How should we, as Christians, deal with suffering?
I don’t mean to answer the question ‘why do we suffer?’ Amanda dealt with that in our Tuesday evening course a couple of weeks ago.
No, I want to ask how can Paul say that ‘suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope’?
Is he saying the same thing as the deliberately vacuous lyrics of the song at the end of the Monty Python film Life of Brian, sung by a group of men being crucified: ‘look on the bright side of life?’
We all need to think about how we suffer, because suffering will come to all of us at some stage. Even if we are not suffering now, we are almost bound to experience suffering of some kind at some stage of our lives before we die either physical pain or what a parishioner living in Easton who works in the field of palliative care refers to as ‘spiritual / existential distress, psychological suffering or social distress’.
But an important couple of qualifications before we begin:
If you are suffering now, if you are experiencing emotional overload and anguish, now; this is not really a talk for you. There is almost nothing more unhelpful than someone spouting theology to someone who is in anguish who is asking ‘why?’ when they have just lost a son or a daughter in a car crash or have just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
What people who are experiencing acute suffering need is for us to offer to be present, to be willing to listen and to help in practical ways – help with cooking, help with the children and the chores.
As suffering takes up our focus and attention, everything else can slip and make the situation worse. Practical help from the church community, love in action, not in word, is what is needed to keep the show on the road until the sufferer can get stable.
But for the rest of us – understanding how Christians should and can respond to suffering is useful – as we can prepare for it now – when we are not in the acute agony of its immediacy.
But why do Paul’s words about endurance and character grate so much with us, so that they are so easily lampooned by Monty Python – they grate with me and so I expect that they grate with you too?
As I was walking with the dogs on Thursday, thinking and praying over this, a cyclist passed me at high speed in one of the lanes. He was really pushing himself.
It occurred to me that when we talk about suffering we are generally talking about pain which is imposed on us involuntarily. But when we push ourselves as athletes the pain we incur is voluntary. Why do we do it to ourselves?
I can remember as a cross country runner in my twenties, I used to think this at the beginning of a race – knowing what pain I was going to go through ‘why am I doing this to myself?’ but actually by the end of the race – I knew – I felt great – particularly if I had come in the first two or three!
But why is this different with involuntary suffering?
I think we can find the answer in the values of our society. The secular society in which we live, and which influences the way we look at the world, our society sees suffering as pointless.
And so many of us come to this conclusion because of what we regard as the purpose of our lives. You see, as Tim Keller points out in his excellent book, Walking with God through pain and suffering, if the aim and meaning of life is individual freedom and happiness, then what possible purpose can suffering have? It is this issue, of course, which underlies the debate on voluntary euthanasia and on abortion….
From the perspective of the secular world involuntary suffering is like the cyclist pushing himself more and more, but there being no end to the race….no triumphant finish; why start the race in the first place? Why not get off the cycle as soon as you can?
And yet Paul uses words about involuntary suffering which seem more appropriate in the context of an athletic competition rather than the involuntary suffering that we see all around us.
So to what end are we suffering, when we endure it? What is the point?
Here we need to turn to what Paul says at the beginning of the passage: ‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’
The reason that we endure, is the hope that we have, the reason we endure is because we have been justified by faith as Christians, we have been reborn we have been converted, we have become, subjects of the kingdom of God, and we are on a journey towards our salvation, at the end of time.
In other words, our lives are not an aimless race which ends in oblivion. We are going somewhere and the journey on which we travel to get there has a point, even when we are suffering and what we do on that journey, how we travel, really matters, whether we are walking in the comfort of the Summer or struggling through the pain of winter.
It seems to me that there are two possible responses that Christians could give to experiencing involuntary suffering and ultimately which route we take shows what we believe. Indeed suffering is like the tide going out, you can see who has been swimming naked!
If we believe that God is there to give us a wonderful life and that, provided we keep doing good things, nothing bad will happen to us, then we are almost certainly going to be cruelly disappointed. And when awful things do happen to us or our loved ones, our faith is going to disappear, like the morning mist.
I hear this quite a lot, when people encounter unexpected suffering or even if something as trivial as having a row with someone in the church happens ‘it really shook my faith’ they say, ‘I am not sure that I believe in God anymore’.
Sadly, this says something not about God, but about the nature of our faith
if we say this. It suggests that God’s role is to keep our life free from pain of any kind, it is seeing, as Tim Keller puts it, God as the ‘god of my plans’ not as God, the creator of the universe.
And yet a moment’s thought will tell us that if the Father did not prevent Jesus from going to the cross, when he did not deserve it, when God himself went through this pain, as he came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth, what should make us expect that we will not suffer either, particularly when it is unfair and we don’t deserve it?
And where do we go exactly when we abandon our belief in God when life is unexpectedly cruel?
Do we go to atheism, which will tell us that everything that happens is entirely random and that our suffering, and indeed our whole lives, have no meaning and are of no lasting significance at all?
The danger of what can be called ‘implosion’ of becoming entirely preoccupied with our pain to the exclusion of all else – of everyone else – must be huge.
The other possible response to unexpected involuntary suffering is that we go deeper and deeper into our relationship with God. This is not masochism – we don’t have to be stoical and keep the stiff upper lip pretend it doesn’t matter and we are going to tough it out.
No, in Christianity its OK to be angry with God about what has happened – the psalms are full of laments, which God does not condemn, its important to weep and its Ok to complain to God, when something bad happens, even as we accept that suffering is almost bound to be part of our journey.
Some years ago a friend of mine called Nick discovered out of the blue that he had terminal cancer. There was no cure and had only a few weeks to live. He had a wife and a young daughter. You can imagine the anguish in the family.
But he was a Christian and decided, as he was going to remain in hospital while they managed his pain, to start reading the psalms; one psalm a day.
There is something about the words in the Bible, something about the Psalms which can lie flat on the page. But when you are suffering or in great anguish the words seem to have more weight, more significance, its almost as if you didn’t really understand what they really meant before, until the suffering, the anguish gives them the depth and height to lift off the page into your situation. You see the contours. You see depth in the words that you had no idea was there.
I have experienced this myself when reading the Bible, at a time when someone close to me had a serious illness.
Anyway Nick read one psalm a day. And he used the time in hospital to ask all his relations who were not Christians to see him so that he could talk to them about where they were on their Christian journeys.
The last psalm – number 150 was read at his funeral.
When the vicar spoke at his funeral, he described the extraordinary experience of having Nick as his parishioner, the immense privilege of travelling with him on this last part of his journey. The vicar said in his address ‘Nick taught me how to die’.
Nick was clearly a man who was running a race, but the end of the race was not his death but beyond his death – his destination was, as Paul would have put it, the hope which does not disappoint.
What is that hope? That hope is Jesus. A real man; a historical person who was born at a particular time in history, at a particular place in geography whose life is attested to by non Christian historians who suffered completely unjustly – as we so often do. Who was executed and rose again from the dead and this resurrection was witnessed by many people who then went off to tell the world about it!
The hope that we have is in the new heaven and earth that he promises us, a physical earth where we will enjoy many of the pleasures of an earth ruled by Jesus where there will be no more suffering our bodies will be restored to beyond what we have experienced here.
And, as we focus on that hope, we can endure our suffering because we know that Jesus has experienced far worse and he walks with us in it. If we experience suffering, we cannot say that God does not understand or does not care. He absolutely understands and absolutely cares, because he has suffered himself. As we endure our suffering, as we make every little decision not to be preoccupied with our own pain, to resolutely focus on others and not on ourselves, and, despite the limitations of our circumstances, to show love to others; as we walk every day through the furnace of suffering; as we do this without self pity, shame or self hatred and without pride, God will walk beside us, giving us strength.
As we do so our character is formed, like gold in the refiner’s fire, the impurities are removed, every small decision is a victory and it becomes possible to manage tomorrow’s challenges as well as today’s, and as our character strengthens and as we learn to handle our suffering well, as Christians, it brings God glory.
Because, whilst Christianity teaches that the aim and meaning of life is not the happiness and choice which is what our secular world tells us is of supreme importance, Jesus tells us that our most important task is to glorify God, to give him the supreme importance in our lives, to love him above all things.
Because it is only by giving God the supreme importance in our lives that we will ever find the rest, satisfaction and joy in him, the peace in him for which we were made.