Can We Be Both Suffering and Blessed?

Show of hands, how many of you have been struggling with all the changes that have been coming at us this year? I know you can't see it, but my hand is up, waaaay up.

As someone with some strong introvert tendencies, I can roll with the punches of a socially-distanced Christmas. I don't need a crowd to drink hot chocolate, watch Christmas movies, bake cookies, or play board games. If December is usually overwhelming and exhausting for you, the idea of a quiet Christmas might sound like a vacation!

But, even introverts can have too much time at home. And extroverts are reeling as all their favorite events are canceled, or at least drastically altered.

It is really hard to be told that you might not see the people you care about this Christmas. It is mentally exhausting to not be able to plan anything with confidence. And, even if you do have plans to meet with friends, the smallest sniffle makes you worry about going out.

When counting your blessings doesn't help

I have my share of worries this Christmas, but when I start feeling overwhelmed, I remind myself how lucky I am. My family is healthy, including my extended family. Both my husband and I have been able to continue working. Our kids are doing well, despite all the changes in their lives. We still have our house, our vehicles, our pets, and presents under the tree, so I know that I am blessed.

So why am I still struggling, emotionally? Why can't I just count my blessings and forget my troubles? Is that what I'm supposed to be doing as a Christian, anyway?

Let's take that further. What if I don't have those things? Can I be homeless and blessed? Can I be grieving and blessed? Can my life be an upside-down-and-shaken-out-mess, and I still be considered blessed by God?

Jesus seems to say: Yes. I can be blessed AND suffering at the same time.

Who Did Jesus Call Blessed?

In his famous sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, Jesus gave a list that we call the beatitudes.

Blessed are the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and the peacemakers.

At a glance, it is easy to picture how such kind and loving people will be blessed with friendships and happy families. But think of those throughout history who have suffered because they stood for justice. Because they wanted peace and showed mercy.

The beatitudes continue:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted, insulted, and falsely accused of evil.

It hurts to be insulted and falsely accused, even for little things. The persecuted, insulted, and falsely accused will suffer in heart, if not in body. Yet, Jesus called them blessed!

What is this blessing that he speaks about, exactly?

What does it mean to be blessed, according to Jesus and the early Christians?

In the original Greek of the Bible, blessed is a bit of a nuanced word. It can mean fortunate, as we expect. Someone who has a good thing happen to them, or given to them. But it can also mean fully-satisfied.

Fully-satisfied. That sounds good. That sounds like that feeling when you push back from a delicious, picked-over Christmas dinner, give a big sigh, and start thinking about a nap. Chances are, you or someone you care about is feeling the opposite. They are starving for normalcy.

How do we grab onto that fully-satisfied way of living, and keep it with us when we are struggling in our day-to-day life?

There is a story from the Bible that I feel shows that tension beautifully, and it comes from the Christmas story, in Luke.

In my book of short stories, As the Stars I have a short story I wrote about Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, inspired by the first chapter in Luke. I purposefully end the story on a bittersweet note. It's easy to focus on her miraculous pregnancy, but we can't skip over the years, decades perhaps, of her waiting on unanswered prayers.

Elizabeth and Mary were blessed and struggling at the same time

Even though her blessing comes late, when she's advanced in years and facing a limited time with her son, she grabs her moment with both hands, feeling it deeply, savoring her blessings. Five months she spent in seclusion when God answered her prayer. Wow. When was the last time we slowed down so intentionally, simply to be grateful for what God has given us? Elizabeth shows us that it is okay to slow down and soak in the blessings you have today, even if not everything in your life is perfect. Taking time to sit with your blessings today might be just what you need to face your struggles tomorrow.

And then there's Mary. When Gabriel comes to Mary with an incredible message, she declares herself a servant of God, even though she can't tell yet how this is going to work, exactly. If Elizabeth knew what it was to wait a lifetime for an answered prayer, Mary knew what it was to face uncertainty.

Did Mary take a moment to think ahead to all the trouble her pregnancy might cause? Did she jump into her life-changing decision without forethought? Mary is often portrayed as treasuring or pondering what she witnesses in her heart. From this little description, she seems like a thoughtful sort of young woman. Not the sort to make rash decisions.

My perspective is that Mary knew this blessing came with a level of uncertainty, and likely hardship, but she was willing to accept it anyway, trusting that God would take care of her. What an example for us!