Sunday, December 28, 2008

Feast of the Holy Innocents- on Suffering

Everything-everything that happens to us is in God's permissive will-not His active will, but His permissive will, i.e. He allows it to happen. And as such, all of it has the potential to be used for good. I don't understand how anyone can read the New Testament and not see the fundamental nature of suffering as an inherent quality of Christian life. The entire Gospel hinges upon Jesus accepting immense suffering and complete helplessness--The whole Christmas story revolves around suffering-can you imagine having people thinking you were whoring around, and then riding on a donkey! (ack!) for miles upon miles while nine months pregnant, and then having no place to stay so you stay in a dung filled animal shelter to give birth?? And then fleeing to Egypt with a toddler...I mean just driving with a toddler is a pain. And God comes to us in helpless form-as a wee baby, rather than a mighty king. He comes to us as one who cries in hunger, and cold, and wet diapers. The Crucifixion- again abject suffering and helplessness. Redemption is ALL about poverty, all about helplessness, all about suffering. If we are to become Christ-like, doesn't that necessarily mean that we will suffer?

However, it is not meaningless suffering. Christ-like suffering is redemptive, it brings forth new life, it yields to hope and salvation. One of my favorite Scriptures:
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4).” And "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church. (Col.1:24)". And:
"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12)"

Meh. Faith isn't a feeling, it isn't a series of feelings. Faith is an act of the will, which chooses to simply get up again and again-eyes trained on the hope which is unseen. We attach, in my opinion, too much value on how we feel about our faith. When we see that all of this, everything, even a struggle or loss of faith is all within God's permissive will, then we can just wait expectantly through it, trying to do our imperfect best in any given set of circumstances.

No I don't think faith is a test which some people fail and some people pass. I think our relationship with God-who is infinite mercy and at the same time infinite justice is far, far more dynamic than that model allows. Suffering refines our faith, it allows us to become ever more transformed into Christ in the world, it allows us to view our selves humbly and honestly as feeble creatures dependent upon one another and upon God (remember the Great Commands- to love God and love neighbor).

I think we spend far too much time and energy trying to avoid suffering and gain blessing (as if there is someway we could work to be entitled to more of God's love and blessings). Suffering is what forges our souls; it is what allows us to shrug off those things which keep us from God and one another. Just like when a woman is in labor, if rather than trying to pull up and out away from the pain-which keeps labor from progressing--we must breathe down into the pain, accepting that it does hurt and that it is supposed to hurt, and that the hurt is bringing forth new life. We simply just have to wait it out, and then at a time beyond our control or manipulation--our blessing will be ours to embrace.


  1. You are right of course, on the redemptive value of suffering. I can not say how much I have learned from the first year as a mom, how much I have changed, in retrospect for the better. (though NOT during those first eight months themselves).
    WHile I understand the redemptive value of suffering and in abstract can apreciate it, I do not manage however, to embrace the suffering 'in the moment'. At that time I seem to join in with Jesus: In Luke 20: 42 "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."

  2. And then with great emphasis on the "take this cup from me" part.

  3. It's taken me a long, long time and being totally and completely broken to make any headway at all in growing even a little bit more accepting of suffering in the moment--and not all the time, not even close.

    My greatest fear is that my acceptance is not virtue at all-but rather apathy. Vice so often comes disguised as virtue--at least for me.

  4. I see and agree with your points on suffering...there are times, however, when I wonder about how much free will we actually have. Martin Luther sneaks in with his idea of our hearts being "inherently evil"..that really, really deep inside we are really selfish, and that we may behave "nice" simply to avoid distress and discomfort, or because we are in fear of, ultimatley, hell.

    I suppose there's no denying that Christianity does install this fear, early on, and this creates extra suffering within us because it comes into conflict with the (often cruel) self-assertion we see in (almost?) everyone.

    The Christian's path is a tough one, in my experience, because so much is about self-analysis and questioning of motive.

  5. LOL! Needless to say, that's why I disagree heartily with Luther-well at least one fo the reasons.

    I think it all comes down to trying to do one's imperfect best--and really just entrusting what we do to Christ to perfect it. Sometimes our imperfect best is nearly nothing, sometimes it's a whole lot. There a season for everything, and in my personal opinion- there is even a season for doubt, and fighting against the faith (look at St. Peter or St. Thomas.)

    I dunno- it's not very orthodox, I suppose, but I don't quake in fear of hell like God has some checklist or something. We believe that people send themselves to hell by choosing to remain separate-on purpose-from God. And so, I know that's not me--even when I am really struggling with my faith, I still want to be the best me I have been created to be, and to be a gift to others. So I focus more on that boldness we are supposed to have in approaching the throne of grace.

  6. (Stephen)

    You know, that was actually a very comforting thing to read!