“First world problems.”
It was a funny categorization at first, but that phrase has begun to wear thin, don’t you think? It’s one thing to recognize that my problems aren’t as significant as other points of suffering in the world. Rarely, though, was this sobering realization followed up by action on behalf of those who are suffering with greater significance.
After all, few of us appreciate suffering. We don’t want to experience it, we get uncomfortable when we witness others go through it, and more often than not it is our guilt and our pity, rather than our compassion, that is aroused when we hear of global atrocities near and far. And, save for a bold few, it would seem that over time Christians in the West have lost their stomach for suffering.
Which is odd.
Because suffering is intimately connected to what Christians are taught to look to as the source and the power of our faith.
The ultimate activity of following Christ is to be made like him. It is the journey of sanctification – by the movement of the Spirit within us, we are slowly, day after day, made holy.
Our culture, however, encourages us to have our desires, needs, and aspirations met as quickly as possible. This selfishness is found in a slick-suit preacher who says, “Come to Jesus and he will make your life one joy after another.” While it is true that Jesus promised abundant life to those who would follow him, as the pioneer of that life, he set his “face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7) and walked faithfully on into a violent, fallen world.
Thus the question comes, what is more tragic: the poor and needy who have experienced suffering, or the proud and naïve who have no stomach for it?
If we are to become like Christ, suffering is necessary, and faithful perseverance is the goal. In his influential work, The Orthodox Way, Bishop Kallistos Ware writes, “The Son of God suffered ‘unto death’ not that we might be exempt from suffering, but that our suffering might be like his. Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not substitution, but saving companionship.”
When we pray for God to reveal to us his glory, we should remember this. It was only after the visibly heartbroken Jesus washed his betrayer’s feet, broke bread for him, and bid him leave to fulfill his treachery that he was able to proclaim, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”
To identify something as a “first world problem” may be to communicate perspective on hardship, but may we never forget that suffering is not something to always be on our guard against. May we be open to whatever comes our way, trusting in the provision and the compassion of a God who truly has seen it all.