Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Transformation of Suffering

Part 1 here, Part 2 here
Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:19-22)
For most people, what C S Lewis called The Problem of Pain is not a problem at all. Pain, in their view, is simply bad—if there is a problem, it lies only in how to avoid pain. By the same token, that which is good is, as far as they are concerned, necessarily devoid of all suffering.
It is an understandable viewpoint, and it survives right up until we come into contact with reality, for in the real world very different principles apply. It is the real world that has coined the phrase “No pain, no gain.” And this is no mere platitude. Nor is it like saying “Every cloud has a silver lining”, as if the gains simply counterbalance the pains. It is saying, rather, that some gains can only come through pains, whether we mean the pains of care, time and trouble, or literal and physical pains.
In this world, a painless existence is actually a bland existence. Indeed our world seems stubbornly designed to demand pains in many and various ways. In so many fields of endeavour, the best is generally the hardest to produce, yet there is no obvious reason why this should be so. Why shouldn’t cheap plonk taste as good as vintage wine? Why shouldn’t oak grow as fast as pine? Why shouldn’t battery hens taste better than free range—we can easily understand why they taste different, but why do they have to taste worse? The list is endless, such that nature itself seems to be saying to us, “The best does not come easily.”
But the Bible adds something about pains that we also learn from experience,
... suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character ... (Romans 5:3b-4a)
... the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:3)
Above all, we read of Christ himself,
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:10)
In the passage quoted earlier, Jesus himself also uses an illustration from everyday life to show that the good of his own suffering should not be beyond the understanding of his disciples,
When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. (John 16:21)
In the real world, pain and gain are so intimately linked that the absolute avoidance of pain actually renders many gains unattainable. And this is not confined to physical matters, for just as we cannot have a fine wine or a particular skill without pains, so we cannot have a mature faith from a pain-free existence either.
This is not, of course, to suggest that suffering is something to be enjoyed in itself. There is no encouragement in the Apostolic preaching of the cross for the way of either the yogi who indulges in bizarre afflictions as the path to spiritual enlightenment, or the flagellant who seeks to make the physical pains of Christ his own on a smaller and more manageable scale. On the contrary, as the Apostle Paul observes, the believer who seeks the kingdom of God other than selflessly, by that attitude loses what is sought through the action:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)
Moreover, even with great gains, pain still remains pain and we may legitimately to seek to relieve it. Just as the athlete may enlist the coach and the physiotherapist, so the patient can make use of the doctor and the anaesthetist. But if there are some things which can only be gained via suffering, then the suffering through which they are gained can be welcomed—indeed can be embraced willingly, even joyfully! So the Apostle Peter tells us to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
Our problem, of course, is not that we cannot see the logic of this, but that we cannot experience the truth of it. We do not yet have the glory that the suffering precedes. And this is again the problem of time. We are promised rejoicing when Christ is revealed, but we experience suffering now. Yet the problem of time is also the problem of faith, because faith fills the gap between the seen and the unseen—between the present experience of the suffering and the unseen glory that is waiting to be revealed.
Does this mean, then, that faith is the answer to suffering? That seems the obvious answer, and yet we know it can sound trite. It would perhaps be better to say that suffering is the answer to faith.
The message of Scripture, and the practical meaning of the cross for us, is that suffering is the instrument of God’s will, not the thwarting of it. And suffering is particularly instrumental in building faith. This is why scripture does not say “suffering must be met with endurance”, but that “suffering produces endurance”—it brings it about. Suffering therefore not only tests faith, it works faith. And it does so by forcing us to confront not only our expectations of God, but our relationship with him—ultimately pushing us back not on the outcomes of faith such as assurance or patience, but on the object of faith which is God himself.
The cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is thus ultimately a cry of ‘faith seeking affirmation’. Only a true believer could feel forsaken, and only a real God could actually forsake. But in the moment, and through the event, of forsakenness, the believer is actually drawn closer to God in faith.
The cry of dereliction is, in fact, the opposite of what we see in Eden. In the garden, it is God who cries to Adam “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8). On the cross, it is the second Adam who cries to God, “Where are you?” And yet this is not the cry of the unbeliever rejecting God but of the believer seeking him. The unbeliever, especially the satisfied unbeliever, does not want to find God or be found by him—knowing that God would disturb all that the unbeliever currently enjoys. (And even the believer who rightly enjoys all the good things that life has to offer will hardly claim that the hours of pleasure have been those in which faith has been most exercised.) So when things are going well the unbeliever hides from God, and when they go badly the unbeliever rejects him. But the believer seeks him continually, even on the cross.
There is, however, one last thing to add, which is that there is an end. The cross is followed by the resurrection, death is swallowed up in victory, this world will be followed by the age to come. And in that age, suffering as we know it now has no place whatsoever. The book of Revelation promises, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Then we will see what we cannot yet see, which is the outcome of all suffering. And then we will be what we cannot yet be, which is those who have come through the great tribulation, no longer experiencing our sufferings and yet being what our sufferings have made us.
Take up thy cross, and follow Christ,
nor think till death to lay it down;
for only he who bears the cross
may hope to wear the glorious crown.
Charles W Everest

From: "The Eternal Cross: Reflections on the Sufferings of Christ"

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  1. A very well presented case and beautifully worded, but for me, an absolute beginner in faith, the 'jam tomorrow' aspect of suffering here and now for an unseen and unseeable reward is the hardest nettle to grasp.
    I know we are not intended to look upon Christianity as a 'creed of comfort', but a crutch or two on the journey would help. (me, anyway)

  2. Trouble is, sometimes it's all we've got to go on.

  3. Stephen Bazlinton24 April 2011 at 21:41

    Interesting and thoughtful, John.
    One point, not really on the subject here but on the term 'second Adam'. It seems to come from Newman's hymn. Strictly Paul doesn't use the phrase in 1 Cor 15. He writes of the first man Adam and the last Adam v45. Then in v47 of the first man, and the second man. To speak of the 'second Adam' might infer there could be a third. But Christ is is indeed the last Adam, there cannot, in the eternal councils of God be another. We know what the hymn means. Just as Adam was a unique historical individual whose sin lead to the Fall of creation and one consequence suffering and physical death, has become our lot, so the second man, the last Adam has become through the cross, the first born of a new creation.
    Stephen Bazlinton