Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How Netflix's "13 Reasons Why" Helped Me Understand Redemptive Suffering

With hubby away at a beer tasting, I did a little guilty-pleasure binge-watching this past weekend….well, actually thirteen hours’ worth of binge-watching Netflix’s new series “13 Reasons Why.” The show follows a teenage boy named Clay who receives a series of tapes that unravel the mystery of his classmate, Hannah Baker’s choice to commit suicide. Obviously it’s pretty dark, and it’s full of topical references to the issues that plague today’s teenagers: bullying, mass-texting, homosexuality, peer pressure, sexual assault, and more. While the plotline is pretty over-the-top, the teenage interactions are actually pretty believable and the main character Clay is incredibly endearing.
As a Christian, it also stirred up some very Lenten appropriate thoughts on suffering, what we can do to help, and Abraham Lincoln. (Ok, so Abraham Lincoln might seem a little random, but trust me; there’s a connection…)
Why is there suffering? Undoubtedly many people have lost faith in God because of the inability to reconcile the image of a loving father allowing His children to suffer when, being all-powerful, He could change it all. The Bible teaches us that suffering was introduced to the world as a consequence of Adam’s disobedience.  “No more free ride,” God said. Now Adam would have to till the earth for food and Eve would suffer pain in childbirth.

The Apostle Paul thought of Jesus as the “second Adam”; just as Adam’s disobedience caused “the Fall,” Jesus’s obedience caused “the Rise.” But if Adam’s disobedience introduced suffering, why didn’t Jesus’s obedience end all suffering? And why did Jesus Himself, a sinless man, have to suffer? Since God is all-powerful, couldn’t He have just declared, “Ok guys, I changed the rules. No more animal sacrifices. I’m going to open up the gates of Heaven to anyone who repents and follows Me.….Oh, and you can eat pork now.”?

The answer is because Jesus wasn’t just a blood-ransom.  He’s our brother, sent to show us how much God loves us, how to love God better, and how to love each other. He was the Sacrificial Lamb, but He was also the Good Shepherd, leading us by showing us the way. Christ’s suffering ran the gamut of temptation, betrayal, ridicule, whipping, fatigue, and thirst, but to me the most heart-wrenching part was as He was nearing the end and He cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As in any good drama, the rising action of the passion has led to this climax where Christ experiences the most profound suffering possible: abandonment.
I recently read that early in Mother Theresa’s ministry she rescued a woman who had been left to die on the streets of Calcutta. She later told audiences around the world of the great lesson she learned that day: what caused the woman to weep was not that she was on the brink of death and half-consumed by maggots, but that it had been her own son who had abandoned her. She was alone and unwanted. This and other encounters would lead her to say, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.”
Now, it may seem extreme to consider something as common as loneliness (albeit profound loneliness) as the biggest problem in our great big world, but consider how many young people are lost to suicide, that mental health issues are the leading cause of disability worldwide, and how your own family and friends have seen you through difficult times in your life by leading you to the next step in solving problems.
So Jesus, too, had to suffer this worst possible pain, but when He uttered those agonizing words from the cross, He was also reminding us that there was more to the story. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is also the first line of Psalm 22, which powerfully foreshadowed Christ’s crucifixion:
“they pierce my hands and my feet.
 All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.”
But that’s not the end of the Psalm. It closes by saying:
“Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it!”
And therein lies the answer to our question. Why is there suffering? Because obedient suffering can lead us to new life. Jesus’s suffering lead to His resurrection. The toil of a farmer leads to crops. The pain of childbirth leads to a baby. And even seemingly arbitrary suffering has purpose in the grand scheme of life. Take Abraham Lincoln (told you I’d get to him!), who famously suffered extreme depression to the point where his friends had to take shifts just being with him so he wouldn’t kill himself. But for all of this extreme “melancholy” as they called it in those days, Lincoln had a strong belief in predestination, that God was calling him towards an influential life. And perhaps it was his already darkened mind that allowed him to stand face-to-face with the greatest evils of his day.
But how can we help each other to move beyond misery to redemption? Thinking back to the teeny-bopper Netflix series, post-mortem Hannah Baker reflects that maybe everything would have been different if she had just one friend. And for all its cheesiness, that simple sentiment rings true.
Jesus didn’t say He was going to end all suffering. What He did say was:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
 and you will find rest for yourselves.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
He offers Himself to help shoulder our burden. By yoking ourselves to Christ, we are also “taking up our cross” in laying down our own lives and uniting all of our sufferings for the redemption of humanity.  Because if we are yoked to Jesus, aren’t we also yoked to billions of other people?

If Mother Theresa was right, and abandonment is truly the worst problem plaguing the world today, it is also the greatest injustice, because it is a problem that costs so little to solve. We don’t need to be experts on health or social justice or venture capitalism. We just need to reach out and love enough to take on a little bit of each other’s burdens. To revisit our old friend Honest Abe, his friends didn’t have PhD’s in psychology. They were simply there for him.

(BTW, the idea of new life born out of suffering bears true in modern psychological research as well—check out this Ted Talk on super resilience: “Falling Up” and various others that point to positive social interactions as Step 1 of building resiliency). 
As we approach Holy Week I’ll be reflecting on how I can help to shoulder the burdens of those around me. If any of you need that help to lighten the load, let me know. I’m a strong farmgirl, after all.

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