I was challenged last week to find a passage that demonstrated Jesus laughing and smiling. If there is one, I couldn’t find it. Instead I discovered a wide range of passages illustrating Jesus experiencing pain. I found Him weeping over the death of Lazarus. I saw Him with righteous anger in the Temple courtyard. I watched Him suffering deep anguish on Maundy Thursday and was reminded that the joy of Resurrection Sunday is preceded by intense suffering and sacrifice on Friday.
As parents, our instincts are to protect our small children – and quite honestly, our grown students, too – from all that would hurt them. We long for them to be happy. We work hard to stand in the way of physical harm as they grow. Sharp objects are off limits, outlets are covered, and choking hazards are cleared out of the way. We work even harder at protecting them from emotional pain. Early friendships are nurtured, bullies receive their due, and we encourage them when they face defeat. However, the example Jesus set for us – the embrace of pain, not the escape from it – is the true path to His extraordinary gift of abundant and eternal joy.
Ruth Haley Barton tells about leading a retreat for pastors centered on the profound kind of death to self that must take place to allow true transformation to take place. Even mature believers experience periods of loss and disillusionment so painful that they are brought to their knees with questions, confusion, and ultimately – surrender. If you have experienced that kind of humbling, you know it can literally feel like dying. In many ways, that is exactly what it is. On the journey to completion, God continues to call us to die to the parts of us that need to be dug out, chiseled away, or burned off in order to become more of who we are intended to be in Christ.
In Ruth’s story, the hard teaching on dying to self was followed by lunch with several young, winsome pastors who questioned whether everyone really had to go through pain, suffering, sacrifice, and death to self in order to reach maturity. And, if it was necessary for maturity, surely there was a secret to speeding up the process. Essentially they were asking, “Isn’t there a way to be good enough to skip the pain?” She replied gently but sincerely, “If Jesus had to go through it, I don’t think any of us are going to get away without it.” Jesus had to die in order for the will of God to be realized. Ruth was telling the young pastors that they would have to endure Friday pain before Sunday joy, too. I’m pretty sure that’s not the answer they were looking for.
As a parent, it isn’t the answer I long to hear, either. My own young adults are both currently facing some significant challenges and decisions. I see their health and happiness at risk. I find myself longing to rescue them from what they are walking through but I know that we each walk through the dark valley, not around it. I know that even Jesus admitted that His soul was troubled by the ugliness of what was before Him. In John 12:27, we hear him call out to His heavenly Father to save Him from His fate, and yet He acknowledges that the suffering He is about to face is the very reason He has come and He cannot achieve what He came to do without the suffering coming first. At this point in my kids’ lives, I know my parenting needs to be more about praying for the hardship to achieve God’s intention than intervening to prevent it.
One of my favorite journalists, Steve Hartman, has a series on CBS called Lessons in Kindness. With the help of his own precocious kids, he recently retold the story of a high school student named Gerald, who joined the swim team without knowing how to swim. Gerald was a gifted athlete on dry land but deliberately chose to join the sport he was most likely to suffer in, convinced that he couldn’t possibly find success in life unless he first had the courage to face failure. That is not the path that most of us parents would have recommended, but Steve’s follow-up interview with collegiate mathematics major, Gerald, confirmed that he had become a remarkable young man of stellar character because of the challenges he had faced. His Friday poolside brought him to his Sunday as a humble, accomplished college senior.
As we have witnessed once again the mystery and the miracle of Easter and its sacred rhythm of surrender to death in order to be resurrected to life, can we learn as parents to see our students’ struggles – their learning challenges, their mental health needs, their disappointments in relationship, their physical disabilities, their struggle for full employment, or whatever dark valley they are walking through – to be something we don’t need to rescue them from? Can we see that their path to healing, wholeness, restoration, and delivery includes the chiseling as a part of reaching God’s design for their “becoming”? Instead of always offering them a hand out of their situation or a handout to cover the problem, are there times that we should help them hand it over to the Lord in surrender instead?
Jane Marczewski, also known as singer-songwriter Nightbirde, gave us an example of what it looks like to embrace inevitable pain. The Liberty University graduate and America’s Got Talent contestant inspired 40 million views on her website with her trust in Jesus and joy-filled optimism in the face of cancer. She died in February, 2022 at the age of 31, but not before showing us what it looked like to surrender the hardship she didn’t ask for in order to find the joy she longed for. In her blogs and appearances, she shared that, “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” In March 2021, Jane shared about being chosen, blessed, and sought after as one who would hear from the Lord because of the sleepless nights in the bathroom, vomiting, crying, and wrestling with her illness – but also sensing His presence and hearing His voice. She wrote, “I have heard it said that some people can’t see God because they won’t look low enough, and it’s true. If you can’t see him, look lower. God is on the bathroom floor.” She is now experiencing eternal joy.
I would rather have my kids learn how to choose happy than escape pain. I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said, “Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.” That will require me to be courageous enough to pray instead of stepping in, to discern when to stand back and wait for them to ask for help, or let them be self-sufficient instead of coming to the financial or physical rescue. That means there will be times I have to endure watching their mistakes and the learning curve that comes with it in order to align my goals for them with Jesus – that they would become HOLY, rather than just HAPPY, knowing that the pain of Good Friday is followed by the lasting Joy of Resurrection Sunday.