It seems to come in waves washing ashore at certain times with greater force than at other times. It is not easy to predict. The signs of its approach are not always clear.
It piles up and suddenly you are drowning in the awareness that no part of life really seems to work all that well. We are surrounded by break down. Peoples’ lives are in chaos. Families don’t work; institutions are failing; bodies are broken. Even creation appears to be fragile and at risk.
What is this dark force that makes life so often so difficult? Wherein lies the source of all this pain? Why do so many things come unstuck? What are these jagged edges that cause so much suffering? Why can’t life run smoothly in a straight line with a warm comfortable glow along the way?
Of course there are no answers to such questions. Life is not a sudoku puzzle to resolve with a neat and tidy solution. The Why? What for? and How? questions are not given us to answer. Brokenness is a conundrum we cannot possibly begin to resolve.
Faced with the opaque mystery of life, the only appropriate response is to ask, How will I respond? What choice will I make in the face of the chaos, confusion, and suffering that are an ever-present reality at the heart of so much of existence?
The only way forward is to give up the futile struggle to solve or fix the world. Life is as it is. Jesus said,
you always have the poor with you. (Matthew 26:11)
This is not callous indifference. Jesus is not counseling neglect of those who are in desperate need. But Jesus was a clear-eyed realist. He knew that, in this material time-bound physical realm, all human solutions, strategies, answers, and plans, will fall short. Built into the very fabric of life is the reality of incompleteness, inadequacy, yearning, and longing for something to change, for life to be different than we know it to be.
Jesus was not engaging in hyperbole or unnecessary pessimism, when he said,
In the world you face θλῖψις [thlîpsis]. (John 16:33)
What Jesus promised his followers was that, as long as they remained in this temporal material realm (“the world”) they would face tribulation , affliction , trouble, and anguish [thlîpsis].
It is not a pretty picture. But, if we are honest, we know it is deeply true. The friction that at times nearly overwhelms us, is not some strange aberration, as if an alien force had overtaken life and defeated the purposes of love and goodness. It is part of the fabric of existence. It is part of the mysterious design of life.
“Thlîpsis” is not something to be conquered, denied, rejected, resisted, or denied. It exists to break our hearts open to the depths dimension of existence. It has the capacity, if we let it do its work, to break us open to the beauty and strength at the centre of our being. Without the chafing of challenging circumstance, the rough edges of our lives will not be smoothed and gentled.We will not learn the deep lesson of surrender. There will be no need to let go of our demands and expectations of life. We will never face the depths of our resistance to what is.
When we accept “thlîpsis“, stop resisting, and sit with the abrasion that is an inevitable part of life, we discover a strength to which we would never have found access had all our days been “Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.” It is the gift of brokenness that enables us to touch the power of gentleness and find the presence of love that is never reduced by the painful realities of life.