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The Unbearable Burden of Uniqueness

Life can be lonely and painful at times. Indeed, one of the great pains of life is the experience of loneliness. Before sin entered, God said it was “not good” for Adam to be alone (Gen. 2:18) and so he gave him a companion—someone to share his bread, his life, his task in the world. One of the immediate effects of sin, though, was to divide the man and the woman (Gen. 3:12). Alienation from God leads to alienation from each other.

Most of us have known that pain. That bittersweet moment after a personal victory when you realize there’s nobody to share it with. Or worse, that hour of tragedy when it seems there’s no one to call.

It’s even worse when you’re “unique.” In Instruments in The Redeemer’s Hands, Paul Tripp explains the way feeling like that special snowflake can go bad and keep our relationships perennially casual and impotent as sources of comfort and change:

Another reason we keep things casual is that we buy the lie that we are unique and struggle in ways that no one else does. We get tricked by people’s public personas and forget that behind closed doors they live real lives just like us. We forget that life for everyone is fraught with disappointment and difficulty, suffering and struggle, trials and temptation. No one is from a perfect family, no one has a perfect job, no one has perfect relationships, and no one does the right thing all the time. Yet we are reluctant to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let alone to others. We don’t want to face what our struggles reveal about the true condition of our hearts. (164)

While it’s true that your story is your story, it’s also a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, pains, and sins have quirks and twists peculiar to you. But they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden.

You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences. Only human narcissism says our burdens are essentially unshareable and our woes unredeemable.

The Pride of Unique Despair 

I remember when in college this truth flooded my mind with light. It was a particularly angsty time for me—school, girls, church, and the looming question “What am I going to do with my life?” I think that’s a given for most 20-year-old guys. In any case, I’d just met my new best friend, Soren Kierkegaard, and was reading through The Sickness Unto Death. In it he traces the labyrinthine ways sin can distort our self-understanding. In a particularly eye-opening section, Kierkegaard observes that pride can take many forms, like the devious assumption that your weakness is beyond God’s help. It’s not that you’re so great you don’t need it, it’s that you’re so miserable you can’t receive it. It’s the narcissism of thinking no one understands—not even God.

I had been trapped in a form of pride so subtle it took a long-dead Dane using abstruse language to expose my folly—to pry open my eyes and reveal the dark comfort I took in being uniquely pained and in feeling beyond God’s comfort and the understanding of my fellow man. Oh, to be 20 again.

Contrary to my youthful, turmoil-filled estimation, the basic theological and practical reality is that people do, in fact, understand. Everyone may not know your particular pain—the multifarious permutations of human tragedy and depravity are endless—but someone does. Someone else has wept as you’ve wept, struggled as you’ve struggled, failed as spectacularly as you’ve failed.

You are not unique. And you don’t have to grieve or heal alone. This is good news.

Our High Priest and Brother

The author of Hebrews points out two ways this reality is particularly true for the Christian:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. . . . Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to  to make a sacrifice of atonement for all the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Heb. 2:10, 14–18)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)

1. Jesus has gone through it alongside us. In the incarnation, the Son became our brother, our high priest, by taking on flesh and enduring all we’ve endured, except without sin. (And even that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the weight of temptation—in order to resist it, he had to bear its full weight.) Jesus knows your pain. He knows your suffering. He knows your struggles. He took it on by becoming our brother, human alongside us, and by tasting the full range of experience and loss so that he could overcome it all.

The bottom line is this: the Son of God knows what it’s like. He understands. You’re not alone. What’s more, he went through it all to fix the problem. Whatever shame, guilt, or fear you have, Jesus took it to the cross and rose again, leaving your sins in the tomb—never to be seen again.

2. Jesus gave us brothers and sisters. Jesus became our brother in order to “bring many sons to glory.” He didn’t just save you from your sin and misery; he saved a company, a worldwide family of fallen, feeble, being-redeemed people for you to walk alongside. Your local church is full of “unique” persons just like you—persons with deep scars Jesus is healing, broken hearts he is mending, histories of slavery he is redeeming, and lonely silences he is speaking into. It’s like I recently told a student in my church: “Everybody here has a story just like yours. The details are just different.”

And the miracle of grace is that God wants to use those stories and all the broken twists and turns to speak grace, by his Spirit, into the lives of his children.

Break the Silence

The point of Tripp’s quote is that you have every reason to break the silence. Don’t believe the narcissistic lie that you’re alone in your pain and sin. You’re not. Take courage, humble yourself, and transform a merely casual relationship into a truly personal one by reaching out to someone. Let them in on your anger issue. Tell them about the family trauma tearing you up inside. Share your work troubles. Confess the terror you experience whenever you consider your future. It’s only when we confess what’s really going on in our lives that someone can speak a word of grace and comfort. Only then can the healing truly begin.

You don’t have to carry the unbearable burden of uniqueness. The gospel means you can be saved just like everyone else.

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