This has actually been a vaguely depressing week for me. Not because I haven’t done fun things–I have! I’ve eaten toasted bagels at eleven pm and watched horror movies with friends and slept in and burnt my tongue on hot chai and bought old books and devoured several squares of dark chocolate. I got my first college acceptance letter with a scholarship offer worth being excited about, and found out that my writing is going to be published in three different magazines. If I ever had a reason to be thankful, this week would epitomize it. I’m young and strong and I’ve been given incredible opportunities to really grasp and savor life.
But lately I’ve felt almost overwhelmed with how happy my life is. It’s as if God’s been working a slow metamorphosis in my heart and I’m cracked and bleeding under the pressure of beginning to understand other people’s pain. Contrasted to my own life, thinking about that hurts.
I remember experiencing this after I came home from Asia. Standing in a moment of hot joy and knowing the deep parts of me were sinking beneath the surface. What right do I have to feel happy? What right do I have to laugh? To know joy? To face the sun in the knowledge that my life is smooth and easy, that my bank account is full, that my skin is clear and warm?
It’s never easy to turn off the voice in your head that says, “What about the hurting? What about the lost? What about the broken?” But it is easy to drown it out with other things. Because if you sit in the silence and really listen, the walls of your heart come caving in. What about the hurting? The lost? The broken? There’s so much darkness. So much pain. Even if you worked your hands raw, even if you gave the clothes off your back and the pennies in your wallet, it wouldn’t be enough. You’d still lie awake in bed at night thinking you weren’t doing enough.
Some of you may have seen my somewhat heated Instagram post last week as a response to “The Dress” controversy. I’m not going to lie. I was mad. I’d blogged earlier in the week about the issue of eating disorders and how we can show love to ourselves and others by choosing worship in the way we eat. That same day, I’d been reading numerous articles about the twenty seven million humans trapped in slavery today, and how activists all over were trying to raise awareness on the issue of sex trafficking through social media. These issues seem so big to me. So swallowing in their impossibility and sadness. I was as fascinated with the dress controversy as anyone, but only for about thirty minutes. After that, I honestly struggled with my anger and disappointment at the tens of thousands of Americans who flooded social media with heated debate over the color of a dress. I enjoyed the playful bantering, but there was an underlying urgency that disturbed me. One hundred and seventeen comments. People bickering back and forth–losing sleep, going crazy, feeling out of their minds over this dress.
I feel out of my mind. I feel impossibly small, ridiculously helpless. Everything hurts me. I watched the documentary “The Act of Killing” and cried. I’ve been to this country and sat in these homes. I know that these aren’t faces on a screen that are being filmed as a political or social message. They’re real. They’re soft and they smell a little bit like sweet tea and they’re toasted from the sun. I cried because the seams of my heart were plucked and something was seeping out.
Then I stumbled across an article in a magazine while waiting in a doctor’s office about Norwegian bloggers who were sent to South East Asia to work in the sweatshops where most of their clothes are made. Curious, I went home and looked up the videos from the trip. More tears. More weeping. More places I recognized and people I knew to be real. To be true. I knew the sights and scents and sounds and I knew the hurting and the desperation.
And yet, in spite of all my aching and grieving over the slaves and the bulimics and the factory workers and the minority groups and the battered and bruised peoples of this world, I’m still chiefly angry at myself. It’s easy for me to feel frustrated to the point of tears at the failed efforts of most of America’s politicians. To be mad at the family members and friends who roll their eyes at me and make me feel silly and emotional. It’s even easy for me to post something impassioned on social media and guilt other people into acknowledging their own failures to make a difference.
The hard part is stopping to look at me. At Rachel. I rob myself of being able to experience true joy because I refuse to believe I’m worthy of it. In the midst of my rants and tears and appeals for justice, I can’t avoid the withering voice that tells me I’m partially to blame for the evil I see in the world. Because I don’t give enough. Because I live too comfortably. Because I’m quick to point and slow to act. Anxious to blame others and hesitant to examine the sin in my own life.
I’ve cried myself into a works-based religion. The type of faith that says, “Jesus, you’ve done too much for me and I need to do a little more to make up for that.” Just because I sleep in a queen sized bed. Because my bread comes from Trader Joes. Because that bag I bought wasn’t on sale. My empathy and tears for the sufferings of others has deceived me into believing my walk is less important.
I don’t live like a monk. I buy songs off iTunes. I go to Starbucks. I print pictures and do too much laundry and I’ve even shopped at The Gap before. Sometimes I write checks for the mission trips of friends or worth strangers. I do that thing where I buy jewelry made by uneducated girls in Bolivia. Once a year, I use some of my Christmas money to donate a big chunk to orphans in India or a college graduate in The World Race or international missions. But that’s usually it. I’m definitely not giving hundreds of dollars each month to feed the hungry and clothe the widows and educate the orphans of this world.
But how many times have I told myself it’s all or nothing? Instead of asking, “How can I live more sacrificially?” I ask, “How can I live with myself?” I’ve duped myself into believing that unless I pull the shoes off my feet and rub ashes on my face and spend my life in the sweatshops with the Cambodians, that my witness is in vain. And so I feel guilty, sad, and scared.
We’ve been taught for years that joy exists outside of circumstances. That even the martyrs and the persecuted Christians and the sweatshop workers and sex slaves can experience joy because the trials of this life pale in comparison to the glories of heaven.
But what about those of us who lead happy, full lives? Is it almost just as hard for us to experience joy sometimes, because we feel so completely unworthy of it? That’s definitely where I am right now. I refuse to let God fill my tank, because I want to prove to Him that I can run on it empty. Try me, God. Strip me. Send me to the factory. Give me to the nations. Make it hard to love you and let me love you more.
That’s the prayer we want to offer up. Make us super-human. Super-Christian. Give us the extraordinary capacity for joy and help us make a difference.
The prayer of the twenty-first century American is harder. Sitting in your two hundred thousand dollar home. Wearing J. Crew jeans and mashing sweet potatoes. How do we ask God to give us joy as we go to work, to sit in our offices and update websites or write articles or edit photos? How do we ask Him to give us joy at the movies with our friends, at the park with our boyfriend, in the car with our family? These things are all so good. So full and happy already. We think we need joy for the suffering and we reject it for the blessings. There’s no room for joy because my life is too happy. Because my circumstances are too easy. And because I’ve done nothing to make it harder, or sadder, or more uncomfortable.
I don’t know how many tears I will spill over the things I learn about life apart from my own. The low income black families struggling to keep food on the table in inner city circles. The children of divorced parents. The girls who have been raped by those they trusted. The lies of authorities and scandals of politicians. I don’t know how many times I’ll break over the cruelty that not only exists in, but rather rules our world.
But I’m learning that my good life is not some kind of curse. I know I will feel pain, but I can’t measure it against the pain of others. I can only wait and trust that God is working all things out for His good, and that even the small, seemingly unimportant ways He uses me are valid.
Psalm 47:1 says, “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.”
I know what “cries of joy” means to most people. It means laughter, exuberance, lifted spirits.
But to me, crying equals sobs. Joy is found in the clapping hands just like it’s found in the tears. In the moments I am thrilled with life, I will praise Him, and in the moments life breaks me, I will praise Him. Because I am a person who feels deeply, who cares deeply, my joy will sometimes be expressed by crying. Sobbing over evil but rejoicing over the fact that these people who are broken and hurt are cradled in His hands. I can’t give up hope because I know that the salvation of the nations doesn’t rest on me. It rests on a God who cares, who heals, who holds, and who brings joy to every situation. I can still make sacrifices, but I have rest in the knowledge that nothing I could ever do or give would be more than what He has already done.
So the next time I go off on a rant about something, be it sex trafficking or global missions or sweatshop laborers, know that I am doing it out of a heart that is burdened but joyful about what God is doing in the world. He is making all things beautiful, in His time, but I always want to be one of the few who shone light in the darkness and witnessed the transformation.