As we walk through life, we experience innumerable joys and sorrows. We experience loss and tragedy, as well as immense happiness and satisfaction. It seems to me that we’re offered the choice to grow up, or to remain immature, on an almost daily basis. Hurt, and the avoidance of future hurt, can be the biggest factor that challenges our growth to maturity. The more we shy away from pain, the more we insulate ourselves from the chance to grow and expand our personhood. When my grandfather died last year I had to face this challenge head on. I spent the last 10 days of his life with him, at his bedside most of the time, and riding the wave of emotions was like riding a tornado. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything more intense, but I remember early on committing myself to stare the storm down, and ride it till it ran dry. I felt like I was riding Shai-Hulud, the great sandworm of Dune.
The year since that time has been filled with further heartache, but also great gifts, for which I am exceedingly thankful. Life can be incredibly hard, and when we are in pain it is easy to project that pain onto God. We blame him for not rescuing us. We accuse him of being the one that is tormenting us. We assume that we are being punished for some area we screwed up in.
But that’s all nonsense. God is good. He loves us perfectly, and doesn’t punish us for anything. Hard times are simply the stuff of life. It is a merciful God who leverages those hard times, and let’s nothing go to waste. The only thing worse than a difficult year, is a difficult year that produces no fruit. I am in awe of the way God works in our lives. The littlest details, he does not ignore. But the choice of engaging fully with life is ours. The choice of engaging with hardship, or running from it, is ours. We get to set the parameters on our own maturity.
If we do in fact choose to grow up, and mature, then we will feel everything in life more acutely. As we grow in stature and wisdom and empathy and emotional capacity, we grow in the ability to handle ever harder times and to bear the burdens of those around us. And so, invariably, we get the opportunity to do so… because someone has to do the stuff, and be love, and care for people. Just like God does.
But we also learn to take joy from ever simpler things. We start to really see more, and we see better. We discover new tastes in the same old flavours. We feel everything more acutely. The good and the satisfactory can become the amazing and the divine, if we accept them and see the beauty in the mystery of our lives. And the impossible and the lonely and the gutwrenching can become our dear companions, our close friends, as we engage the messy business of humanity around us with mature, feeling hearts.
I think that both our best years and our worst years are ahead of us. Not because times are getting worse (though they may be, I suppose), but because our willingness and ability to bear the sufferings of others is increasing. And ultimately, if it wasn’t for that winnowing, then we wouldn’t learn to find the deeper levels of joy. Our best years are ahead of us not because we’re leaving the hard times behind us (though sometimes we may be), but because we are discovering joy in ever deeper places.
You won’t ever grow to rich maturity of joy until you’ve found it in the midst of suffering and sadness and hardship. And when you do find the joy there, then you’ll encounter Jesus winking back at you, because our worst years aren’t actually so bad.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart…
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12: 1-3, 7-11)