Everybody loves a story of redemption. There’s a catharsis in seeing a self-centered person brought to a well-deserved low… but it is even more deeply touching to see such an unworthy person made worthy, transformed into someone likable or even heroic. I think there’s something in the idea of grace that appeals to all of us, maybe because it gives us a bit of hope for ourselves. Sometimes people need to hit rock bottom in order to change themselves for the better. That’s certainly been the case for me before.
What’s easy to forget—until it isn’t—is just how confusing and painful the “rock-bottom” is, before the redemptive part of the journey begins. Or at least before it becomes evident. Not every rock-bottom is the prelude to some new heights, so the next logical question is this: if you are going through a period of pain and upheaval, is it a necessary step in becoming a better, happier, and more fulfilled person? Or are you simply languishing in place? Are you like a caterpillar, enduring months of discomfort inside a cocoon in order to grow into a more mature creature, or are you simply stranded in place, like a ship on the rocks?
One of the strangest and most difficult pieces of wisdom presented in ancient manuscripts is to, “count it as joy when you experience suffering.” The idea, of course, is that suffering brings an opportunity for growth. This is not such a strange idea—as the saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But it’s not very satisfying, is it? Yes, trials are an opportunity to grow stronger, but that’s hardly new information, nor is it of much real use to any of you who may be going through such hardships right now.
Yet there is something here that I believe can be useful to all of us. You see, I actually misrepresented that quote from the last paragraph. The actual manuscript goes into a bit more detail about why we should have this very strange reaction to hardships: “because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Now, my goal here is not to push my beliefs on you. Of course, my own beliefs feed into the way I see the world, but I think that even outside that context, good advice is still good advice. The idea here is that in order to find meaning and even joy in suffering, you need a higher purpose than self-interest. Faith in some kind of divinity or in a set of principles, for example. Perseverance requires something beyond ourselves for which to persevere.
So to circle back to our original question: how can you know if your present suffering is serving a greater purpose? In short: by serving a greater purpose. When you are in a time of upheaval, it can be difficult to see the road beneath your feet, but it really does make an immense difference to remember whether you are serving the best and highest truth you know and if you are, to make sure you don’t forget. That’s when you’ll discover a new kind of strength. On the other hand, if you ask yourself that question and find only confusion or emptiness, then you may have a different task in front of you: a search for the truth. I’m not here to tell you what that truth is, only that if you want the best, most meaningful life possible, the long and difficult task of finding it must not, and cannot be ignored.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!
Dr. Alex Loyd