anger, complexity, and injustice of racism and works relentlessly for reconciliation and peace.

It is a Love that listens to the pain and confusion of the teen who feels like a boy, but was born a woman, while offering the truth of the freedom of an identity found in Christ alone and his design.

It is a Love that suffers with the suffering, that speaks the truth that is freeing but unpopular, that holds the hands of the weary, listens to the heartsick, offers water to the thirsty, clothes the naked, and asks for nothing in return.

How can we possibly love like this?

The answer is really quite simple: We can’t

We have nothing to offer the suffering.

Unless…

Unless we offer them God.

As Bonhoeffer says,

Only in Jesus do we know what love is, namely in his deed for us. Love is always God himself. Love is always the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

When we let Jesus put to death our old selves and let him live in us, then we can love like that. With a real, fierce, pursuing and relentless love. The only kind that makes any difference in the midst of suffering. And when we look to Jesus, that kind of love is the natural response to how he has loved us.

Because if we really believe that Jesus let his blood pour from his side to wash us–we who were enemies of God–so that we can be adopted as his children, if we know what the cross means, that it held up our God:

The one who formed a vast universe

Who perfected a planet for life and filled it with all variety of creature

Who formed humans uniquely and intentionally, who fashioned those of us in this room to be specifically and wondrously female

If we believe that this God who is goodness, love, and life itself, that he came down to bear the groaning weight of our evil and then died, and that this absurd act somehow gives us his goodness, if we write that on our hearts and let him fill us up, then we can do nothing but love this world that he loves.

Not with the weak version that our world has created, we won’t tell people they are “ok”, nor will we look down on them with an attitude of superiority, because we know, none of us are okay, and we recognize ourselves in the drug addict, the harlot, the murderer, the thief, and the acting homosexual. We will remember that God has rescued us from slavery to sin, and brought us into life, so we will gladly, willingly, and urgently enter into their suffering, and we will love the world enough to say, “you are not ok. We are all failures, weak, wretched, and dying. But there is Jesus”

And as you listen to me, perhaps you are thinking, how can I possibly do that? I’m overloaded with classes, barely keeping my head above water, trying to balance school and huge life decisions, what can I do about refugees, or abortion, or poverty?

And you have a point. But my point is not that you ought to walk out of class tomorrow and organize a sting operation to rescue girls out of sexual slavery…but don’t rule it out either.

My point is that you, on your own, you can do nothing that is worth anything. But with Jesus, the work is done, and you need only step into life with him.

Right now, today, you have people around you suffering. You have a friend struggling with secret sins, you are currently living in a nation that groans under the weight of progressivism, apathy, and religiousness. And you can do nothing about these things if you try to do them alone, or if you think it is your job to fix problems. You have only today, this moment to let Jesus fill you and to obey him by his strength. The specifics of that will be obvious if you are paying attention. If you cling to Jesus your time will be transformed to his time, or as Elisabeth Elliot puts it,

For the Christian, time is transfigured as we see it held in the love of God, created by and for Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the primacy over all created things and who existed before everything and holds everything together.. […] There will always be enough time to do the will of God.

There is always time.

There is always time to stop, to cease our own agendas and listen to him, to act where he leads us in each and every moment, and then, then we get to see him at work. Then we can see his mercy unfold powerfully. Every moment becomes sacred because it belongs to him.

For me, it was sacred when I was months into studying for the LSAT, applying to Yale, and Jesus whispered, “marry that boy.” And I did. Suddenly Jesus made my future his future and his will flowed from me.

It is sacred when I have slept a mere three hours and a little voice yells, “my sheets are wet”, and as I tuck a sleepy body back in fresh sheets my son whispers, “I love you”. Suddenly Jesus has made my hands his hands, and his love has flowed from me.

It is sacred when his Spirit pulls my heart and I stop my agenda of tasks and I just kiss my husband who has been carrying the weight of the future on his shoulders and he sighs with relief. Suddenly Jesus has made my touch his touch and his comfort has flowed from me.

It is sacred when insomnia overtakes me and the faces of a village of children appear behind my closed eyelids and I pray for hours in the dark for the souls that I came to love. Suddenly Jesus has made my heart his heart and his pleas flowed from me.

Your futures may involve marriage, allowing the security of Jesus to give you the faith to submit to a fallible man with peace and to encourage and serve as your vows demand: in sickness and health and wealth and poverty and success and failure. It may involve children, and dying to yourself so you can love, value, and serve them well, even as scores of people look with distaste at your stained t-shirt and disheveled hair and ask, “when will you return to a job?”

Your futures may involve being single and entering a career as a beacon of truth within a field that is full of people who rest their hope on a job, perhaps standing alone as a career woman who doesn’t emasculate men but encourages them, defying feminism by embracing real femininity, and revealing what hope looks like by serving with integrity in a world that demands compromise while being at peace in your identity as a daughter of Christ and finding satisfaction in his design for you as a single woman.

Your future may be in a city, a rural town, or another country.

Your future is unknown, all you have for certain is today.

So what will you do with it?

I promise you whatever your future holds it holds the same opportunities you have right now. Following Jesus always means finding ways to serve the suffering, to lift up and defend the weak and the marginalized, to speak unpopular truth, to stand firmly in his design for you as women, to uphold purity and integrity, and ultimately to lean desperately on Jesus so that every word you speak, every thought you think, and every action you take is saturated in what he has done for you.

It is impossible to live God’s commands without Jesus, but with him, we find that living for him is really quite simple. We must cling to him, listen to him, and submit to him, and then we will find our deepest desires are right there with him.

The irony of apathy, pursuit of power and success, or religion, is that they attempt to wrestle reality into something we can handle so that we can just enjoy our lives, but they always end in emptiness. But when we embrace Jesus, and let him be at work in us, we find hope, fulfillment, and joy, and we find opportunities to share that at every turn.

If Jesus is your center then trying hard is unnecessary, and reality is an avenue to serve him. Suddenly you crave his words, and opening your bible isn’t a chore but as necessary as breathing. You will crave fellowship with his body, not because church is “what Christians do” but because you need his followers to tell you what Jesus has done for you every week.

If you let Jesus be the driving force within you and you recognize your failure and his goodness, you won’t find loving or serving hard, you will find yourself thirsting for it, and desiring justice as he does. If you let him, you will see him do incredible things in moments that seem too small to be significant. You will see his grace unfold everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Like in the middle of a very long car ride in a torrential down pour, when my thoughts are full of anxiety, wondering where we will move next, how I will raise two boys while my husband works 80 hours a week in residency, and my son whispers in a quiet awe, “you know, God made the rain.”

Jesus speaks out of the mouth of babies, and his peace surpasses understanding, and if we just pay attention and listen to him, he makes everything else make sense. He makes his yoke easy and his burden light while he shoulders our burdens for us.

The work is done, the battle is won, Jesus did it. We just need to remember and then our heart will echo the Puritan’s prayer:

Thou hast died for me,
May I live to thee,
In every moment of my time,
In every movement of my mind
In every pulse of my heart

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