Sufferers need more than patronizing platitudes

I think you know that we’ve been saying that our suffering is not for nothing this Lent. It’s our theme for the season. But isn’t it a little grandiose to say that our suffering makes a difference? Someone recently told me it was a bit patronizing and presumptive, that when I say that our suffering makes a difference I am making an assumption about the fact that suffering can be useful, that it’s good, and that it has a place in our lives.

Surely, ultimately, as decent people we don’t want to perpetuate suffering any more than we have to. And if we glorify it, as a world-changing feature, we might encourage people to impose more suffering on themselves and then create a kind of holiness scale where the longest sufferers are the most pious among us. Furthermore, we might encourage people not to advocate for themselves because they think that their suffering is God-ordained and even a calling. There’s a tinge of that in our history, isn’t there? That the more pain we endure, the closer we are to Jesus; the more self-flagellation the better. There are many religious traditions that embrace it and Christians often do as well.

circle of hope, philadelphia, south jersey, churches, church in philadelphia, jesus, christian, spotlightSo, while on one hand, I am saying that our suffering makes a difference, let me also say that there are many causes of suffering that are wicked and need to be stopped. That’s one of the reasons we are committed, around here, to simple living, peace, and anti-racism. We want to resist the U.S.’s greatest sins as Martin Luther King put it: materialism, militarism, and racism. It is a shame when the church has been the one to perpetuate that kind of suffering. Enter “Spotlight.” This movie, winning the Academy’s award for Best Picture, tells the story of an investigative beat working for the Boston Globe at the start of the millennium. They discover a massive cover up in Boston surrounding the now well-known Catholic priest sex abuse cases. I loved the movie because of how real it was, and how incisive it was. But it shows us how wicked Christian leaders can be, using their power for perverse personal pleasure. If we are speaking to victims of sex abuse, it is hard to say something like our suffering is not for nothing because it is so painful, so real, so oppressive. Jesus, on the other hand, says it is how we treat the least among us, children notably (see Mark 9), that we treat him.

A reaction to this promotion of self-flagellation, though, is the Christian idea that all suffering is wrong and that we should be happy all the time because, after all, Jesus is risen. I know some Christians who won’t even enter into their own soul’s darkness because they think it is wrong to feel that way when Christ died for our suffering and promises us eternal life. The result of this is coping with our pain in unhealthy ways: namely, consumerism. We think if I have the right job, house, live in the right neighborhood, if my kids go to the right schools, if I have the right friends, go to the coolest bars, drink the best whiskey, I’ll be happy. The ugly side of consumerism is addiction: to drugs, alcohol, sex, work, and so on. The prosperity gospel isn’t so glamorous when we realize what it can enslave us to.

So, amazingly, we can be told that our suffering is necessary and from God, or we can be told that it’s wicked and we should be happy all the time, like we’re Ned Flanders or something.

Hard waters to navigate it seems, but there is hope here. First, our suffering will not last—Jesus is risen, and his Kingdom is here on earth and coming to us in its fullness. Eternity starts now. Jesus has saved us and conquered death. At the end of John, Jesus tells his disciples that the world will hate them like it’s hated him; that they will find trouble in this world. But he tells them not to fear, but he has overcome the whole world. That promise is for all of us to embrace.

You know what? It doesn’t always feel like Jesus has overcome the world, right? I think that’s why we are saying our suffering is not for nothing, because despite the resurrection and the promise, in these bodies and on this unrestored earth, we still feel suffering. It is plainly clear to everyone. There’s no escaping it. Everyone hurts. It is our pain that really allows Jesus to be the common healing agent among us. I don’t suggest imposing more pain on yourself because you think it makes you holy, but I do suggest being aware of the pain that exists in your daily life and permitting it to exist. Our pastor Ben elaborated further on this: he told me there is no inherent value in suffering but if you’re going to suffer, God is offering us the courage to make meaning out of it rather than numb ourselves out or resent it, and Jesus is showing us how it is done.

Borrowed from our speeches this season, here are six ways your suffering makes a difference.

  1. Sometimes a Lenten fast can help us contextualize our pain, helping us to know what our coping mechanisms are and allowing God to be our comforter.
  2. Other times, when we feel our pain, we can empathize with other people. Consider what it is like to talk to someone who is hurting and being able to come to their aid because you’ve felt that way too—that is, really, the main point of Jesus’ incarnation on earth.
  3. Moreover, when we feel our pain, our loss can become more than just painful, it can generate good things. Jesus turned the loss of John the Baptist into an opportunity to feed 5,000 people—how many artists have used their pain to show the world something beautiful?
  4. As we feel pain, we come to terms with the inevitability of death. We walk with Jesus toward his death, understanding how his way is greater than the world’s. How the last shall be first in his Kingdom, and how through death he brings life to all of us.
  5. Some Christians voluntarily choose to suffer, which manifests itself in a vow of simplicity. In this world of excess, our simple choices protect the environment, protect innocent workers around the world, and even resist income inequality.
  6. Finally, when we can experience the joy of Jesus despite our pain in this world, we start to realize that joy isn’t incumbent upon our circumstances, but how we relate to God, and how we become one with him.

I don’t think I’ve answered all the questions about how we are working through our suffering, but I hope this little summary of our season so far helps. Post a comment if you want to talk more. See you Sunday.

2 thoughts on “Sufferers need more than patronizing platitudes

  1. Art Reply

    I would add that every suffering is an opportunity for Jesus to offer comfort and healing. At funerals, I like to be reminded that Jesus is risen from the dead. Yes, there is empathy, and that comes deeply and truly from Jesus who suffered to death. And yes, there is healing, from him who came out to the other side of agony and death. Without suffering, promises of healing can seem like empty prosperity platitudes. Without the promise of healing, even if it has to wait till the end, empathy can sound pretty hopeless too.

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