03.02.2014 Preaching Text: “Get up and do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17:7b)
I’ve been upset with myself for several days now, ever since I re-read my Beacon article for March, after, this is, it was already printed out. The reason is that I made a statement that is decidedly false.
Specifically, I said that antiquity had “no resources to deal with [suffering].” What I should have said is that, compared to the Christian witness, antiquity had relatively inadequate resources for dealing with it.
One might say instead it is contemporary Western society that has perhaps the fewest resources in the face of suffering.
In my Beacon article I alluded to (without naming) Stoicism and other philosophies from the ancient Greek and Roman world. For them, life’s inevitable hardships were perceived as tests that made one stronger. Because hardship was destiny or fate, endurance was the chosen response to suffering, the aim of which was to build character and, ultimately, to experience its commensurate glory and honor.
Other approaches to suffering, such as that found within certain forms of Hinduism, had to do with karma, which held that hardship and suffering were due to moral failure, so much so that if you suffered in this world it was because you deserved it, that all suffering was payment for the moral failings of a past life. Suffering, thus, was a form of justice. The goal within this approach was to attain divine bliss by atoning for past sins by means of moral agency.
Still other ancient ideas, as that of Buddhism, held that suffering is an illusion based on a false perception of the self and the material world. We suffer not because of moral failings, but because we desire from the material world something it simply cannot provide. Salvation comes by extinguishing our desires through detachment from all transitory material things and people. With this one attains a calmness of the soul within a detached state of enlightenment.
Others still, such as ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, held to a dualistic view of the world that saw suffering as the unavoidable result of an ongoing cosmic battle between good and evil (over which we have no control). The best response was to seek a kind of purified, even tragic, faithfulness in the midst of our sufferings with the expectation that, ultimately, the powers of light will triumph over darkness.
Christianity, for its part, offered a more complex understanding of suffering that included the moral but also recognized that not all suffering is due to moral failure. Consider Job. Its goal, if you will, is the hope of eternal life and reunification with those who have gone before.
In each case, suffering in the ancient world served a purpose, leading the sufferer, as Tim Keller puts it, “to various forms of confession and purification, spiritual growth and strengthening, faithfulness to the truth, and to the establishment of a right relationship with self, others, and the divine.”
In each case, he continues, “Suffering is a challenge which, if met rightly, can bring great good, wisdom, glory and even sweetness into one’s life now, and fit one well for an eternal comfort hereafter.”
“Sufferers are pointed to hope in a good future on earth, or eternal spiritual bliss and unity with the divine, or enlightenment and eternal peace, or the favor of God and unity with one’s loved ones in paradise.”
As we stand on the cusp of the liturgical season of Lent, it is important to note that the Christian faith, as with the ancient beliefs of antiquity, does not shy away from suffering, as if it didn’t exist.
Then again, it’s not uncommon for Christians to recoil from any gospel-talk about, say, the blood of Christ – this without any apparent appreciation for the laudable way biblical faith is fearless in dealing with suffering, with what is, simply put, an inevitable part of life, whether we wish it or not.
We today live in a culture where, increasingly, suffering has no place, as if, as I say, it didn’t exist. In a world where self-autonomy and self-fulfillment, where the pursuit of pleasure and personal freedom, is paramount, suffering has place or purpose.
If our lives are based solely on our own wishes, suffering can be nothing other than an accident, a detour, or an impediment to self-actualization. Seen from the standpoint of the sovereign self, suffering and hardship are instead problems to be managed and eliminated, often with the help of experts. Charles Taylor even suggested that Western society’s “highest goal is to…prevent suffering,” as if such a thing were possible.
Rarely is suffering seen today as an unavoidable part of life, as a necessary crucible through which every life must pass, and in which, hopefully, we grow and mature, and through which we discover a higher, nobler, more spiritual sense of well-being.
In light of this, Lent should be celebrated for its fearless attitude toward suffering. For the Good News is that through the sufferings of Christ we have a companion who walks with us through life’s inevitable hardships and losses.
For while contemporary culture does not see suffering as an opportunity or test, and certainly never as punishment, Christian faith continues to offer a broad and deeply moral and spiritual response.
So one must ask, would you rather suffer the ‘slings and arrows’ born of a faceless, uncaring, meaningless world, or would you rather know that the God you worship not only understands your pain and anxiety, but has experienced every bit of it – so that when pain and suffering comes, you do not have a companion who knows only the spiritual heights and sunny successes, but in suffering possesses profound compassion and empathy, one whose sole purpose is to comfort and to heal.
Today, in the Transfiguration, we get a fleeting glimpse of the endpoint of our suffering, the otherworldly ecstasy, rapture, and exaltation of godliness revealed.
It is enough to remind us that life’s sufferings are but momentary afflictions, and that, if they are experienced with faith, and in hope, they can broaden and deepen our lives, making us better human beings, prepared to serve our God with greater maturity, humility, character, and, most essentially, love. Amen.