Cultural critiques are a tricky genre. When you paint broad brush strokes of observations, there are bound to be exceptions. And any time criticism is offered, defenses are a natural response. Combine the two, and you have the perfect excuse for dismissing what might very well hold some important truths. I offer what follows in hopes that those who read it will choose to listen, to wrestle, to consider, rather than dismiss — a response I am all too often guilty of myself — for what follows stems from a personal wound I have suffered as a result of buying into the deceptions and lies of the Western American worldview.
If I had three words to describe these American cultural values and lifestyles that I have bought into, it would be: pain-free, productive, and fun. Our society screams at us to expect these things from life. If you’re feeling blue, take Prozac. If you are feeling purposeless, take up a career or a cause. But don’t forget to go to the ball game, take your Hawaiian vacation, and have a BBQ. These things are not bad in and of themselves, but if you embrace them with the expectation that you will find happiness, satisfaction, and “abundant life” in them, you will be sorely disappointed.
Life, in fact, is full of grief. We don’t like to admit that. I have somehow come to expect that life here on earth should be filled with joy and good things. That expectation is not bad — it comes from a deep place in our hearts, a place God created in us, to desire abundant life. We were made for a life where joy doesn’t disappear on us around every bend, where tragedy and suffering don’t taint our ability to fully experience the beauty and wonder of our world. Solomon, the wisest man on earth, says that “God set eternity in the hearts of men”. Eternity is just that – where all the goodness and happiness we experience as part of life on earth doesn’t end. We were made for eternal life. And that desire has not left us, even though we never seem to achieve it.
So it is not wrong to expect abundant life. All the same, we are constantly disappointed in our expectation. We have a choice, then. Either let go of the expectation, assuming it is wrong, or conclude that something is wrong with our world. That is the testimony of Scripture. That in response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God, He set forth a curse on life. This curse brought darkness, sorrow, and suffering. That is what disrupts our experience of eternal life.
Life is full of suffering and we cannot get rid of it. That is where the lie of American culture comes in. The American way says you have control of your life, that if you work hard enough, you can be satisfied with good life that is pain-free, purposeful, and fun. The truth I keep rubbing up against as I grow in maturity is that life is full of grief. That was the experience of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah describes him as a man “familiar with grief”. A song-writer calls Him “man of sorrows”. What were His griefs, I wonder? What caused Him so much sorrow in life? Perhaps the authors of Scripture don’t tell us the specifics because they want to ensure that no matter the specifics of our grief, Jesus can understand it because He lived 33 years of life familiar with sorrow.
I find it an anomaly in this culture to live a life “familiar with grief”. It is not that we all don’t experience it, but that we’re all afraid to admit it, in part because the “voices of society” tell us that we should expect something different of life. So we furnish ourselves with a happiness on the outside, while we suffer on the inside. And those who refuse to live such a double-life are banished to the fringes.
Where is it safe to suffer? Must it be behind the closed doors of the therapist, or on the sidelines of intrapersonal conversation? Or is there a place for public lamenting — regardless of whether the grief is for a current circumstance, or one long past? Should our Memorial Days be BBQ’s and a football game, or should we be remembering in our cemeteries those who gave up their lives for the sake of freedom?
There is hope for abundant living. Jesus says “I have come that they might have life, and life abundantly”. But the eternal life He offers is not one of this world. This world is passing away. Eternal life needs a new world, a world without sorrow and suffering and death.
Desire eternal life. Expect that this world is not where you will find it. And do not be ashamed to suffer and grieve. It is this last sentiment I am learning to accept.
If you want to know more about the eternal life that Jesus offers, I recommend reading the Gospel of John in the New Testament.