The greatest thing about being a college professor is that you are always learning. To me, the best kind of learning comes from those lessons taught to us by our students. To the student in the seats, professors may seem like insufferable, impassive, immovable know-it-alls, but trust me when I say we are moved by our students.
I have been teaching an online Bible course for the past month. Last week, I received an email from a student. It read: “REDEMPTION. Oh, my goodness! Victory is indeed sweeter when I have known defeat!”
Over the first few weeks of the semester, the student had not gotten the results she wanted. She was frustrated and discouraged. Honestly, when I looked at her grades, I did not see the problem. Her grades were better than average, but for this student average was not going to be good enough. So, she reached out for help. She worked, and she stressed. After the second and third weeks, her results were about the same. I gave her the old “your-self-worth-is-not-dependent-on-a-numerical-grade” speech. The pep talk didn’t put a dent in her suffering, but her despair did not drive her to passivity. She worked and studied even more.
In week four, her work paid off. The email quote above was my notice that something good had happened. At that time, I hadn’t even looked at grades, but I knew.
You might think that working with the student to achieve the positive result was the best part of this experience. Not so. The best part was what the student reminded me about suffering.
No one wants to suffer or stress. We don’t seek these experiences, but they are just as certain as the rising of the sun. If you haven’t yet suffered, failed, or faced defeat, just wait. And even though I am not advocating that we seek out these situations for the possible long-term benefit, this student reminded me that in the cause and effect of life, suffering can lead us to places beyond that which is possible in a life of perpetual victory.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches using short memorable statements we now call the Beatitudes. To ancient people, this form would have been familiar. They are proverbs. We know them from the book in the Hebrew Bible of the same name.
In the book of Proverbs, the statements follow a predictable pattern — good actions lead to good results. If you want good results, then do good things. The reverse is the same: bad leads to bad. For example, Proverbs 12:21 assures us: “No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.”
Jesus gives us statements like this: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The form is the same, the pairing is off. Blessed are those who mourn? This formula does not calculate.
Blessed are those who are righteous. Yes, that works. Or if Jesus would have said “Blessed is he who is celebrating his birthday, for he shall have cake,” then we would have no problem. But mourning as a “blessed” experience?
Of course, we need to take the end of the statement into consideration: “for they will be comforted.”
Several years ago, when we lived on the East Coast, I was out raking leaves in the yard with my then 6-year-old son. In the distance, we heard a marching band. Quickly I remembered that it was the afternoon of our small-town Christmas parade. I scooped up my son and off we went.
As we stood on the sidewalk, we saw a steady procession of Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Webelos, you name it. As one float packed with Brownies drifted by, I heard a familiar voice whisper into my left ear. I did not turn to look. It was my grandmother’s voice. In gentle tones, the voice said: “Hey baby, hey sweetheart.” Well it wasn’t my grandmother’s voice. It couldn’t have been her voice. She had died nine months earlier.
Instead, it was the voice of a different grandmother, calling out to a grandchild passing by in the parade. The tone though, and the situation was the same. I was taken back to the thousands of parades, concerts, and Little League baseball games where my grandmother had called to me: “Hey baby, hey sweetheart.” The hard emotions of grief that I had suppressed came roaring to the surface. In that moment, I experienced a profound moment of mourning —one I do not wish on anyone.
Children are perceptive to these things. My young son saw that I was struggling. I am sure he didn’t understand it, not at that young age, but he knew the best response. He hoisted himself into my arms, and in that second, I had one of the most profound experiences of comfort.
Life is full of struggle and stress, but in the larger world of loving relationships, between one another and between us and our Creator, mourning can lead to comfort and defeat can lead to redemption.