Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).
Eustace Conway lives on 1000 acres of Appalachian wilderness in western North Carolina. He grows or hunts for his food and wears animal skin clothes. This isn’t the lore of history. This is all present tense. I discovered his story in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. One passage in particular caught my attention. Gilbert writes this about Conway:
It is his belief that we Americans, through our constant striving for convenience, are eradicating the raucous and edifying beauty of our true environment and replacing it with a safe but completely “faux” environment. . . We Americans have, in two short centuries, created a world of push-button, round-the-clock comfort for ourselves . . . but in replacing every challenge with a shortcut, we seem to have lost something, and Eustace isn’t the only person feeling that loss. We are an increasingly depressed and anxious people (The Last American Man, 14).
Conway is identifying what shapes the standard response of western Christians to suffering. In a world where comfort is the norm and goal of life, suffering means that something has gone terribly wrong. Suffering is to be avoided at all costs.
Unlike Eustace Conway, most of us do not live off the land. We do not hunt. We do not support our families with what we can grow and harvest. We do not get our hands in the dirt. Instead, we go to Costco or Kroger.
In the same way that we are removed from the land, our convenient push-button world also distances us from much of the world’s suffering population. The subtext of these daily reflections has been our mission in the world. We labor to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom, trusting God for growth, joining him in the harvest. But how are we to do this if we never get our hands dirty?
Here’s the great irony: in our pursuit of comfort, we actually lose what we most desperately need. We need to know the presence and power and trustworthiness of the God who created us. What we get instead is a world where we can manage for ourselves with enough technology, a well-balanced diet and regular exercise.
How can we begin to get inside the experience of those who know suffering, those for whom suffering is a daily reality? Maybe a step in the right direction would be to begin praying the Psalms of lament. These are well-established prayers of God’s suffering people. Find a Bible and spend some time this week reading Psalm 10, 12, 13, 20, 22, 27, 31.
As you do this, you will hear words that might not describe what you’re experiencing today. But you can be assured that there are others around the world speaking words like this every day. The prayers of lament allow us to be with them. Today you can step out of the safe reality you’re immersed in and enter the reality of those who suffer. Consider it a way to get your hands in the dirt.
Lord Jesus, I find it easy to pray for other Christians who suffer. I struggle to know how to pray with them. My world is so different from theirs in many ways. Teach me to pray with my suffering brothers and sisters, and lead me into a reality that transcends the comforts with which I am surrounded. Amen.