An Invitaiton to Suffering
Once again, out of the experience of suffering, an invitation is found. As our brother Job learned, our presumptive contracts are delusory (our attempted deals with God that is) by the ego to be in control. We learn that life is much riskier, more powerful, more mysterious than we had ever thought possible. While we are rendered more uncomfortable by this discovery, it is a humbling that deepens spiritual possibility. The world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, and less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young. James Hollis / Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life
Some years ago, while pondering the highly mechanistic nature of how the church engaged spiritual growth, it came to me that in many ways the Church has regarded the soul as a project. Spiritual growth as well is often seen as a technical program of ideas disseminated at the correct times and if ingested properly will automatically create the desired results. This idea that God’s Spirit will engage us clinically, objectively, or in a detached fashion is one of the reasons we often think we know something before we actually have experienced it.
We “modern “Christians have things to do and places to go. We desire that even our spiritual lives be akin to our work schedules and physical lives ( exercise regimens) in the sense we can schedule in exercise and have our doctors and trainers give us instant advice or pills to speed up the results. We are in a hurry and the soul is one area of life where our hurried harried lives are sorely obvious. Gandhi said there is more to life than merely increasing its speed.
If I have heard it once I have heard it countless times and that is the statement, “God said it so He must honor His word.” On some level the sentiment has enough truth to be articulated with some sense of spiritual fervor. But the darker side of this articulation may really sound more like, “ I have a contract with you God and You are not keeping up to Your end of the deal. What is up?”
It is a frightening and spiritually disappointing encounter to realize that God does not make these kinds of deals. Suffering is one of the areas that this hubristic proclamation says more about our presumption than the character of God. God never made such an arrangement that offered Job a painless, suffering free life and the crisis in assumptions was Job’s day of reckoning.
I have been pondering the invitation suffering is offering and its weightiness is too much to bear alone. Dealing with suffering with a gracious heart is one of these areas of my walk I feel like such a neophyte and baby believer. I am so poor at nourishing my mind, body, or soul. Wholeness seems elusive as so much in my culture asks me to separate myself up into compartments, and ask me to divide myself up into sub-categories and experiences. Whether it is body or soul sickness, I so often ignore my very being's beckoning calls for nurturance and push myself way beyond healthy limits. I am vaguely aware of this behavior as it is taking place as it impetus is deep in my soul’s story of reality that no longer works.
Suffering has been a major challenge to my journey as its presence is ubiquitous and I often feel as though I have little recourse to curb its ultimate verdict. Many of you may or may not know of my bout with cancer. Needless to say its wake is powerful and looming in its impact. Likewise, there is much grief and sorrow that naturally accompanies being human in this day and age. Just because we do not live in war torn countries, or struggle for necessities such as water or bread, we Western Christians often neglect and ignore the deeply hidden maladies that rob our joy and ability to be present.
I do not understand suffering. As a believer brought up in the evangelical subculture, I was led to believe that I could somehow avoid suffering or at least have this near heavenly response to its power and impact. I have not learned this in the last decade nor am I currently capable of dealing with or accepting real suffering. I am also confused as to where the art of suffering comes from trying to serve God and the Church and the world and what part of suffering is merely induced by me and my own selfish neurotic will.
We all have been told that right conduct, right intention, proper piety, would protect us from the vagaries of life and the inscrutable universe. But prolonged sickness, tragedy, unpredicted death, heart attacks, childbirth gone awry, divorce accompanied by dark and sinister wrangling, quickly inform our souls that these deals were presumption at best and closer to fact, straight out fantasy.
As sickness and financial struggles have dogged my heels in recent years, it becomes deeply apparent that certain parts of life are merely out of my control. No manner of domination or fixing changes growing older or being a part of a music industry that is collapsing much like General Motors in Detroit. I am also aware of how often I so ungraciously bear the normal troubles of life and discern which ones come as a byproduct of my faithfulness and the prophetic work God has called me to and discern which ones come as a byproduct of my own lack of stewardship over my life, body and giftings. I have never rejoiced in tribulation to date as far as I can remember. I say this with some shame.
I wonder if I should be surprised given the current social climate in Western societies that tell me to pursue comfort and eschew any or all philosophies that tell me my entitlements are not valid. Pascal said centuries ago, “What amazes me most is to see that everyone is amazed at his weakness.”
Are there any benefits to suffering and will some forms of calling and service actually even lead to distress, anguish or even persecution? Can I develop a new appreciation for the “gifts” of suffering” that may bestow grace upon my discipleship? This phrase sounds odd in light of our culture’s penchant for health, ease, comfort, and the exaltation of youth ( Marva Dawn- The Sense of the Call). Dawn remarks on how even churches today call for leaders that are “colossal in their skills for preaching, supernatural in their abilities to attract youth, and phenomenal in their ability to grow the church." Never has she seen the phrase (and "are also a model of godliness in the midst of suffering.”)
“Why do we try so hard to avoid suffering?” Dawn asks. Is it because we lack a real “theology of suffering” thus we often cannot see that certain calls on our lives will by their very nature involve suffering? One of the reasons we must take care of ourselves (our health-and I am being humbled so much here) is that some prophetic roles may drain us and if already exhausted, all we see are the ever present pains of suffering. One of the reasons we avoid suffering is that we do not have a big enough vision that could actually clarify and define the future such that we can walk into this place with hope. In fact, most of the time I either demonize (literally) or figuratively my sufferings or curse any pain and struggles that enter my life as unfair and unjust. I am so quick to blame others and hold them accountable.
It is a heavy message to remember that part of our calling is to lay our lives on the line to serve the Church and the world. Dawn goes on to say that often physical, emotional, and professional, familial, and financial ailments overwhelm us. In these times God seems distant, silent, untrustworthy, oppressive, and even demonic. She remarks, “During these times I have literally felt abandoned and tell God I cannot endure one more hardship.” Dawn responds to this predicament with a deeply moving insight. “The hardest things for us to admit is that when we think we can dig ourselves out of such holes- we are in much deeper trouble than we can imagine. "When penetrating weariness seizes our love for God, we will serve only lesser ends. If our work cannot proceed from love for the Eternal One, we can no longer do any genuinely eternal work…We need a fallow year. A period of time which nutrients are put back into us to make us fit to produce again. We also need is a weekly Sabbath that keeps us aware of the New Creation in us and around us. I am not talking here about Church attendance but the laying down of our busyness as if we held up the universe with our human doings. If we do not seek this Sabbath we become so overwhelmed we lose our capacity to suffer. This is paradox for sure.
Dawn tells about her Christian friends in countries formerly under Communist rule who now reside in the States. She was shocked when they told her it seemed harder to live out their faith in Western countries where they had all these freedoms, choices, affluence and technologies than it did in the former Communist block countries. They remarked at how there did not seem like there was any “radical alternative” to the way people lived in the States. Everyone was so accepting of the status quo as it allowed them to live their Christians lives in private. For those who grew up in persecution this seemed to water down the real radical nature of faith necessary to live as Christ followers. For these Communist refugees, communal suffering was part of the calling. In fact, their solidarity in those sufferings involved being a Christian in that time and space which became radical and subversive by its very nature.
Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite authors and a long time pastor, says this about our need to suffer and be subversive out of that posture..."If the church member actually realized that the American way of life is doomed to destruction and that another Kingdom is right now being formed in secret to take its place, he wouldn’t be pleased at all. If he knew what I was really doing and the difference it was making, he would fire me. True subversion requires patience. You slowly get cells of people who are believing in what you are doing, & participating in."
As my wife and I have dealt with the disappointment of our house not selling one more time (it is almost like a house showing is an operation that causes pain but heals nothing ), we are tempted to not see what God is doing in our midst. We can be discouraged that His work is not going forth through us and in us. The work of authentic community is in some ways quite subversive to me. Sometimes I feel like I am just planting seeds but in recent weeks I have seen a harvest that has convicted my heart. I ( we) must embrace hope and let these Kingdom cells sprout and grow as God wills. We are not alone in the Kingdom work and the community is growing and taking form. Sometimes we must bring Bad News to deliver the Good. Could the Bad News of sorts be- “suffering is a part of our obedience and when it is done unto the Lord we take on the sufferings of our Lord.” We must actually take on His sufferings as He would were He here in the flesh…..And He is. Blessings