02 November 2019

Catching Up and Questions on Suffering Well

The latest Planned power outage is well over here in Lafayette and another one planned for early Wednesday morning into Thursday was put on hold. I am grateful because while I can manage many things without power some things are simply very difficult or impossible without it (hot showers, laundry, hot food). We actually had a couple of fires here in Lafayette and watched planes drop fire retardant and helicopters dropping water to prevent forward movement during wind events. There were some evacuations but they were short-lived, thanks be to God! Meanwhile, North of here the Kincaid fire continues with limited control (about 47%) and South of here (several hours) the Getty fire threatens museums, colleges, Motherhouses I know, and other institutions as well as many individual residences. 

I  have received some questions about a post I put up in June on the notion of suffering well (cf, Question on Suffering well). (Sorry but it took a couple of days to actually write an answer and there are other questions still waiting; I appreciate everyone's patience.) At this point in time, when so many people here in my state are suffering tragic losses, displacement, inability to work, etc., it is timely to be reminded of it. In that piece and the follow up (Followup on Suffering well: Suffering and the will of God) I wrote that for me the only way to suffer well was to live well in Christ in spite of suffering. I also wrote that it is important to distinguish between Jesus' suffering at the hands of humankind and what God willed for him.

Here I wrote that God wills Jesus to live a fully human life and death, but God did not specifically will Jesus' torture and suffering on the cross. It is true that if Jesus embraces authentic or genuine humanity in self-emptying and solidarity with God and others his life will entail profound suffering but what God wills for Jesus are those choices which bring greater and greater life, not choices simply for greater and greater suffering. Is there a difference? Yes. it is possible to will that a person lives fully and accepts the consequences of that life without willing the consequences per se. Think of parents who send their children to public schools. They will their children get all the benefits of a rich and diverse educational milieu; they do not will their children get bullied or run into teachers who are burned out but have tenure, for instance. Or think of the  Peace corps; it sends people all over the world to assist those in need. It does not will these workers become victims of mercenaries, etc. And yet, these unwilled consequences do occur.

So what were the follow up questions? They included: 1) Isn't our suffering reparational? Don't we make up for what is lacking in Jesus' suffering? 2) How do we distinguish between the suffering that comes as part of life and suffering that we can't let go of or that we take on rather than choosing life? and 3) why is it so hard to let go of suffering?

It is true that Colossians 1:24 speaks of making up for what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ but what does this mean? Does it mean, for instance, that Christ's own sufferings per se were insufficient and must be supplemented with our own --- as though Christ's passion was  objectively inadequate for the redemption of all creation? No, I don't think we can ever suggest such a thing. Objectively speaking Christ's passion, death, and descent were a perfect sacrifice marked by perfect obedience (perfect openness to and trust in God) and destroyed sin and death. But subjectively speaking the fruits of Jesus' passion, death, descent, and resurrection must become our own, that is we must embrace the life he brought to us as the Risen Christ in the Spirit of God, and we must do so as fully and faithfully as we can. This will mean learning to let go of a great deal (including a great deal of bad theology and spirituality), just as it will mean allowing the love of God to heal us of a great deal --- and both of these processes will entail suffering at the service of healing and selfless or generous life --- but it does not mean embracing suffering which, whether implicitly or explicitly, claims that the passion of Jesus was inadequate in some way.

Jesus' death allows the Love of God (the Love-in-act that IS God) to overcome all of those things which mark us as alienated from God. It does this with Jesus taking all of these things into himself while remaining open to God's presence and refusing to let these godless things separate him from God. This refusal to let sin and death separate him from God opens these realities to God. In absolute vulnerability Jesus took on sin and death (and thus every form of godlessness) and remained obedient to God (open and vulnerable to both suffering and the God who brings life out of nothingness) so that God might triumph over these things. Not only because of the weight of what he took on, but because of his openness and vulnerability, Jesus' suffering and death was more intense and deeper than anything you or I will ever know. But it also allowed God to enter into (or, from another perspective,  to take these things into himself) and transform them with his presence. Objectively speaking, sin and death were destroyed; they were transformed from godless realities into realities where God might be met face to face.

The result is the perspective we hear from Paul in tomorrow's reading from Romans 8 [[ If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our LORD.]]

Does this sound like Paul (who only may have written Colossians) thought there was anything objectively lacking in Jesus' passion and death? No. At the same time, however, Paul knows that suffering continues and some must be embraced, not in reparation for sins (God in Christ is victorious over sin and death) but in order that we ourselves may embrace life and witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God's objective victory over sin and death must be appropriated subjectively so that one day God might be all in all. It is only in this sense that we can speak of our own suffering (and our own victories over suffering as life is more and more fully embraced!!) as reparative with the accent on repair not reparation.

Why is it so Hard to Let Go of Suffering? 

Suffering is a very difficult reality for us. It seems meaningless and it tends to make our lives seem meaningless as well as it cuts us off from work, recreation. relationships, and, more profoundly, a sense of self which seems truly valuable. While all of this seems like a great reason to let go of suffering for some this suffering becomes a part of their very identity. When that is exacerbated by flawed theodicies --- theologies of evil/suffering in light of the goodness of God --- that validate suffering even when this occurs at the expense of life and choices for health, it becomes especially difficult to let go of suffering. For instance, the notion of victim souls is one of these approaches that validates one's suffering despite the problem that it diminishes the degree and meaning of the suffering of others. Similarly, but in less dramatic interpretations our suffering can make us feel special; we don't feel like victim souls but we may be victims in some sense and that can make us feel special, something hard to let go of.

Likewise it can become hard to let go of suffering when one has chronic illness which makes it intimidating to live without the limitations it imposes; we have to learn how to live a fuller life than illness allowed and that can be frightening. Even without the secondary gain associated with our illness this can be true. I think there are many reasons letting go of suffering becomes difficult for us and I have only mentioned a couple, but my own concern is with interpretations of suffering and evil that make them the will of God in one way and another. The versions of these theologies I have seen (heard or read) make of God something abhorrent. This God is not a God of life, a God who takes on sin and suffering in order to destroy them ultimately. Neither in these theologies is suffering a symptom of our estrangement from God (i.e., sin) nor do they draw a sufficient distinction between the permissive and active wills of God. The "God" they give us is a "God" who torments his creation -- but then they dress it up in pious language --- the language of reparation, discipline, and atonement. (Suffering can be a source of discipline, but generally this is because grace transforms pain from being something merely intolerable or destructive into a suffering that can occasion growth.)

It feels wonderful to believe God has chosen us. On the other hand it feels awful to be different from others, especially when the difference is caused by something like chronic illness or the sense we are not special to anyone. Some of us learn that God loves us no matter what and that we have value because of this. When we come to know ourselves as loved by God so too can we know ourselves as the same as others and simultaneously special; we will cease to need our illness as something that sets us apart or makes us special. Others, however, learn somehow that their suffering is an expression of God's love or that they are only loved by God to the extent they suffer. When this happens it may be almost impossible to let go of suffering and the victim status that seems to me to be a form of bondage unworthy of the Son/Daughter of God. But the God of Jesus Christ is the God who asks us to live well and offers us opportunities for ever-fuller or more abundant life -- even in the face of chronic illness for which little can be done. We Christians are called to learn to embrace these opportunities first of all and only thereafter and secondarily the forms of suffering which are consequences of living well in Christ.

So how do we distinguish between suffering that is a consequence of living well and is embraced as a part of living well and that which is more primary and can lead to a life of victimhood? I think sometimes it is a fine line, but not always. A number of years ago I wrote about someone who had made a "vow of suffering". Part of that vow was a promise to extend or prolong a life of suffering and a related promise to choose whichever option provided greater suffering. I admit the entire idea was appalling to me. I think we have to ask ourselves what are we choosing first of all and what are its fruits in the here and now: does it lead us to greater human wholeness, love of others, generosity, ability to empty ourselves and embrace responsible freedom? Does it take advantage of opportunities which lead to greater human wholeness and the ability to participate in community (and yes, even hermits need to be cognizant and careful of this for isolation and solitude are not the same thing!!)? For instance, do we act to end what suffering isolates us and curtails our life and especially our life in community when this is possible using normal remedies or do we turn in on ourselves and create an idol who supposedly wills our suffering and our isolation and diminishment as human beings in some sort of propitiation for the sinful condition of humanity?

It is absolutely possible to choose life and the suffering that comes from that (i.e., all kinds of sacrifice and forms of self-emptying which serve life and wholeness in ourselves and others) without believing God wills our suffering. At the same time it will be necessary to embrace the God who has chosen to be with us in all things including our suffering so that life in and of God can be truly sovereign here and now in this world. Our task in Christ is to allow heaven to ever more fully penetrate our world so that in and through our lives the Kingdom of God is truly at hand! We are not to be focused on heaven in a way which orients our life toward escaping this world; we are focused on heaven (life in and with God shared with all) in a way which transforms everything we touch with the love and life of God. If the God we believe in does not call us to a life committed to the transformation of all creation and to the sacrifices necessary to make that truly possible (unnecessary suffering actually stands in the way of this), then we are not believing/trusting in the God of Jesus Christ.

I hope this is helpful. If you have questions about specific examples of suffering and whether they fall into one category of suffering or the other please get back to me. Discerning when we are choosing life and suffering as a consequence as opposed to choosing suffering which is really a rejection of life can be difficult in some instances but in this as in every other thing we choose , the gospel admonition, "it is by their fruits that you will know them" is our ultimate criterion.