2020 was not my worst year. No, this is not a humble brag. I realize that for a lot of people, 2020 was one of their worst years ever. And for that, I am sorry. Especially for those of you in the United States—I am sorry that the U.S.’s version of predatory capitalism puts the economy over lives; multimillion dollar companies over mom-and-pop shops; the king over paupers. My prayer for you this coming year is that you find peace, prosperity, and change. Because if 2020 (and a terribly incompetent president) showed the U.S. anything, is that it needs change. now.
There is a reason why Paul wrote most of the New Testament. He had a gift for words. Words that could fuse age-old religious interpretation and traditions into the theology of a brand-new sect. His words are timeless. As evident by the fact that his letters to various Christian churches during the first century were later canonized into the scriptures Christians know as the New Testament.
And it is these words that I used to loathe that now, looking back on my life, understand with wiser clarity:
But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4
Suffering. Oh, how I used to hate that word. And part of that disdain was due to an upbringing in a pseudo-prosperity gospel/toxic-positivity interpretation of the Bible. An American interpretation of the Bible. Now, don’t get me wrong, the American church is good at a lot of things. They are good at creating hard workers, at fostering hope and presenting positive and life-changing messages, and have, in the last couple of years, presented a broad, watered-down enough gospel that has drawn in even the most misfit of celebrities. Its greatest appeal is packaging messages, ideologies, and interpretations, and drawing millions of followers. But suffering. That’s where the American church gets it wrong. It doesn’t really have a theology for suffering. Actually, it kind of avoids it.
Five years ago when I lost my oldest sister to breast cancer and tried to wrap my mind around the epitome of suffering, I had to look up if any American Christian books had been written on the topic. See, I didn’t really find a comfort I could sit with from the messages I received at church. I was constantly being told to rejoice when I didn’t want to rejoice. I was constantly being told to worship when I didn’t want to worship. And because there was finally a very-apparent disconnect between me and the faith I grew up with, I tried my hardest to push it down and not present it to anyone I knew. Because American church requires you to rejoice. Because American church requires you to be glad. And I sure as hell wasn’t feeling that way.
What I love about Yancey's Where Is God When It Hurts? is it avoids cheesy Christian platitudes and opts for scientific analysis while offering compassion to readers.
Phillip Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts? was a brilliant answer to one of humanity’s oldest existential questions—what is the point of suffering and why do we go through it? Rather than shying away from the topic or opting for cheesy messages or clichés, Yancey attacks the subject head on. He begins with a physiological approach, by explaining the biological necessity for pain receptors in our body. Pain, as it turns out, is necessary to prevent further pain. Without feeling pain in our bodies, we would kill ourselves pulling lids off jars, waiting for the water to get hot, or pushing doors that are too hard. Pain tells us when to stop. It protects us. Why, then, are we so adverse to it? He uses this physiological metaphor to explore the purpose of emotional pain and suffering.
Emotional pain tells us something is wrong, that something is broken. Which gives opportunity for healing, learning and growth.
In comparison with American Christianity, Christianity in other parts of the globe embraces suffering as part of their theological understanding and interpretation. They know suffering, they know how to handle it, they don’t take it out of their ideologies; rather, they embrace it. They understand that suffering is unavoidable, and as a response often their religious devotion is one of necessity and not out of possible escapism.
Suffering is a hard thing to stuff into the iPhone carrying, selfie-taking, instantaneous American generation that we’ve become. And it’s not that Americans are devoid of suffering; it’s rather that the approach is to get out of it and avoid it and run away from it at all costs. The modern mantra is do what makes you happy. Happiness. The opposite of suffering. Suffering is happiness’s killer so therefore it should be avoided at all costs. There is nothing to learn from suffering. Run away, run away, run away.
But Paul, in his give-up-everything-for-my-god martyrdom understood something profound: suffering teaches us things. Suffering builds character.
Suffering produces perseverance. Preference builds character. Character yields hope.
Thus, 2020 wasn’t my worst year. In fact, I mainly just chilled during the first confinement. I loved it. I lucked out and kept my work-related housing at no cost to myself and taught English online. When I finished, I read novels for a few hours and then went on a walk. I talked to my friends and my family. There was no social pressure to be out in the world doing anything. And I lost myself in reading and writing. I thrived. I know that this was not the case for most people.
I’ve never had that American luxury of being able to avoid suffering or even escape it; much to my behest. I lost my father in a work-related accident when I was seven years old, which destroyed my family. My mother had to raise three unruly daughters on her own in a foreign country. And I had to navigate an almost-white-American-enough-but-not-quite kind of teenage identity. There was a rift between me and my Bulgarian family; and yet there was a rift between me and my middle-class peers.
To appease this pain that I felt within myself, I thought I could avoid future suffering and bestow a perfect future life upon myself all by being the perfect Christian girl. This future life that I envisioned including everything from marriage to kids to a house to money, or at least that was what was promoted to women within my American religious community. And in attempt to achieve this, I was that perfect Christian girl.
But doing everything right isn’t an umbrella to protect you from the world’s calamities.
A few months before I graduated with my B.A. from UC Berkeley (a particular accomplishment if you keep in mind that I was the first to graduate from college in my family), I found out my sister had stage two breast cancer. Oh, but let’s make this even worse. This was my oldest sister, the only one that I was close to and actually loved me. My second oldest sister, an avoidant narcissist, hadn’t spoken to me in seven years after moving out of the house when I was seventeen. We lost Dora a few months later, after my first semester in grad school. Neither her nor my brother-in-law made it to any of my college graduations.
My future was completely different than how I’d fantasized about it when I was a teenager. The grief of it all sent me spiraling, and I didn’t know how to stop it. There was a grain of sand in my flesh, and it was gnawing at me, gnawing, gnawing, gnawing, gnawing. And it was in this process that I was developing; nay, strengthening, perseverance. And later it would come the conchiolin of character and finally the pearl of hope.
Almost everything was closed on Christmas Day in Luxembourg. The outside views were gorgeous, however, and it was pleasant to walk around without many crowds.
Thus, 2020 was not my worst year. It wasn’t even close. It was a year where I reconnected with old friends, where I visited Amsterdam and Luxembourg, where I finished writing and editing my first novel all these things i never said (based on my tragic life story described above), where I emersed myself in books like I was a little child, where I continued writing my second novel, and when I fell in love again (more to come on those two later).
My boyfriend and me in Luxembourg on Christmas Day
Instead, 2020 was a bittersweet, challenging year that reminded me just important health is, how significant family and friends are, and how powerful hope is. And how necessary.