“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. Life isn’t always good, or fair, or just, or comfortable. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth. We will face injustice– no matter who we are. We will face suffering, illness, and death. We will face loss–loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a marriage, loss of health, loss of freedom or autonomy. We will not always win. We will not always get what we want. We will not always get justice in this life.
There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.
Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power, moving from place to place or relationship to relationship. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Anger may feel productive, but it limits our scope of vision and keeps us focused on the pain inside. Still others try to bargain. Some seek to avoid aging, diminished health, or death by trying every new diet or fitness routine. Others try to avoid guilt, pain, or disappointment by trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” Still many others wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings. Like those who live in denial, they avoid the difficult choices that would lead to life, instead letting life wash over them and draining them of energy and joy.
These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. We cannot change our circumstances by running away, raging at everyone around us, or giving up. We cannot go back in time and “undo” the tragic circumstances of our lives. And our reactions have their own consequences. They cannot negate the past or change the present. They can only impact the future.
But there is another truth: God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on. God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.” Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow! Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel. The Good News isn’t about avoiding pain or sorrow. It is about OVERCOMING them! Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure. But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth! And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt. And He offers us His Grace to survive and thrive– not an escape, but a victory!
Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths. They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death! A life of faith isn’t a life of denying the harsh realities of life, nor is it a prescription for avoiding life’s hurts. Even the faithful will someday have to taste death. Even those who pray and praise will often do so in tears of anguish and even momentary doubt. But they will reach the peace of acceptance as they wrestle with the seasons of pain, knowing that God promises healing and joy and justice– in His perfect will and timing! As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!
“Life is pain…” In THIS fallen and broken world. But we can take heart–Jesus has overcome this world. He has won victory over sin and death, pain and loss. And He gives abundant life. Life that transcends disease, disappointment, and even death.