All suffering is God’s punishment for sin. This was an underlying belief in Jesus’ own day. Suffering is a divine payback for wrongdoing. Jesus confronts this notion. When he encounters a man blind from birth, Jesus is asked rather rhetorically, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”[i]
So why is there suffering? How many there are, the sources of suffering. Some suffering we clearly do bring onto ourselves because of how we are practicing our life with too much of this or too little of that, of deceptions and bad decisions, sometimes which turn into a tsunami of suffering. Yet when Jesus is asked the source of this man’s blindness, Jesus is not formulaic. He clearly says that suffering ipso facto is not a sign of God’s judgment or rejection. Jesus teaches that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good.” Jesus says, all of us are “children of [one] Father in heaven.”[ii] God’s love is indiscriminate.
So what do we make of suffering? We clearly cannot avoid it. Study history; read the newspapers; recall your own life. Clearly, there is no escape from suffering until life is ended. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, suffering has a prominent and paradoxical place in our lives. Our theology hangs on the cross. Jesus tells us that if we want to be his followers we must “take up our cross” and follow him.[iii] We will be presented with the cross. It will happen, and probably more than once in our lifetimes. We either face our cross, or we flee from it, but this is Jesus’ way for us: the way of the cross. The cross is an instrument of suffering before it becomes the way to life.
Momentarily we will join together in professing our faith following the words of the Nicene Creed. One word is used to describe the shape of Jesus’ life. Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed affirm Jesus was born, was crucified, was resurrected and ascended. Only one word is used to describe his entire lifetime in between those major events: he “suffered.” Jesus suffered. For God to become human, for God to fully identify with humanity, for God to meet us and save us, suffering as we are, it was necessary for God to suffer as we do. God suffers with us in Jesus. Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian, says that “God’s love does not protect us from suffering. God’s love protects us in the midst of suffering.”[iv]
Suffering is so paradoxical. Suffering can bring such diminishment and distortion to people. Suffering can extinguish their joy, exhume their hope, destroy their spontaneity, consume their consciousness. If you have suffered – and we all have – you will know how compromising suffering can be. Suffering hijacks. We want out of suffering. To not want out of suffering is its own illness.
And yet, suffering is not the last word. Usually not. The alchemy of suffering is often so amazing. Because someone’s suffering can also engender in a person such beauty, such compassion, such gentleness, such freedom, such humility, such clarity to be able to be fully live in the present moment. Jesus tells us he has come to give us life, and to give it to us abundantly.[v] “Life,” for Jesus, includes the cross and all the suffering that led up to it. Suffering is not the last word. Usually not. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who wrote with such insight about dying and death, said that “the most beautiful people we have known are those who have known suffering, known defeat, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths… Beautiful people do not just happen.”[vi]
In our epistle lesson, the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul gives his own testimony about the amazing grace realized through suffering. He writes, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts…[vii] This is a retrospective: “boasting in suffering.” Saint Paul is looking back on his life, claiming his own experience of how life for him has come out of death, how the crucible of suffering for him has revealed such love and wonder. This is a retrospective. I’m certain that Saint Paul believes what he’s writing here. I have my own experience of the truth of what he’s writing, and so may you, how “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” Such good can come out of such suffering, so Saint Paul realized, as have I, perhaps have you.
But I would not repeat Saint Paul’s words, or any version of those lofty promises, to someone who is in the midst of suffering. Suffering is terrible, nothing to boast about. We plead for escape from suffering. There’s nothing good to be said about suffering. When we suffer, we beg for relief: for strength and courage to bear the pain, that the pain be ameliorated, and for healing to come. And yet, suffering is not always the last word. So much strength and beauty can come out of so much pain. We realize this – I would say we can only realize this – as we look backward. How amazing it is when we realize a painful life experience full of loss nevertheless yields something of such gain. I’m not denying the pain nor the loss; but I am saying that amazing good can paradoxically come out of appalling bad. That’s what is called “redemption.” Jesus said he’s come to us “to seek and to save the lost.”[viii] There are many ways to suffer loss. How wonderful it is when something we have lost in life because of suffering is retrieved, saved, and redeemed by Jesus.
So many people just now are suffering in our world. So we know, tens and tens of thousands of people having lost their homes and lost their hope, looking for a place on this earth where they can be sheltered, and be safe, be fed, and can thrive. So many people in our world having been imprisoned, and they suffer, often forgotten, with no one to tell their stories. So many people – especially women and children – suffering from violating degradation through others’ exploitation. So many people with physical and mental illness, and only a small portion of whom having access to health care. The very young, the very old, with so much suffering. So many people around the world and in our own country, now suffering from the Coronavirus, among them so many students who have been told to go home… a home which sometimes does not exist. The Coronavirus, infecting so many people with fear, overwhelming some people with way too much work, and others, now, with no work.
There’s a rather pedestrian-sounding word in the English vocabulary that is worth retrieving: pity. The English word “pity” comes from 12th century Old French meaning mercy, compassion, care, tenderness. “Pity.” What a beautiful word, beautiful practice, pity: mercy, compassion, care, tenderness. The Old French borrows the word “pity” from the Latin, “piety.” We have so many invitations just now to practice our piety with our pity. The only way that something good can come out of suffering, which is bad, is with help. We are God’s help. We’re the best God has to give witness to God’s presence, God’s tender loving mercy, and God’s provision. With our hands, our hearts, our voices, our prayer, we are the mediators of the real presence of God’s pity to so many, many people who otherwise feel lost, and who are dying to live.
Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
[i] John 9:2-3.
[ii] Matthew 5:45-46.
[iii] Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27.
[iv] Hans Küng (b. 1928), a Swiss Roman Catholic priest, theologian, and prolific author.
[v] John 10:10 – Jesus said, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.”
[vi] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), the Swiss-American psychiatrist who wrote On Death and Dying.
[vii] Romans 5:1-11.
[viii] Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10.
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