There’s a term here at Duke that students sometimes use called the oppression olympics. It's an idea that comes from activist movements and stems from various groups sometimes “competing” to show why their oppression is most pertinent. And at Duke this often makes itself present as students sometimes try to highlight their lack of privilege, and show that they have in one way or another come from struggles of one kind or another.
This past week I talked to someone about how Christian rhetoric can sometimes mirror this phenomenon, in something I named as “the suffering olympics.”
Christianity seems to be perpetually preparing Christians for large battles of suffering, or conditions that will wage war on their spiritual resolve and test their emotional strength.
That is made explicit in Bible verses like Eph. 6:13-17, where Paul wrote to the Ephesians, offering them instructions on what it means to live a Christian life. In this section in particular, he talks about the armor of God, writing:
"Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
Paul teaches the Ephesians to gird themselves with God in a way that is combative and war ready, and while part of this narrative may have been born out of the context of culture and lifestyle of antiquity, its message and connotation of war readiness continues in the present.
Pastors often cite this passage as the way for Christians to face the ills of the world that may befall them.
Along with this comes the rhetoric of what to do when you are in the storm. I myself preached on it a few weeks ago, offering up the need to lean on God for prayer, and trusting the ways in which God can and will guide a person or communities through moments of pain and chaos.
And there is truth in the need for a faith to offer its people preparation for things that challenge them, and for moments that threaten to shatter spiritual resolve or moments of doubt. But what about the moments where we thrive…?
The rhetoric in churches right now prepares for suffering, creating the expectation that at any moment the ground under you will shift and you will be engulfed into grief that is meant to test you.
It also creates an implicit understanding that if you haven’t suffered greatly, then you haven’t reached the fullness of your story yet, and with that comes the subtext: you have not lived enough life to know anything. It's almost as if you have not earned your stripes and you just have to wait, knowing that your moment(s) of suffering will come.
But seldom does Christianity offer extended narratives and teachings on how we are meant to thrive.
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Yes, there are sermons on what it means to humbly thank God for reaching an accomplishment or coming out of suffering, and the occasional sermon that teaches us how to look for peace, and joy or contentment.
But what there is not is a multitude of sermons on what it means to be in happiness, in extended states of peace or to be okay with thriving and not expecting that suffering will bring an end to every good moment you experience.
And this creates the idea that peace and happiness aren’t meant to last for extended periods of time, but that suffering is. It creates an understanding that we are not meant to be joyous, which I don’t think is what God wants for us.
Although we must understand that humanity is flawed, and that our world is not perfect, I believe God also calls us to understand that through his unending Mercy, he has granted us Grace which will at one time or another bring us seasons of joy.
And instead of sitting in these seasons of joy simply waiting for them to be spoiled by suffering so that we can prove we are “war ready,” we must learn to know that suffering may come. Yet we should teach ourselves that it is okay to thrive.
Tatayana Richardson is a Trinity senior. Her column, "searching for Canaan," runs on alternate Mondays.