"Oh honey," I sigh, remembering her upcoming MRI, "It's beautiful, but you are going to have to wait until Wednesday to give it to your teacher. You don't get to go to school tomorrow; you have to go to the hospital so they can take pictures of your brain instead."
"But mommy!" she whines. "I want to go to school!" I watch as a hard scowl smashes the joy from her face. She stomps down the hall, a picture of woe, certain her life is entirely ruined. I suppress a smile, watching her moan and complain about this small misery. She doesn't even remember her year of daily seizures. Now, it is day 445 of seizure- freedom for that girl. She has no idea what a small thing one little MRI really is.
Yet I see myself in her, so I withhold my lecture for once. Telling her, "you think this is bad? Let me tell you how much worse it could be!" would be as unhelpful to her as it is to me when I am feeling overwhelmed and burdened. Of course, I act like her sometimes; surrounded by a million mercies, yet pitching fits over minor inconveniences. Fighting children, interrupted schedules, stomach flu, broken dishes--any one of these things has the potential to elicit sighing and complaining from me. My daughter is blessedly shielded from how much worse it could really be, and so, an MRI counts as a trial in her world. That does not make her suffering pointless, or something that can be lectured away. "God says to rejoice always, little girl, so buck up and get yourself happy right now!"
The concept "It could be worse!" is often used as an attempt to comfort those in trial by well-meaning people. When this idea comes from a Christian, the implicit message sounds an awful lot like: Jesus died for you! How dare you be sad?! Is this what the Bible says about suffering? Your laundry machine is broken. Rejoice always! You miss a birthday party to spend the day throwing up into a bucket. Rejoice! That baby you prayed for has died. Again I say rejoice! Really?
Christ has died for us, and has received the enormous suffering we deserve for our sins. Our greatest debt has been paid, and on top of that, our Heavenly Father surrounds us with His grace and blessing as His children. Surely this is reason for great joy! However, that does not mean suffering is no more. While we remain in this fallen world, we will suffer. We have not been told to wear plastic smiles and pretend it is not so.
Rejoicing and suffering are often mentioned together in Scripture. Peter wrote to the suffering church, "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials" (1 Peter 1:6). Trials, from minor inconveniences to breath-taking grief, have been part of the life of the Christian since the beginning. The imperative "rejoice!" is not intended to be a heavy word of Law slapped on the back of a suffering Christian. It is not a call to rack our brains for a hundred reasons to be thankful even as we tremble under the shadow of death.
God's children suffer, sometimes greatly, sometimes without knowing why. And yet they are made able to rejoice even while suffering. The important question is: Rejoice in what? Surely not in the fact that they suffer! No, rather read the beautiful words Peter uses to direct the eyes of His fellow saints to their source of joy:
In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade--kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
In this we greatly rejoice, though now for a little while we suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
As God's children, we have been given so much more to comfort us than "It could be worse!" We have a risen Savior, a certain hope, and a God who keeps our inheritance for us, who will carry us through our trials to that day when we are with him in eternity. We may sigh today, we may even mourn, yet even as we do these things, we are tenderly invited to look to that day when the promises God has given us in Christ will be fulfilled. Soon, we will be gathered with all His saints, and He will destroy for us every reason for scowling and tears.