One of the more significant causes of emotional/psychological suffering is the experience that life isn’t turning out as expected. While we all conjure up something different when we hear “normal”, we do have something that we assume is the normal expectation for how life should unfold. Most of us assume we will go to college, graduate on time, get married, have kids, start a career (or several over the course of our life), develop economic stability and growth, stay healthy, retire, find fulfillment, etc. Unexpected events will happen, we tell ourselves, but the general plan or trajectory should continue.
But then we hit more than a bump in the road. We don’t get married, can’t have kids, lose a job, divorce, get sick (or watch a loved one die before their time). When we suffer we are forced to come face to face with the fact that life does not have guarantees–except that there will be suffering and that suffering is not something we can get beyond, try as we might.
Christians are not immune from having expectation. In fact, we may have even more than those who don’t have the “hope of heaven.” We assume we will have peace and joy and that God will deliver us just as he delivered Daniel, David, Esther, etc. We recite Psalm 23 but gloss over the hard parts (death, enemies). Or, consider, for example, the pattern found in Psalm 107: Sin/Weakness leads to suffering…the people cry out in their trouble…the Lord hears and saves/blesses them with good things… We like this pattern and expect to get the “happily ever after” that the pattern seems to promise.
Notice that as soon as God isn’t delivering us from our pain, we begin to look for the reasons. Maybe there is a new technique to prayer to try. Maybe there is a sin to confess. Maybe it is due to judgment on our country for its errant ways. We want to blame someone!
The truth is the “plan” isn’t as detailed as we would like it to be. Yes, there is a normal trajectory of life: growth…maturation…passing on to the next generation. But promises for obtaining specific outcomes are not given. We only assume they are assured until we discover one of our assumptions blown up by reality.
The same goes for our assumptions of the “rescue plan.” Either God does not deliver on his promises to care for his children OR his care looks markedly different from what we assumed it would be. And, it appears that God’s plan for rescue is global rather than individual. He did repeatedly rescue Israel during the time of the Judges…but some years and oppression went by each time and some of the chosen people did not survive.
Does this depress you? It can. Especially when we take note of more and more suffering and see less of the “normal” life we once expected. As we age we notice that death is everywhere–as if it wasn’t there so much when we were younger. If it doesn’t depress you, you may find yourself struggling with bitterness. How can God really exist or be good?
Or, you can consider John Calvin’s words (thanks John Freeman for showing them to me) and consider one blessing amidst the disrupted “plan.”
With whatever kind of tribulation we may be afflicted, we should always keep this end in view–to habituate ourselves to a contempt of the present life, that we may thereby be excited to meditation on that which is to come. For the Lord, knowing our strong natural inclination to a brutish love of the world, adopts a most excellent method to reclaim us and rouse us from our insensibility, that we may not be too tenaciously attached to that foolish affection…the whole soul, fascinated by carnal allurements, seeks it felicity on earth. To oppose this evil, the Lord, by continual lessons of misery, teaches His children the vanity of the present life.(as quoted in L. Boettner’s Immortality, p. 31)
If Calvin stopped there we might think he was a stoic–one who hated any pleasure. However, he is not. He says this “contempt” of this life should not lead to hate pleasure or “ingratitude” for good things.
So, consider for a moment what “plan” you expected and your reaction to not getting it. Or, better yet, what “plan” did you expect that you actually got but then found out that said plan didn’t deliver the goods you thought were to come with it?
How might your mood, your attitude, your perspective change if “the plan” was focused on meeting/seeing God each day? What would you stop striving for? What would you set aside as a waste of time? What would you notice that right now escapes your glance?
One final comment. I don’t think that this change in “plan” reduces the pain of suffering or stops our goal-directed activity in this life. We are designed to growth, develop, change, find pleasure, pursue economic stability for self and other. Further, suffering always hurts, no matter what good comes of it. Just because good comes from pain doesn’t mean pain is itself good. Our problem is that we sometimes often forget a deeper design of relationship with God.