A year ago my wife and I moved to a cheap apartment in the next town over. We did a lot of research, and had a number of distinct requirements. Among them we were concerned about pests (we’ve had bad experiences before) and cigarette smoke (my wife is allergic). We settled on one apartment, and then its current occupants decided not to move out, so we found two other options in the same building. They had the same floor plan, but one faced the parking lot and the other a golf course. Since we love green, we settled on the one overlooking the golf course. I asked about pests and was assured there was no history of pest-related service requests. Then when I brought my wife for the sniff test (her nose is much keener than mine), we smelled cigarette smoke.
STOP! I immediately talked to the leasing agent of the management company, who suggested that perhaps it was temporary and could be removed with an ozone machine, which was deployed to the task. When I went back later, I didn’t smell the cigarette smoke (my wife’s nose is much keener than mine), so we took the apartment overlooking the golf course (we love green).
We had hardly gotten the keys and had the ozone machine removed then we again smelled the cigarette smoke. And this time we were stuck with it. After some internet research to determine how to remove cigarette smoke smell, we got an odor-sealing primer and painted the entire apartment in the course of a week (thanks to many helping hands of both relatives and friends). Except that in the process of doing so, we discovered a mold problem in a bedroom closet. Two of the shower tiles were loose and leaking water into the back of the closet. Meanwhile a new mattress we had ordered for the move was off-gassing toxic fumes (okay, hard to say how dangerous they were, but they thinned my normally sludge-like blood and made me feel light-headed). The new bed frame to go under the mattress arrived with a broken hinge. And just as we were finishing painting the entire apartment and browbeating the apartment company to fix the mold problem (involving some appeals to municipal authorities, which I hate to do), our apartment was overrun with these inch-long black beetles. I would trap them and flush them down the toilet, sometimes as many as two dozen per day. At night, as we were trying to get to sleep, we could hear an occasional “plink” as a clumsy beetle fell from crawling in through a gap at the top of our front door. We plugged every hole we could find in the walls, door frames, and window frames (we found many such holes), and we hoped that these beetles wouldn’t start mating and laying eggs in our clothes and closets.
We were overwhelmed. This new apartment which had looked so nice had revealed itself to be a distinctly sour lemon. We even considered breaking the lease to find a suitable place to live. We camped in our livingroom for two months while the toxic mattress aired out in the bedroom. And I was supposed to be preparing for another school year and another round of job applications! Ugh…
The odor-sealing primer mostly worked on the cigarette smell, except around the front door. The new tiling in the bathroom was tight and didn’t leak (although I taped over two holes I suspected would leak). After two months or so at the new place, the plague of beetles came to an end, and we stopped seeing them scurrying along the base-boards. After I repeatedly treated the new mattress like a trampoline outdoors to encourage the expulsion of fumes, it eventually ceased making us light-headed. And the apartment which seemed like a lemon one month in turned out, eventually, to be a comfortable nest.
What should we learn from this experience? Don’t trust anybody, least of all leasing agents? Perhaps. Perseverance pays off? Sometimes, but not always. We were certainly grateful for God’s providence, making our new apartment into a good place to live, around about the time we were exhausted out of our gourds. And as an added perk, we had a cute little neighbor between us and the golf course: a groundhog living under a stump. So is the moral of the story that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28)? Well, okay, but it often doesn’t feel that way in the midst of the disaster, and perhaps that last remark is lesson enough: patience.
But maybe this experience can also teach us something about the dynamics of redemption. Many Christians look pretty put together, perhaps even squeaky clean, from the outside, but inside we are all sinners. And sin stinks to God; He’s more allergic to sin than my wife is to cigarette smoke. Yet how often we lie and say we don’t have sin. We think, when we ask Christ into our lives, that we are offering him first-rate accommodations, but he knows that he is being asked to come into a filthy run-down mildewed squalid flat. Yet he comes anyway, as he promised, and dwells in us through his Holy Spirit. But he doesn’t just camp out in us; he also fixes us up. This is what redemption looks like, the transformation of what is bad into what is good.
But like my wife and I feeling overwhelmed, redemption isn’t easy. We sometimes think that Jesus, being omnipotent God, just snapped his fingers and made us new creations in him. He is accomplishing the latter, but it isn’t a snap. It required him to become human and to die, so that we who were spiritually dead might be made alive. Living as a human is painful enough, but dying definitely hurts, especially the way he did it. Our redemption was impossible without suffering.
So why do we Christians expect life to be easy now? God never promised us a rose garden. The fact is, we are still sinning, though the Holy Spirit is transforming us. That sin still hurts. We are hurt by our own sin; we are hurt by the sins of those around us. Redemption is not complete, and in the meantime there is a lot of discomfort. Our Savior promised, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We can count on it: life will continue to be difficult.
Okay, perhaps that point may be granted in general, but oftentimes Christians suspect that “as long as they are doing God’s will,” then things will go smoothly for them. Or perhaps, for people who are “doing the Lord’s work” through missions, evangelism, pastoral ministry, sharing their faith in Christ with non-believers around them, God will make things go smoothly for these people, right? If pain is due to sin, then if you are not sinning but sharing the solution to sin, then can you avoid the pain?
How did that turn out for Jesus? He suffered and died for it, despite being completely sinless. But you might object that we can’t generalize, because he’s unique (and he is). But what about the other apostles? How pain-free was Paul’s ministry? (For a summary, see 2 Cor 11:24-28.) If we are to participate in Christ’s redemption, we have got to confront the sin in our own hearts, and get up close and personal with the sinners around us, too. Both of those processes are going to make us uncomfortable. Discomfort is necessary for redemption.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no masochist. I enjoy my creature comforts as much as the next man. I want to be comfortable, at peace, and at ease. But in this world, except for short intervals, that is basically impossible. The promise of paradise is that there will come a day when those who have benefited from Christ’s redemption will experience those longings fulfilled. But not here, not yet. And in the face of that “dream deferred,” we have a choice. We can either seek to be comfortable before all else, making comfort our god and our idol, worshiping our own self-actualization. Or we can acknowledge that redemption is better than comfort, because it leads to a deeper and more lasting peace, and in humility we can accept the pain alongside the joy of salvation, even though the brokenness of the world will one day claim our very lives. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).