Suffering: Expectation or Exception?

Last week I was driving downtown with a friend sharing some hard things I’ve experienced recently. She listened intently as I revealed bits and pieces of my pain and disappointment. After a while she gently and matter-of-factly shared about the people and kids she interacts with on a daily basis. Most of them do not come from privileged places. As a school teacher in South LA, my friend sees her fair share of suffering and disappointment.

As we chatted a while longer, the question of privilege entered the conversation. Was my privilege getting in the way of my suffering? The question seemed to linger in my head for the remainder of the evening. How much of my faith was built on false expectation? Expectation that God will give me a good life, help me reach my goals, make it to the next milestone. I do believe that God is good, but I don’t believe that suffering is the absence of good.

I sat in the car humbled and grieved listening to my friend outline her own experiences working with and being a person of color. For others from different racial and economic backgrounds than me, suffering may actually be the expectation. At first this didn’t sound right to me - why would God want His people to expect bad things?! But the more I thought about this, the more Biblical it started to sound.

“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” 1 Peter 4:12-13

Perhaps I missed something in my theology of suffering. And perhaps my privilege (and more specifically, my entitlement) created a series of truths that suffering was an exception, something I didn’t have to experience, something I could work hard to overcome or avoid. I suppose I unconsciously believed that I could outperform and out-pray any bad thing in my life based on the opportunities and access I was given. And I’m not very proud of that.

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In the last year, I’ve mourned the loss of someone very dear to me too many times to count, grieved the health of another, been fired, faced unemployment for three months, mourned my singleness while celebrating others’ partnership, and tried to start over in a new state. In short, let’s just say it’s been a hell of a year.

After a while, I realized my performance and striving prayer wasn’t getting me anywhere different. And I panicked. I felt stuck, helpless, fearful, and really, really alone. But you know what? God met me there. He chose to meet me in my own entitlement and privileged expectations. He chose to meet me in my grief, disappointment, pain, and overwhelming loss.

I cannot fix my circumstances or other people. Nor can I pray or perform away bad things. All I can do is take ownership of myself and believe somehow there’s Good in all this, too.