Day 16

December 18

Nehemiah 8:9-10

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Suffering and Sorrow

by Thomas Hibbs, Ph.D.

“How can you keep doing the work you’re doing without despairing?”  That was the question a Baylor student blurted out to John Richmond, United States Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, during his presentation as part of a summer program on Religion and Social Life for Baylor students in Washington, D.C. After providing an account of what trafficking is and the most effective means of combatting it, Ambassador Richmond was discussing the data on the shockingly small percentage of trafficking cases that are actually prosecuted.   

The horrors of trafficking were made all the more distressing by the awareness that the realization of justice for victims is so rare. That reality is a cause for sorrow and even for righteous anger.  

Students today are passionate about justice. Here’s the thing about the desire for justice among today’s youth. Many find themselves under an overwhelming and in fact impossible burden of identifying injustice and then instantaneously ridding the world of it. The danger here is that when the evils and afflictions of the world do not disappear, young people will despair. They need what James Baldwin said America has always struggled to understand; they need an appreciation of tragedy. For the Christian, tragedy is not an occasion for despair or even resignation but for a faith that succors hope in and through tragedy. 

Scripture assumes that suffering and sorrow are woven deeply into our lives. The book of Nehemiah narrates a time after the Babylonian Captivity when the Israelites are attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They have suffered catastrophe, and their hold on a better life remains quite tenuous. Here they are instructed to let go of mourning for a time and to rejoice in the Lord. Faith in God supplies hope in the midst of tragedy and suffering; it also provides occasions for rest and joy, for the rejuvenation of the spirit.   

With Baylor alums Mollie Moore and Beth Butler, I have the privilege of running that summer program on Religion and Social Life in DC. The program includes internships, academic seminars (such as the one on trafficking), professional development, and spiritual formation. One of our goals is to give the students a language for hope in the midst of tragedy, and for rest and renewal in the midst of affliction. Regular periods of spiritual reflection are complemented by seminars, often quite intense, on topics as diverse as religious liberty, human trafficking, poverty, and racism.  

The leaders we put before the students have spent careers fighting against grave evils; they have faced the limitations of what they can accomplish without despairing. Cognizant of horrifying affliction, they do their work with hope and with joy in the Lord. That lesson is as old as Nehemiah and as much needed today as it has even been.    

About the Author

Thomas Hibbs, Ph.D.

Thomas Hibbs, Ph.D.

Dr. Thomas Hibbs is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy and Dean Emeritus, having served 16 years as Dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture. At Baylor, he has also served as Director of Baylor in Washington, D.C. Hibbs works in the areas of medieval philosophy, especially Thomas Aquinas, contemporary virtue ethics, and aesthetics. He has taught widely in interdisciplinary core programs at Boston College and Baylor.  He has published more than 100 reviews and discussion articles on film, theater, art, and higher education in a variety of venues including First Things, The Dallas Morning News, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Atlantis, The Wall Street Journal, and National Review. He also has two books on film and philosophy. 

Called upon regularly to comment on film and popular culture, Hibbs has made more than 100 appearances on radio, including nationally syndicated NPR shows “The Connection,” “On the Media,” and “All Things Considered,” as well as local NPR stations in Boston, MA, Ann Arbor, MI, Dallas, TX, and Rochester, NY.