Q: I’m having some troubles dealing with suffering, and I don’t want just the “Jesus loves me” answer. Any thoughts or insights?
There were two other blogs where we discussed the problem of evil and how peoples’ choices are really the cause of most of our suffering. So I want to take a different line of meditation this time. Actually, this is a time of year, where that question is being meditated on by the Lectionary. Let me divide this into three things:
- The inevitability of pain.
Up to the Ascension, the Lord was with the apostles. So, more or less, they celebrated that time as a time victory. Imagine if you’ve seen a great tragedy after spending a long time with a certain friend. You knew each other for a long time, grew super close, and the person was suddenly in an injury or a coma. When she comes back, you’re full of joy. You talk, you joke, you laugh…you have less barriers because you don’t want to lose what you gained when you were with one another. That’s all really nice.
The problem is that at a certain point, you do actually say goodbye. There’s always that point of goodbye at some point, no matter what.
This is what happened with the apostles. The Lord snatched them from their lives, taught them, spent time with them, then He was killed. They thought that was the end. But miraculously, He came back to life, and He spent forty days with them.
Most Christians want to spend their lives in the state of the 40 days. We want to be pampered. We want to feel victory. We want to feel like we are in that state that lets us gloat in front of our enemies, “ha ha, we are untouchable!”
Unfortunately, this is not entirely right or even true.
The reality is that there is going to be suffering. At one point, even after the Resurrection, He left them. That’s why in the gospel two weeks ago, our Lord talk about the time that’s coming where He would leave, and that there would be suffering. He asks them first if they believe, because after they professed their belief, then He told them, well, it’s going to cost. There will be suffering. Whether it’s loss, death, disease, not getting what we want – whatever it is, there will be suffering. Where there is free will, there will be suffering (unless everyone had perfect love, of course).
So, let’s look at this more closely:
2. Some Kinds of Suffering
a) The suffering of Maturation
There comes a time where we have to mature. Children are spoiled by their parents up until a certain age, at which point, the parents have to let go and let their children experience things. They need to have fights at school and conflicts at work. They need to have periods of financial instability. We need to experience hardship in order to grow.
That’s why we are told in the Bible, “We must by many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
Our Lord called the believers “my little children”. Children grow and they grow with growing pains. This is seen even physiologically. That’s why we call them “growing pains”. It comes from the concept of the physical pain that one endures as one grows, and is then applied to the psychological and social pains of cognitive growth and maturation.
The suffering of maturation is inevitable, but growth is not obtained without this pain. This is an important point to remember when you are dealing with your suffering: to focus on the end goal rather than the immediacy of the pain.
So, returning to the lectionary theme, our Lord had given the disciples everything that they needed before leaving them. Just like parents give their kids all the foundations they need before being thrown out of the nest. He gave, in fact, humanity, all that it needed. But now was the time for the Lord to say, I’ve taught you what you need, now go into all the world and preach the gospel. That’s the cause.
That leads us to:
b) Suffering because of the Gospel aka Suffering for a cause.
The second reason that the disciples were going to suffer and be sad by His leaving, was because He was leaving them a mission, but He wasn’t going to be with them anymore in the same way that He was before. People get comfortable in a certain zone, and there’s often a pain or anxiety when we no longer have things the way we wanted. We like our parents to be around when it is convenient, and we want them gone when it is inconvenient.
So, a true believer must preach. He must preach by word and by deed. Doing this, means tribulation, and it means tribulation because the world rejects this.
Our Lord said, they hated me, they will hate you. He said no disciple is greater than His master, and that what they do to Me they will do to you also. And that is what happened. We’ve been reading about St. Paul’s trials and tribulations through the Praxis readings throughout the season of Pentecost. The Epistles of St. Peter that have been reading from during that period was actually written while he was in prison!
St. Paul was doubly suffering. Not only were the Jews hating on him for what they saw was his betrayal, but because he was the one spending his time with the Gentiles. So, he was persecuted extra by the Jews, and extra by the Gentiles.
We, too, will suffer for the Gospel. When you disagree with your colleagues because of your beliefs, you will be mocked. When a priest wears his black galabaya (cassock) in public, he is often laughed at by teenagers who think it’s somehow more hilarious than anything he has ever witnessed (yeah, baffles me, too). When you refuse to have sex or date prematurely, your peers will think you are weird. We will suffer for the gospel because the gospel is a sword. Something is right or it is wrong, and when we disagree, it’s uncomfortable. Think of of smokers and non-smokers, there’s the awkward moment when the smoker goes outside and is faced with this moment of acknowledgment that he is going to do something that others are not doing. There is a moment of apprehension about judgment – a sense that there is something considered right and something considered wrong, and it is more comfortable to be with the people who are doing what you are doing, so that you feel more assured that you are somehow right. This is human nature.
People don’t naturally tend to like to be different, and they don’t like the idea of being called wrong.
The Gospel is why thousands of Christians have fled Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Gospel is why dozens of Ethiopians have been slaughtered in Libya in addition to our 21 Martyrs.
c) Suffering because of others
The disbelief of others cost the disciples their lives. If these ‘others’ also believed, the disciples wouldn’t have been killed or tortured. In another sense – our disagreement with ‘others’ on what is true or false, right or wrong, will inevitably cause discomfort, or … yes, suffering.
The disbelief of others will affect you. They will laugh at your morals. They will laugh at your decisions. They will mock your faith. In Egypt, it cost your parents grades, salaries and positions. It is the reason why most of them are living where they are living today.
I would also like to point out that you will also suffer because “the system” that our culture is set up on, is based on the beliefs and convictions of others who have a different belief than you. The law and culture often promote things that we may intrinsically view as negative. Your choice not to do those things will alienate you from these others. If culturally it has become acceptable to do things that we do not agree with as Christians, you will suffer because that system has normalised something that is at odds with your core beliefs.
So yes, people suffer because of other peoples’ decisions all the time.
So, that brings us to:
3. The suffering only has meaning if it’s for something true.
This is really the most important point. This is the only way that you can deal with your suffering. The question has to be asked, for what cause am I suffering? If a person is deprived of something, they suffer. Or they feel like they’re suffering.
If I want to lose weight but I love food, I suffer when I’m deprived of food, even if others think it’s good for me. If I want to go out late with my friends, but I have swim practice in the morning, I suffer because I wanted to do something and ended up not being able to. Others might have had lots of fun not sleeping early.
But if I’ve felt the joy of being healthy, I will want to keep my health. If I’ve felt the thrill of getting first place in a competition, I’m going to want to practice. The disciples had the thrill of living with Our Lord for 3.5 years, and they had the thrill of witnessing His resurrection.
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
(1 Cor 15:27-28))
The disciples saw the joy of the resurrection, so it put their suffering and even death in a new context – that death is defeated. This was a fact to them, not a theory. The knowledge of something greater gives a person hope in the hard times, and gives them a reason for the hard times. Yes, I might not be feeling totally loved by everyone, but that’s okay because if it’s for something that’s right, something that is true.
What do you think of people who sat through Occupy Wall Street? What do you think of people who do hunger strikes? What do you think of what they did? They voluntarily suffered for something because they believed in the cause. Them choosing – actively using their free will – in a way that denies something that most people think are fine, was their way of showing that something greater was of value.
This is what the Gospel is, my friends. The so-called suffering that we have, is supposed to be because we believe in something real. What is the promise? Real life. What is the message? Truth. Who is the Message? Jesus – the way.
And His call to us, is to Love. To love is above everything on this earth, Why did I go ham suddenly with this love thing? How is it relevant to the suffering issue? Because to love is to deny myself. To be hungry, to be naked, to be thirsty, to be alone, to be hated — as long as it is purposeful self-denial. In other words, as long as it is agape. God wants us to live for one another, in a way that is healthy, a way that is pure, because that is how He made us, because that is who He is, and we are Him.
So again, we come back to the suffering issue. If your suffering is for something that is true, then our Lord gives us a message: we have no need to fear the tribulations, we’re not living for a wrong message. By living the right message, yes, we will suffer, but we don’t need to fear it because it’s not the goal, it’s not the end. He already overcame, and He will overcome with us. The peace that we have is in Him. Put your peace in the world and you will lose it, because the world is unstable. Put your peace in Him, and you will overcome because He overcame. These are facts, not fluffy concepts. If it does not bring you comfort, then you have not yet recognised or believed its truth. If you have, then you already know that you’ll go through what He went through, just like He said you would! But you’ll be okay because even as He went through it, He overcame it. This is the power of Christ is risen! This is the power of Khristos Anesti! This is the power of Christ vanquishing death – that we can walk the path of anything that is before us even death itself, but without fear, because it has already been conquered, it has been rendered weak, because it has been overcome.
But He didn’t leave us without hope, He didn’t say goodbye without a pledge of Help. He acknowledged how He would be alone as a man, but not yet alone because the Father was with Him. He gave us that gift, too. He gave us a pledge that we wouldn’t actually be alone – the earnest – or the promise: the Spirit. But that’s another topic, related and necessary, but worthy of its own discussion.
So finally, you must ask yourself what our Lord asked the disciples: “Do you believe?” If you believe, then know that this will have a cost. But know also, the cost is meaningless, because the cause is secure, and the investment is guaranteed because our Lord has overcome – because our Lord is risen. Your comfort in tribulation will only come when the reason for the suffering is Truth.