“The rich man is wise in his own eyes, but the poor who has understanding sees through him.” –Proverbs 28:11
My aunt Connie’s head tilted at a fixed and unnatural angle. Draping away from her body, her T-shirt hung from the raised pitch of her awkward shoulders which pushed out her collar bones like two sallow dolphins about to breach the thinness of her skin. With her mouth slack and slowly drooling, she communicated by typing into an old black brick of a laptop that sat on a TV tray settled over her motorized wheelchair. Her eyes, glistening with emotion or just out of her control, twinkled when I correctly guessed the questions and answers she had begun to start pecking out with two index fingers on her keyboard. When I said out loud what was in her heart but not yet on her screen, she would exhale happy moans punctuated by wheezy inhaled chuckles that shook her frail body as she tattooed out herds of exclamation points (harboring a few stray 1s in her rush). I stood beside her, holding one of my squirming babies, concentrating on the brightest thing in her dark room—the stark white screen populated with half-finished sentences in large black type.
This was the progress she had made in the years since that evening when she collapsed in her kitchen—in one moment translated from graceful and competent strength to complete helpless paralysis. The doctors could not explain what had happened. They said it was as if her whole neural system had shorted. Not even her former personality remained inside her incapacitated body at first. It bloomed again over many years from a tiny bud, rebooted from nearly nothing. My uncle Jeff, her husband, put his life on hold for a few years to care for her and their six kids, the youngest of whom was then only two.
A year or so after Connie collapsed, my pregnant wife and I were visiting the West Coast with our twin girls, then almost two, when we experienced our own unexpected disaster. It’s a long story I won’t tell now, but within the course of a day, police officers had taken our twin girls away from us, and we found ourselves in the midst of a legal battle with LA county to get them back.
The day the twins were taken was the worst day of my life. All of my attempted meals for a few days after that began and ended with one flavorless bite that stuck in my throat. Sleep fled from me. I dissolved my couch in tears. I had never before understood the Psalms this clearly.
When our first court date appeared, my uncle Jeff showed up to support us. Even then, I didn’t know what to say to him. He had lost his wife, his soul’s sole completeness, but not to death—which would have been easier really. He had lost her comfort, her assistance, her joy, and her company, but not his obligation to her much-enlarged needs. She had been transformed in one day into little more than a great and heart-wrenching burden, and there was really no hope at that point that her condition would ever change all that much.
I had not experienced that same pain. I had only sipped from tragedy. Even still, when I sat next to him outside the courtroom, I didn’t feel quite as awkward when I thanked him for supporting us even in the midst of his own much greater difficulties, and when I told him that we were praying for him.
I knew that he, probably more than anyone else there, understood the kind of pain that nested in my wife and me. I also understood then how alone my uncle Jeff was in his own suffering. His pain had grown so large that it could accommodate and comprehend so many other smaller pains. But what other heart had been enough tragedy-stretched to accommodate his pain? What mansion was large enough for the vast wing of suffering he held in his heart? Who else really knew the taste of my uncle Jeff’s bitter circumstances as familiarly as he did?
I knew of only one person. When I hugged my uncle Jeff, I concentrated on being the arms of Jesus around him. I prayed that my uncle Jeff would feel the arms of Jesus and not just my own arms, that he would know the embrace of that one who had drunk the cup of humankind’s bitterness all the way to the dregs. I don’t know if he felt Jesus’ arms when we hugged. But I did.
During that same time, while my pregnant wife and I fought to regain custody of our twins, one of my closest friends at the time, Micah Stout, came to visit me from Georgia. He had cancer, but he wanted to be there for me, so he flew out. We didn’t know it at the time, but the cancer had started to eat into his spine. It had already begun to cut the cord of communication from his brain to his legs when he arrived in California, suddenly racked with pain. He would die a few months later, a few days before my first son was born. Between him, my uncle Jeff, and Jesus in and through them, the most fortifying of my comforters had suffered far more than I had.
I have heard a lot of advice in my life that rang as cheap as a toy monkey’s cymbals. And most of it came from people who hadn’t felt much pain. Most people who haven’t suffered much think it’s probably due to what they’ve done right. And they think if you have suffered much, it’s probably due to what you’ve done wrong. They’re mistaken on both counts.
“The rich man is wise in his own eyes, but the poor who has understanding sees through him.” There are different kinds of riches as well as different kinds of poverty. If you are rich in spirit—never having had a fall, a humiliation, a tragedy, a persecution, a depression, a crippling anxiety—it probably has little to do with any greater wisdom or righteousness on your part. God has given you such richness, and if you give yourself credit for it to any extent, you’re acting the fool.
“Parable of Lazarus” by Fyodor Bronnikov
It’s not wrong to be rich, but it’s difficult to be rich in any area without being blind in it too. Jesus said as much (Matt. 19:24). Those with power, wealth, comfort, and ease tend to be in a precarious position concerning the kingdom of heaven.
Why? Because Jesus is the door to the kingdom of heaven. If you want to enter in, you have to enter in and through him. And our Lord suffered as a slave before he reigned again as a king. He fills all things, from the lowest things to the greatest. And he calls us to take up our cross and follow him, to drink of his cup and to share in his suffering before we have any part in his glory.
A lot of people ask why God calls the righteous and the innocent to so much suffering. It seems unjust. It seems that way, but it’s the only way to regain justice in a world that has clearly lost it. God calls the innocent to swallow the suffering of the world, like Jesus did, so that at least in the case of the righteous, suffering will not beget more suffering. The suffering innocents alone can shift the balance of evil—they can overcome evil with good. It really makes no net difference in the world to receive evil for some evil you have done or to repay evil for some evil you have received. Instead, God calls us to innocent suffering—the same kind that Jesus pioneered.
Aside from changing the world for good, innocent suffering has other benefits. Those who suffer for righteousness sake have a chance to gain extraordinary insight. It’s much easier to see everything from the bottom than from the middle. Consider the one who has maintained his faith even when everything has been taken from him. That is the person to ask about faith. It’s no use asking for advice about belief from someone who has never suffered in the midst of righteousness. What does that person know? It’s quite possible that his faith will wither in the sun of persecution. It’s quite possible his faith will get choked out by other concerns. And even if it doesn’t, what wisdom and insight can such a one give to the suffering? Most of us want to ask advice from the “successful.” It’s probably wiser to ask advice from people who have failed often but kept going (Prov. 24:16).
Suffering and tragedy have a way of revealing what can last—what has real substance. God shakes what can be shaken to reveal the everlasting. God shakes us, so that his righteousness and wisdom can be more clearly revealed in, through, and to us. If you want to know about real faith, ask Job, not his friends. Job proved his faith, and he mined rare treasures from the darkest regions of his heart’s doubt and despair before he ascended again to the heights of paradisical happiness. He entered into the life of Jesus like most of us will never have the opportunity to do.
In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. If you want to know what is real in this world, enter into Christ’s suffering. And if you want to hear the wisdom of that suffering, listen to the abused, the disenfranchised, the sick, the victimized, and the suffering. If you have not experienced a suffering great enough to accommodate their pain, expand your heart with empathy to comprehend their experience.
If you listen closely enough to the wheezy chuckle breaking free from the slack lips of a paralyzed saint, you can hear God’s folly triumphing over our best wisdom. If you guess the end of her half-finished sentence, you will speak of Christ’s weakness laying the mighty low.