The summer going into my sophomore year of college, I rarely saw the sun.
I wanted to travel to Ireland in the spring to study abroad, but in order to do that, I needed to save up a lot of money in a short amount of time. As a result, I chose to work third shift at a furniture factory, where I knew I could get good pay and overtime.
Taking this job also meant that I slept my days away, though — I usually woke in just enough time to see the sun sinking in the sky before I had to head into work. To say I was sad to see my beach days and poolside tanning time gone is an understatement.
Though I tried to keep Ireland at the forefront of my mind, after my first week at the factory, I was ready to quit.
I missed spending my days with friends, and I dreaded the drive in to work at night. I was unsure of myself constantly, surrounded by other workers who knew exactly what they were doing and did it well. While assembly line work can seem monotonous, it requires a certain skill to stay focused and on track in order to ensure the final product is flawless. I spent my summer feeling depleted and distressed.
I wish I could say the summer got better, but the more nights I spent in the factory, the more I struggled with keeping my head up. The more I sunk in my sadness, the more I allowed myself to believe that God didn’t care. And in turn, I blamed God for my struggles.
It wasn’t until I had a phone conversation with my cousin, months after I had left the factory, that my perception of my summer changed. The shift began with one phrase.
Nothing is wasted, she told me.
Though the phrase at first appeared vague, I soon saw how it related to my summer. My cousin knew it wasn’t an easy job, but she also saw something in it beyond the money I made. I missed that meaning because I refused to lift my head.
In reality, I did waste my days that summer. I wallowed in anger, frustration, and sadness. Things didn’t get better, because I had no hope that they could. But the experience itself did not have to be wasted. There was gain waiting to be discovered, but by turning away from God in my moments of struggle, I turned away from the opportunity to see those gains.
When we’re going through tough experiences, we have a tendency to search for the meaning in them. Maybe it’s a story on the news about families getting torn apart by war or maybe it’s a loss in the family, an unexpected heartbreak, or a difficult transition — experiences like these challenge our spiritual life because they seem to contradict notions of an all-good God.
Theologians call it the “problem of evil,” and it has been a topic of debate for centuries. Some cannot concede that an all-loving God would allow evil and suffering, and so they choose to believe that God is apathetic when it comes to our well-being. Others, however, believe that suffering comes as a result of our free will, a gift that a loving God would never take away.
Finding meaning in suffering is one of the greatest struggles we face because when we experience pain, we cannot help but question its reason, its necessity in our lives. A gut-reaction to suffering of any degree is to question, why is this happening?
During my summer at the factory, I missed an opportunity to see work as a way to glorify God. I felt as though my work had little meaning beyond the money I was making and so I suffered. I wasted my days away ignoring God and therefore shutting off my source of hope. Trusting in something we cannot see is not easy, but that is precisely why I needed to lean on God when I was struggling most. I needed a reason to carry on, one that held more value than a dollar sign.
We may not be able to see the meaning in suffering immediately or even understand its purpose in our lives. It may manifest days, months, or years later. That is why it is hope we look for, not a concrete justification. When we cling to that hope, we find meaning in even the darkest of nights and nothing is wasted.