I'm sitting in a classroom at The Master's Seminary right now, trying to make the most of a 45-minute break between classes. I'm still trying to catch up on life after Uganda. The trip was well-worth the after-effects of compacted busyness, but it's busy nonetheless.
A few minutes before 1:00pm this afternoon, I walked briskly into my New Testament Introduction class, chose my seat, and instantly split open The Text of the New Testament to review the 9-10 pages that I was about to be quizzed on. It's amazing how much information you can review and solidify in a semi-panicked five minutes, and equally amazing how badly you can do on a quiz directly afterwards. I don't recommend studying like this, but comprehensive quiz preparation and effective study methods aren't the topics of this particular post; I'm just passing along the ugly facts.
Near the end of my five minutes of precious review, the dignified Dr. Thomas spoke up and asked if there were any prayer requests (which is how he always begins class). No one shared anything immediately, so he said with a sober, selfless, non-sensationalistic tone: "Please pray for us; I lost my brother yesterday."
The most common response to a life bordering on chaos is self-centeredness. It is cross-bearingly hard to maintain even a meager sense of care for others when your own life is splitting at the seams. Yet there are times when the Lord is so gracious as to provide us with an eye-opening view of what others are going through. And this is one way to avoid a crippling and Christless self-focus which always rationalizes itself with a self-affirming glance at the schedule and the To-Do list.
Oh, I know that anyone who reads this probably feels pretty busy because the people who read this are probably Americans. I'm assuming that most of you are Christians, too, which means that what you're trying to fill your lives with is good and profitable and of eternal weight. I'm trying to do the same thing. But as I was studying for a single 15-minute quiz and being tempted to pity myself because of my seemingly hectic circumstances (which I myself chose and which are really good), Dr. Thomas (in his 80's) was preparing to teach one of his many classes while thinking about the death of his older brother (whom he has known and respected and often leaned on for almost a century). He leaves for the funeral tomorrow, and he's going to have to catch up when he gets back just like I'm having to. The difference is that I'm a 24-year-old student. He's an almost-90-year-old professor. And I got to go to Uganda. He lost his brother.
I think it would be unbalanced to say that when we encounter people whose trials are greater than our own, we should just tell ourselves that our own hardships are insignificant and don't matter. This approach denies what Scripture clearly affirms: that a sinful person living among other sinful people in a fallen world is going to face real and undeniable difficulties. Acknowledging the hardship, trusting God, and persevering with joy is a far more biblical option than simply comparing your trials with others' and trying to pretend that yours don't hurt because they're not as big.
That being said, God does use the manifold suffering and endurance of others to humble us out of our self-focus, to stir us out of our self-pity, to pull us out of our "woe-is-me" wallowing, and to enable us to see that serenity and peace and joy and protection is possible even in the darkest night because our God is a sun and a shield. And sometimes for us to see that, we need to see someone whose night is darker than ours.
James pointed us to the past, telling us about the faithful prophets who persevered through more pain and agony than almost anyone before or after them: "As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord" (James 5:10). Peter pointed us to the present, informing us about our fellow-saints who are fighting off the same enticing temptations (fill in the blank with your specific temptation) to give in to the devil when affliction comes: "But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world" (1 Peter 5:9). And Paul and Barnabas pointed us to the future, encouraging the new believers in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch that "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:21-22). Each of these men pointed to the difficulties that believers had faced, were facing, or would face. And they did it as a means to encourage those who were being tempted to give up in the present.
When you think you have it bad, look around. Lots of people have it worse. We all know it's true. But don't look around just so that you can compare yourself with others and thereby find a way to downplay your difficulties. Rather, look around so that you can humbled into selfless service towards those whose backs are burdened with more weight than your own.
When all I could think of was how I was going to get done what I needed to get done today, Dr. Thomas shared the simple fact that his older brother had died and that he would be leaving for the funeral tomorrow. Then he prayed and went on to serve me by teaching my class with unfeigned self-forgetfulness. These things help me to realize that his doctorate is not the only reason why he's the teacher and I'm the student. There are some things you can't put in the syllabus.
Lord, open our eyes to see the hurting going on all around us, especially when we ourselves are hurting. Guard us from the blind selfishness that believes that our problems and our busyness and our lack of sleep and our damaged relationships and our bad health and our tight finances are so much more important than anyone else's. Help us to see, help us to care, and help us to serve.
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."