One day, when I was a teenager, my mom was talking about a woman from our church who had cancer. Mom was saying that this woman’s faith was admirable, that she never questioned God or allowed her suffering to dampen her spirits. This subject of conversation led to her saying something particularly memorable:
“I figure if I’m not suffering at all, it means I’m doing something wrong. It must mean Satan is already sure he has me, so he doesn’t feel like he has to try anymore.”
I immediately thought of the book of Job, and decided that what Mom said made a lot of sense. At the time, I found it strangely comforting. Life was not particularly great for me at that point, and I sort of felt vindicated by this way of thinking. I wasn’t suffering because life was cruel; I was suffering because I was doing such a good job following God. That made the things I was going through seem somehow worthwhile.
Then again, it also gave me a perverse disincentive to try and fix things. I would pray for God’s will to be done, and I would live with the result. If things got better, hooray! Praying and trusting God worked! But if nothing improved, that just meant I had extra Jesus cred, right? Win-win.
Except that it wasn’t. For one thing, pain and adversity still sucked. That’s kind of required by definition. Knowing there was some reason for it may have made it easier to cope, but it still didn’t make it easy. At times, I would pray for God to make things better, only to feel guilty for asking. Who was I to think I shouldn’t have to bear that cross, after all? If God didn’t want me to suffer, he’d fix it. And a sinner like me surely deserved much more hardship than he was giving me, not less.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that sometimes, things were just fine. Yes, happiness always genuinely worried me. Whenever I went too long without some sort of setback, when I got along just fine with the people around me, when I could look back on my day and think, “That went pretty well,” I got nervous. Had Satan taken me off his Dangerously Close to God List? Was I no longer a threat to the forces of evil? What should I do? Naturally, I should continue to pray and read my Bible, but would that be enough? Were things too easy for me because I was on the path to hell?
It was especially weird trying to juggle this and the constant exhortations to thank God for my blessings. If I couldn’t come up with many, I felt ungrateful. If I could think of too many, then I must have it too easy. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I had thought of too many or not enough. Then again, since the self-inflicted punishment for either one was crippling guilt, it actually didn’t make that much difference. Either way, I certainly had plenty to be concerned about.
Now, you might be thinking that if I’d done nothing wrong, then I should be fine. And surely I should know whether I’d done anything bad or not, right? Well, not really. One of the common themes I remember from church is hearing that we sin constantly, sometimes even without knowing it. This is why we needed to constantly repent and pray for forgiveness. I was never quite sure how to go about repenting of something I didn’t even know about, but my constant prayers for forgiveness always included the catch-all phrase “and for anything else I may have done.” You know, just in case. Because I had probably unknowingly committed a couple hundred other sins, being the horrible reprobate that I was.
I’ve heard people try to console others by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” Personally, I take a great deal more comfort in knowing that “shit happens.” It means that I don’t have to search for the deeper meaning in happiness or misfortune; I can just live through it. I’m glad that the bad things in life aren’t part of some divine plan. They’re simply things to endure or things to fix. And I’m glad that there’s no need to analyze the good things that come my way. I didn’t get them because I’m a horrible person. I didn’t get them because I’m a good person. I just got them. There doesn’t have to be a reason, but it would be a shame to not enjoy them while they last.