Some Thoughts On Redemptive Suffering

Lately, I’ve been going through some old writing of mine. This was something I wrote about suffering about five years ago. It was before I knew that I’d soon be Catholic, and was in the midst of the tail end of the journey that led me back to Rome. I was in the middle of a lot of painful things in life, so suffering was always on my mind, particularly the poignant suffering of loneliness and lost dreams and hopes which resulted from lots of things, including my desires for men, and the lost relationship with a woman who I believed I could have shared my life with. Five years on, I’m glad everything happened as it did, but back then I was a wreck most everyday. And to that, I say thank God I went through it all!

A good friend of mine had surgery today to remove a cancerous prostate. He and his wife have been in my thoughts quite a bit throughout the day. Sadly, I don’t think the surgery was the most painful thing today. The death of a dream and hope of having children is the most painful wound of all for both of them. It makes it so clear to me once again that suffering is not far removed from any of us.

I have another colleague who was recently diagnosed with uterine cancer, and another dear friend and colleague who just lost a three legged dog he and his wife had rescued from an animal shelter. Losing this dog was like losing a family member for him. He is in a profound state of grief.

Someone somewhere once said that there’s no need to look for suffering–it will find us. As I have wrestled over the past several months with my own difficulties and loneliness, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on suffering. The one fundamental truth that I have arrived at is that the best, and only answer, to suffering can be found in the teachings of Christ.

The very marrow of Christianity is rooted at the literal crossroads of supreme suffering. Christ’s death on the cross was the ultimate act of redemptive suffering. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The sacrifice of Christ, on behalf of all of humanity, the act of willingly suffering so that others might be redeemed, is the sobering example I am becoming convinced Christ calls us to follow.

I have always wrestled with what Christ meant when he said to pick up my cross and follow him. That is a call shrouded in mystery. What is our cross, and what does it mean for us to pick it up? As I have wrestled more and more with this conundrum, I have found myself asking more and more what the cross of Christ represents. If we are called to be like Christ, and if Christ willingly suffered the travails of the cross, does that mean that he desires for us to follow him there, to daily pick up our cross, a cross that represents the pinnacle of redemptive and salvific suffering?

crucifix

I prefer a crucifix with a crucified Christ to an empty cross. I believe in the resurrection, but what I need is the crucified Christ, a Christ who can join in with the suffering that I occasionally endure. I suppose those are the Catholic roots within me speaking, but for me, I need to be able to identify with a savior who suffers. Suffering is sure to come, and it is all around us. My neighbor to my left is fighting a battle with lung cancer and my neighbor to my right just lost her father to Parkinson’s disease. How can we make sense of all of these tragedies?

I take great comfort in the belief that our suffering can be offered up on behalf of those whom we love. For me, this is the crux of Christianity for me, the very nucleus of my belief in Jesus Christ. I believe in the resurrection, but it is the suffering Christ who I cherish most of all as I journey through this difficult life. And when suffering enters into my life, as it surely does and will, I am grateful that in Christ I can find an answer to why. Not only an answer, but a response, a way to embrace it and to view it as a means by which others can be redeemed. For me that is powerful, powerful stuff, and I don’t say it or believe it lightly. Suffering is bound to come–Christ embraced it willingly and offered himself up on behalf of others, for the redemption of others. Is that his call to us? To embrace suffering? Is this what he asks of us when he asks us to take up our cross and follow him?

Paul writes about suffering so often, and he knew suffering. What I find intriguing is how often he talks about suffering on behalf of others. Surely this is Paul taking up his cross.

Check this out from 2 Corinthians 1:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

“If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation.” How beautiful is that?

And here’s a sobering example in Phillipians 3:

10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

“The fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” I’m beginning to view that becoming like Christ in his death must mean being willing to offer up our lives on behalf of those we love. Sobering stuff if you ask me.

But most profoundly moving for me, and the verse that gives me the greatest assurance and comfort whenever I contemplate the reasons behind suffering can be found in Colossians 1:24–

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

I do not believe that Christ’s afflictions were somehow insufficient, or incomplete. Rather, if there is anything “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, it could only be out of a desire on the part of Christ for us to be able to participate with him in the redemptive suffering he partook of on the cross. In my mind, it must be something akin to what Pascal said about prayer and why our prayer has power: that it bestows on man the dignity of causality. I tend to think that through suffering, we have been given the dignity and opportunity to enter in with Christ in the redemption of the world, not in a figurative sense, but in a very literal sense. For me, this is what it must mean to take up our cross and follow him and the only answer to the eternal question of why there is suffering in this world.

When I wrote that, I believed that the primary reason God allowed homosexuality to exist in the world is primarily as a particular call to suffering, to be united with Christ’s suffering. That’s part of it–but since that time, I’ve also come to realize that another reason why it’s been allowed in the world is because it’s the most effective tool in his quiver to whittle away at the “old man”transforming us into the “new man” in all of us who live with same-sex attraction. In that mind, it’s a precious and beloved wound, one I would never write out of my life.

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10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Redemptive Suffering

    • I would say that transformation into spectacular beauty doesn’t wait until the New Creation. Thanks for stopping by my blog–I checked yours out, and look forward to reading more of our things. But I would suggest that we aren’t fated warriors, like Wesley Hill might suggest, but redeemed warriors–now. Christ came that we might have life, abundantly, not merely in the resurrection, but now, in this life–and in the next. The transformation of the wounds of this life become transformed into precious scars we point to in THIS life, and show them off as the places where God strengthened our weakness. One of the great mysteries of how a broken bone heals is that it’s stronger after it’s broken. So too with us in our lives here. That journey takes a long time, but I encourage you not to focus on the redemption of those wounds as merely happening in the Resurrection. You speak of the “New Creation.” That’s what we are, now, and there is joy in this journey. The Cross ends up being the most precious aspect of our life, now, not merely then.

      Rather than viewing things like Hill, and others like him, who might say, “[The fated warrior] is the champion who heads into battle fully aware that doom awaits him at the end,” I choose to say with Christ that the victory is already won. In that light, I don’t like that phrase: “we must face our struggles now knowing there may be no real relief this side of God’s new creation.” This life, for everyone, is a novitiate for heaven. We’re in basic training, as it were, and in that sense, we need to keep all of this in perspective. The pain and sorrow and aches of this world are a sign that we’re alive, that we’re being transformed by God into the men and women He wants us to become. In your intro, you write of Hill, which I find only partially stirring: “We may wrestle with a particular weakness all our lives. But the call remains: Go into battle.”

      In wrestling, we become strong. Those weaknesses that God allows are gifts–thank God we will have weaknesses we will contend with our entire lives! This should not be cause for sorrow, but gratitude! God cares enough for us, that He allows us weaknesses in our lives. Eventually, we realize that our greatest strength is our weaknesses, and that what must be our path against our weakness is what Thomas Merton said: real self-conquest is the conquest of the self by the Holy Spirit.

      All that to say, don’t cling to Heaven as the only place joy can reside. God is in the business of transforming lives, here and now. Usually not by changing our circumstances to fit the mode of what we believe will make us happy, or what will ameliorate our pain. Rather, it’s by the renewal and transformation of our minds. Peace and joy I think comes less from a change in our circumstances. Rather, it comes from relaxing into total trust in God: Abandonment to Divine Providence is the key to peace.

      OK, I wrote far more than I planned here, but God bless you on your journey, and I look forward to checking out your blog!

      • Thanks for replying and checking out my blog! I wholeheartedly agree that the New Creation does not begin at the end, but has already begun with Christ being the ‘first fruits’ as Paul says–and we new creatures stepped into the dawn! Therefore, Paul always says to live like we are the a New Man. When I say that God will transform our wounds, I should clarify to say I think He will FULLY transform. I think we are being transformed, but we are not all there yet. C.S. Lewis describes it as a horse not merely learning to jump better-that would not accomplish the goal- but to become a different creature entirely, one that is winged and far surpasses natural horses. Then he goes on to say,

        “But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so [fly]: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders–no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings–may even give it an awkward appearance.”

        Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 13: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” This is what I meant. I think our scars show that we are being redeemed, and this is what make them precious. But I also think we do not fully understand all of it. I think our wounds will one day fully show (to us) the extent of God’s grace and mercy. Our sufferings may still in this life cause us to cry and wander why. But there will be a time where they give us complete joy and have us exclaiming, “Oh, so that is what You were up to!”

        Wesley Hill wrote his book in his twenties, at the time he really wrestled with these issues and so he may say some things differently now. But I think you both are largely saying the same thing. I’ll put the entire paragraph to put the quote in context:

        “Fourth, and finally, the Christian story commends long-suffering endurance as a participation in the sufferings of Christ. In light of this, my objection that abstaining from homosexual sex will be too difficult doesn’t seem as strong or compelling as it once did.
        While taking a German class in college, I learned that some old Teutonic and Scandinavian religions and mythologies there is an ideal of the “fated warrior.” This is the champion who heads into battle fully aware that doom awaits him at the end. ‘Defeat rather than victory is the mark of the true hero; the warrior goes out to meet his inevitable fate with open eyes’.
        Since making this discovery, I have thought often that this idealized picture resonates profoundly with the Christian story. One of the hardest-to-swallow, most countercultural, counterintuitive implications of the gospel is that bearing up under a difficult burden with patient perseverance is a GOOD thing. The gospel actually advocates this kind of endurance as a daily ‘dying’ for and with Jesus. While those in the grip of Christ’s love will never experience ULTIMATE defeat, there is a profound sense in which we must face our struggles now knowing there may be no real relief this side of God’s new creation. We may wrestle with a particular weakness all of our lives. But the call remains: GO INTO BATTLE…
        My friend went on to say that the gospel does not necessarily promise a rescue out of the pain of living with homosexual desires. Instead, it is a message about God’s strange working in and through that pain–God’s ‘alchemy of redemption,’ as Philip Yancey calls it. ‘My power is made perfect IN’–not in the absence of, but IN THE MIDST OF–‘WEAKNESS,’ the Lord said to Paul.”

        I think he is saying that to some there may not be full relief from their pains, but that this is not promised anyway for Christians. Therefore, knowing this, we should continue to obey and fight in spite of. That is why I love the idea of a fated warrior. But we are also “redeemed warriors,” and perhaps this is a better thing to say.
        Thanks!

  1. amazing. astounding. thanks for sharing and writing this. If I may share… just went through the toughest and most tortuously painful 7 months of my life… fiancee and girlfriend of 5 years cheated and left me for another man… I feel I got a small glimpse of God’s heart; the pain God must feel when we turn our backs and betray Him, and I think I’ve gained a far deeper understanding why He endured the cross… because I know I would for her soul’s redemption. I can honestly see though how God has used every drop of pain to grow me and bring me closer to Him than I ever would have been, and he has even redeemed and strengthened my soul – even aid me in overcoming vices I’ve not been able to break for nearly 2 decades – just a few mentionables out of dozens if not hundreds of mini-miracles strewn across this pain-filled (but ultimately redemptive) path I’ve been enduring. I see how the most disruptive, painful, confusing, destructive event I’ve experienced in my life (even tougher than my parent’s divorce) became the most redemptive and most used by God to transform me… I don’t think it would be too far to say it was needed – like God knew exactly what disgusting and painful medicine was needed to rock the core of the issues in my soul… Well, he’s God so I guess that shouldn’t be a shocker that he knows all… but then again HE’S GOD so He never ceases to amaze and surprise in how creative and skilled a heart surgeon He is with seemingly custom prescriptions for each of us… “His ways are not our ways…” and paraphrasing C.S. Lewis: ‘pain is the chisel God uses to sculpt our soul’

    Just my humble thoughts 🙂
    – Sean

    • Thank you for the kind words. I’m sorry you’ve gone through so much pain, but at the same time, it sounds like you are seeing the hand of God in all of this. I love a quote by the poet William Wordsworth: “A deep distress hath humanized my soul.” Can I recommend an excellent book for you? It’s called “A Path Through Loneliness,” by Elisabeth Elliot. It’s been very helpful for me!

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