“U.S. Misery Index Rises to Highest Since 1983,” the headline reads. The Misery Index is an unofficial gauge of economic well being and is calculated by the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates.
I don’t remember how miserable I was in 1983, but I will trust the index to remind me that it must have been pretty bad. In fact, you can chart your relative misery over the last forty years here. Turns out that we’ve never been happier than we were in April of 1998. Or so miserable as June, 1980.
The last time the Misery Index was as high as this month’s 13.0 was May, 1983. Let’s see, that’s the month Becky and I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I had taken a church staff position. Katharine had just turned three and Christopher was four months old. Our children have always been a great joy and those early years of family life were wonderfully full. From the first day we knew we would love the Pacific Northwest and our eight years at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church taught us much about the blessings of life in the family of God.
I guess I’ve forgotten how miserable we were.
The truth of the matter is that our personal economic Misery Index would rise for several years before it began to fall. The times were hard. The church cut my less than generous salary and then froze it before it began slowly to rise a few years later. Becky’s ability to stretch a tight budget was amazing, and, though not miserable, we were often discouraged by family finances. It took a long time to catch up.
No, we were not miserable. God had blessed us with two, and then three, wonderful children. We had each other. And we had a church family who loved us and we loved them. Names like Tom and Ruth Ann, Dale and Doris, Woody and Betty, Duane and Elizabeth, Don and Jane instantly bring tears of joy to our eyes in the remembering of them. God was and is good.
According to the Apostle Paul, misery is not a situation in which we are the victim. It is a situation which we freely choose. Tough words when the Misery Index hits 13.0 for the first time in 28 years.
Writing to his dear friends in Philippi, Paul says,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11-13
Misery is a choice. Really? Dare we say so? One of the many gifts that come from the privilege of being with Christian brothers and sisters in places like rural Guatemala or urban Brazil is the experience of people who choose joy over misery when everything around them beckons them to be miserable.
The poorest of the Brazilian poor are called “os miseráveis,” the miserable. Becky and I have been among the miserable. Our good friend, Emerson, was a raised as a miserável, literally in a cardboard shack. As Emerson came to know Christ, he made the choice not to be miserable. He and his wife Nilcéia exude joy from the minute you first meet them. Oh, things have gotten better for Emerson and Nilcéia and soon they will be parents for the first time. But it is not changing circumstances that brings them joy. They have learned in the midst of misery that they can do all things through him who strengthens them.
The economy is miserable and too many of us know so first hand. But just because the economy is miserable, doesn’t mean we have to be miserable. Just because there are many things to bring us low, doesn’t mean we have to stay low. There’s a secret to facing, in fact staring down, misery. It is this: we can do all things through him who strengthen us.
The existence of a “Misery Index” encourages us to regard ourselves as victims of miserable circumstances. The gospel calls us to joy in the One through whom we can do all things. Even stare down misery.
What is your Joy Index?