Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Redemptive Suffering

Disclaimer: This post is about suffering, more specifically, redemptive suffering. This is not a topic to be undertaken lightly. As Christians we believe in a suffering God. We really need to understand what exactly this means. It is a crucial part of our faith and so our understanding of it is a crucial part of our everyday life. Please be patient as I explain the difference between suffering and redemptive suffering. Yes, there is a difference. No, I’m not splitting hairs or delving into a topic that has no simple, practical application. And NO, I will NEVER tell a woman that it is her role to suffer. EVER. Jesus has done the suffering for us.

What I will tell you: The origin of suffering
            The definition of meaningless suffering
            Why Jesus suffered for us
         How suffering can be redemptive
                                What this means to us
        Prayers to help us on our way (part II)

Hello Ladies,

Tonight I'm going to try to tackle a topic I really don't want to approach: redemptive suffering. I don't like suffering. It sucks. I don't like reading about it (which, by the way, was what I was doing this past Friday night. Pathetic!) I don't want to write about it. But it's important and misunderstood. So like most things that are painful, I'm going to get it done as quickly as possible, hope I don't screw it up too badly in my haste, and pretend like it's not happening. So are you with me? Let's go.

The Origin of Suffering: In the Beginning

Why is suffering so miserable? Because we weren't created to suffer. We were created in the image and likeness of God to be in communion with God and the rest of creation. There was no concept of death or separation. There was no alienation. Our sense of self and others came from God. Sounds kind of like the Garden of Eden, right? But now suffering is so much a part of the human experience sometimes we even define ourselves by our suffering. Healthy? No. But it's true. We now feel alienated from others, our parents, spouses, children. We are so alienated from God that sometimes we even question His existence. So what gives?

The book of Genesis clearly states that suffering entered the world when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked. When they saw their nakedness they were ashamed and hid from God. This distancing of self from God is sin. Since God respects our free will suffering is allowed to continue.

To the woman he [God] said,
"I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

And to the man he said,
"Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Genesis 3:16-19 NRSV

Thus did fear, inequality, alienation, and the suffering they would cause enter the world. But then so did the beauty of choosing to love in spite of our desire to hide ourselves from God and those who would love us, even ourselves. The root of our suffering comes from choosing to hide ourselves from God. The more we hide from God the more we suffer. Did God create suffering to punish us? He didn’t need to. He didn’t need to curse us with pain and toil. He simply knew what distancing ourselves from Him would result just as we tell our children when something is a Bad Idea. You don’t have to be divine to know that a child who habitually jumps on a bed will eventually fall off and get hurt.  In the same way God didn’t curse women to be subservient or have painful labors. He simply knew what would happen when He was no longer the measure by which we rate ourselves.

Before we go on let me clarify a few points. When humanity fell from grace so to did creation. Since that time creation has been in labor, so to speak, until the new heaven and new earth are created: the end of the age. We all understand this allegory. Carrying this allegory a step further we are called to be midwives to creation - to be bringers of life. In order to do this we must be in communion with God. More on this later.

The Definition of Meaningless Suffering:

So what makes suffering redemptive? Well, God suffers because we are not close to Him. We suffer because we are not close to God. Jesus suffered so that our souls might reunite with God. And we suffer because... Ah, this is where it gets tricky.

Why do we suffer? We suffer because there are a lot of jerks out there who say we deserve to suffer because we are: too rich, too poor, have the wrong hair color, we're women, wives, mothers, not wives or mothers, too ugly, too sexy, to educated, too ignorant, wrong nationality or language group, wrong skin color, wrong religion, wrong gender in wrong religion, etc., etc...  These jerks have a lot of power, sometimes the power of life and death. And really, we can all be jerks sometimes. I have seen a soldier in an invading army work for peace in her every word and deed. I have seen peace activists destroy all in their paths out of hate. Things don't have to be this way but they are. We may suffer because of these people. There’s no way around it. But do we allow them to define us? Should we suffer simply because they want us to?

Why Jesus Suffered for Us and Redemptive Suffering:

Did Jesus think suffering was a great thing? No!!  In the ancient Greek text of the Gospel of Mark , when  Jesus was confronted with a suffering person, the Greek term used translates "he held them in his bowels". In more palatable English it is translated as "He had compassion for". Perhaps a better translation would be "his gut wrenched at the sight of such suffering and he was moved by love to cure them". Or maybe we should have a more informed idea of what compassion means: to suffer with. It pained Jesus to see people suffer. And when it came time for Jesus to suffer and die for our sins did He skip for joy? No! He prayed and begged in anguish for hours, asking the Father to spare Him. Are you afraid of pain, suffering, humiliation, separation from God and death? You are in very good company.

So why did God demand this of his Beloved Son? Well, He didn't, really. We were the ones who chose to separate ourselves from God (sin). Out of respect for human free will sin is the one place God does not go. But a human can. A human cannot heal the breach between God and humanity. But God can. (Do you see where this is going?) So Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine, through the human condition of suffering, which is the effect of our rejection of God, which is sin, can bring God for us to be healed, which is salvation. Phew! Before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, suffering had no meaning. Now suffering is a place where God meets us to heal us. Redemption. In short, God is using a flawed tool of our own creation to heal us. It's not the only way to heal us, but since suffering is the effect of our choice to sin, it might be the way we understand best.

When we suffer we desire to be closer to God. As we become closer to God we become more like God: more of what we were created to be. We become more of ourselves. We have less fear. We have less weakness. We no longer worry about what others say; we share the same mind as Jesus, who is Love. No matter what we go through, He has been there first. We will never be asked to do anything that He has not done. We will continue to sin, block God from our souls, because we are fallen. We will suffer and die because we are in a fallen world. We can meet God in our suffering not only because suffering breaks down the "I" and we allow God in, but also because Jesus bore the mantle of our sins and suffered for us and with us. Simply put: in our suffering we have a beautiful opportunity to meet God because God is not afraid of a filthy soul. For this the soul is grateful.

Gratitude will lead us to do some strange things. Well, strange according to a world that wants us to suffer needlessly. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta loved the crucified Jesus so much that she willingly took on His suffering to do His work in the world. And she really did suffer. Once she began her life as a Missionary of Charity she felt alienated from God, as if He had abandoner her or her soul needed to be purged from imperfections. Her spiritual directors disagreed with her reasoning stating that instead of being far from God that she was in closer communion with Christ Crucified. Remember, sin is the rejection of God. God respects our free will so sadly endured our rejection. When Jesus willingly took our sin upon Himself, He was in a place where God could not go until it was transformed by death and resurrection. God NEVER abandoned Jesus just as God NEVER abandons us. But Jesus truly suffered for want of God. And so did Mother Teresa. And do you know that Mother Teresa was grateful for her suffering? Her loneliness? Why? Because it allowed her to reach out with compassion and understanding to those in despair. For the people Mother Teresa touched, the Kingdom of God is already at hand.

Suffering can also unite us with others who suffer. Mother Teresa had a spiritual sister who, due to painful physical infirmity, could not do the active work of a Mission of Charity. The solution? This spiritual sister was to 'offer up' her suffering for Mother Teresa! In fact, Mother Teresa saw her sister as having the more noble calling! How does this work?

Suffering is a place where we meet Christ Crucified. Remember that because of Jesus Christ, God can now move through even our sin if we allow Him. Think of it this way: The soul embroiled in sin is like a closed, stuffy, dirty room. It might stink but it's MY stink. I might hate it but it's MINE. I might even despair but it's MY choice. Now imagine allowing God in, even a little bit. Whoosh! The curtains are pulled back and the windows opened. Suddenly light and fresh air enter. Now I can start to see things as they really are. Some things that I once feared turn out to be mere shadows that disappear in the light. Some things I thought were clean turn out to be dirty. Purging the soul of dirt can be painful. But once you see the filth you will wish to become clean at all cost! Now, through the grace of God, there is hope of becoming clean, a new creation. Gratitude enters the soul. Joy. A new world begins.

As Jesus is transforming us from the inside out, we are also in communion with all of the suffering. Remember we are connected to each other through the bonds of love, the Holy Spirit. Deep within us there is a place where we are meant to be connected to all of creation. We are fallen. We cannot heal it. But we can allow God to heal us. This is the place where God reaches down and takes us by the hand. This is the silent, lonely, empty place where God fills us. This is the place where we are connected in prayer and love. This is the place where suffering takes us.

Does that make suffering good? Heck no! And do we, as Marian moms, glorify suffering in any way? Nope! We are proud of our scars, our strength, our faith in God. Any sane person tries to avoid needless, or any, suffering. A woman might endure the pain of a natural childbirth because she believes that it is better for herself and her child. I have yet to meet a woman who walks into a birthing room and says 'gee, I think I'd like to make labor longer and more painful, please'. No. She does not do one more push, endure one more stitch, than absolutely necessary.

What This Means To Us:

We suffer because we need to be healed. We suffer because God suffers in longing for us. We suffer because God calls us to help heal the creation that we broke in a fit of infantile rage. We suffer because we try to see the world as God does but we continually fail. We suffer for love of God. We suffer because on some level we understand that we all make it to heaven together or heaven is greatly diminished by our failure to love. We suffer because we know that this isn’t our true home.

How does this understanding of suffering affect our role as Marian Mothers? Well, you tell me. You were created in the image and likeness of God to do something that nobody else in the history of creation can do. I cannot tell you how to be a mother. I cannot tell you what it is to be a woman. (Presumably you already know.) But like Mary, I can tell you “do what He tells you to do”.

Go sit in the silence. Stare at the wall. Ask God. Bring your suffering to God. Have compassion for others instead of judging them. Allow God to heal you. Allow God to heal the world through you. Observe the small but profound miracles happening around you and give thanks. Do small things will great love.

Conclusion of Part I:

Well Ladies, this post has turned out to be very different than I expected. Hopefully it is relevant and worth reading. It is my wish that by seeing your situation differently you will begin to behave in a more loving manner. I now see the Infant Jesus in my young children. Instead of becoming angry with them for infringing on my freedom I now see them as an opportunity to love the least of His people. We are all much happier. I still suffer. I still get angry. But I allow love to pour through me. Well, more often anyway.

In my next post (if it doesn’t evolve into something else again) I will try to give some suggestions on how to find Jesus in the midst of suffering.

God Bless You During this Holy Week

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