We often learn key life lessons far too late:
Yes it is not much more than a cliché, but we do it all the time: we DO take things for granted. Worse yet, we take people for granted. Yesterday I was thinking about funerals, and how so many nice things are said about the deceased during the service. I wondered how many of these nice things were said about them and to them while they were still alive!
One need not be a Christian of course to think in these terms. Back in 1970 Joni Mitchell had this memorable line in her song Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?” If you want a refresher on what that tune from over a half century ago sounds like, you can check it out here:
Yes, life is like that. We should not be taking things and people for granted. This is becoming so much more real for me of late, and that for several reasons. I turned 70 this year, so I am no spring chicken anymore. As you age you tend to spend more time reflecting on what went before than what lies ahead. You start realising that your days really are numbered, and you better make the most of the time you have left. And you reflect on past mistakes and shortcomings more.
Another reason for all this is the fact that my wife is dying. Yes, we are all dying, from the moment we were born. But not everyone reaches their threescore and ten. Some die prematurely because of various illnesses – including that dreaded scourge, cancer.
Pardon a bit of personal info here, but… Because hers is one of the rarest, harshest, most aggressive and least likely to be cured but only treated cancers, the initial time frame we were given (12-18 months) seems to be far too optimistic. It seems each week some new bit of horror news hits us. Recent CT scan showed even more growths and spreads, despite a year now of surgeries, radiation and chemo.
There was even a small spot found on her brain. So tomorrow she goes to another hospital to do an MRI to try to determine more accurately just how much cancer there is, and where it has now spread to. As I have said before, if you do not know what the word “metastasis” is, consider yourself incredibly blessed.
So obviously I now reflect a lot (as I sit alone in my empty house) about how good or bad of a husband I have been. It is mostly the latter it seems to me. There is so much I could have done better. So many wasted opportunities. So much self-centredness. So much focus on things that did not really matter.
The only good thing I suppose about her extended hospital stays is they are preparing me for the time when she never comes back home. Jilly dog and Possum cat help of course – and God is the ultimate comforter. He knows all about our pain and suffering. He is not distant and aloof. He suffers with us.
What does it take to wake us up?
Sadly it is often the case – for Christians just as much as non-Christians – that it takes some mega-tragedy or crisis or emergency to wake us up and remind us of the things that really matter. For example, some four or five years ago I often prayed that God would do something to radically wake us all up. I am sure many other believers prayed the same.
The West was (and still is) in such a downward spiral and things were getting so bad, that something massive was needed to snap us out of our stupor and get us to wake up to what really is worthwhile in life. Of course then Covid came along, and all that went with it – lockdown mania, statist overkill, mandatory medicine and health fascism.
I certainly did not have in mind a global pandemic when I prayed those prayers, but that was certainly one way to hopefully get our attention and to get us to consider what is really important. But whether something even that hardcore really woke up the masses is a moot point. Many did not like going through it all, but many are now just going back to business as usual.
And a personal health crisis can and should also act as a major wake up call. When you or a loved one are told that you are going through a terminal illness, that should shake off the blinders and bring us back to reality real fast. Then you really begin to realise how much you did in fact take things for granted.
Biblical Christians know that suffering is not foreign to their life, just as it was not foreign to God’s life. Our Saviour is known as the “suffering servant”. God fully entered into our world and suffered greatly on our behalf so that he could deal with the alienation that exists between God and man.
As I have said before, believers need to develop a theology of suffering. Scripture talks about this matter over and over again. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/05/08/needed-a-theology-of-suffering/
There are actually many important benefits to suffering. If properly responded to, one thing suffering often can result in is this: it helps us to understand and relate to what others are going through. The Apostle Paul for example spoke about this in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
I don’t know about you, but for most of my life I have been thick as a brick. Sure, I knew in my head all the right biblical and theological material on suffering, and how I am to weep with those who weep, and so on. But for most of my life I may have KNOWN the right things about this, but there was little real empathy and sympathy.
In case you are wondering about the two terms and how they might differ, one online dictionary says this: “In general, sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.”
My current bout of suffering (mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual – while my wife has all that, plus the physical pain) has certainly led to an increase in both. I now relate a whole lot more to those who are going through similar things. Indeed, I am now ready to want to give a big hug to anyone who says they are experiencing things like cancer. My capacity to care and show love and concern for others has ramped up a fair bit as I have gone through this very difficult year.
And this brings me back to my opening thoughts. We can repeat the words of Joni again: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?” My wife will soon be gone – barring a miracle. And God is able to do a miracle if it is his will. But if it is getting close for her to go home, that too is a grace of God.
Same with me. Will I live to be 80 or 90 or more? Beats me. But as I age, I am learning that there is so much I need to stop taking for granted. And it would be great if we could get young people to think in these terms. I sure did not while I was in my 20s or 30s or 40s, etc.
If I could patent something and bottle it and make it available to young people to help them see how quickly their lives will be over, and how many stupid things we put all our emphasis and care into, it would be one of the greatest medicines we could have.
Sure, Scripture speaks to this all this time. Consider just one passage: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). It is one thing to read this – even a hundred times. It is quite another to let it sink deep into our souls.