Not so long ago, I read a book written by James Martin entitled, My Life With the Saints. In it, the author relays a life experience:
Being a full time author within the Jesuit community, he spent much of his time typing on a computer. He started to develop some severe pain in his wrists, and was diagnosed with a condition which could be managed, but not cured. It meant he would only be able to type for a couple hours a day instead of the amount of time he needed to write to fulfill his obligations, not to mention his desire to continue to create books.
In speaking to his mentor, he was deeply puzzled at why he was dealing with this situation - this pain. The mentor told him that perhaps this was his cross to bear.
Martin recalls that he began to weep and blurted out, "But I don't want this cross!"
I thoroughly identify with Martin on this. I hate some of the challenges and difficulties I have faced in my life and continue to face. I wish my crosses came with better padding. I wish I got to choose which difficulties I was asked to take on. Yet I often find myself being asked to bear much more than I can handle in any kind of healthy or respectable manner. (Remember, God never tells us he will give us more than we can handle. He promises we will have a way to escape temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), which is quite a different thing.)
All of this leads me to ask a question: Is there a redemptive value in suffering?
Recently, I came across a line which the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Philippi: "I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!" (Philippians 3:10 emphasis mine)
What the heck?
Why would Paul say he wants to suffer with Jesus?
I love Jesus. I would prefer to love Jesus without great pain or suffering or loss, if given the choice.
I believe Paul grasped something: that in our world, if we spend all our time trying to avoid pain, we will never be able to accomplish anything of true value.
The change Jesus introduced to our world came with great pain - the pain of the cross.
When we seek to spread the Good News of God's forgiveness through Jesus, we will encounter great pain. Now, for Paul, that included prison, beatings, being stoned, and other grave consequences. Yet, not only was it a price he was willing to pay - he wanted to pay that price in order to accomplish his goal.
You probably don't want to hand over some of your hard earned money to anyone, but when you walk into a grocery store, you fill up your cart, walk to a cashier and do exactly that. In fact, you want to give him or her your money so that you can get the result of that action - the ability to take the food home and provide for you and your family.
You want to give your money away, because you want the result.
Paul was no masochist, desiring to suffer solely for the sake of suffering. He wanted to suffer because he wanted what would come out of it. Paul believed in a Messiah who could only fulfill resurrection if he first died.
People would only hear of the fact God offered salvation and redemption if people like Paul were willing to accept the scorn and violence which would accompany this new message.
In most modern western countries, we face no danger of any persecution to share our faith in Jesus. You may tell me others will mock you, and I would respectfully point out that on twitter, I see people mocked for everything from political views to sports team allegiances to opinions on TV shows. I don't mean you should take this as carte blanche to blast others with your personal beliefs. We need more conversations around faith, and good conversations require good listeners more than good talkers.
Our suffering may be from an illness, or a bad work situation, or a dysfunctional family. Perhaps we've caused or contributed to our suffering, or perhaps it had nothing to do with us.
How can having cancer, or getting fired, or going through a divorce be part of 'paying the price to get what I want' as in my grocery store analogy?
I would submit to you that I believe God is not lying when God tells us that he is making everything new again in this world. That he will set all the wrongs to right, that injustice will have a final and permanent end.
I also believe God when he tells us that he has chosen to include us in the plan - not because he has to, but because God wants to. In order for us to be part of this process of setting things right, God has to prepare us, to mold us - to lead us into being healthier both emotionally and relationally than we would ever choose for ourselves.
To that point, Paul also wrote this, "All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 emphasis mine)
If, as I have argued, the point of our existence is to be in community with God and one another, it would be impossible to fulfill this purpose without the ability to connect to one another. Being able to comfort another person in a time of pain or hurt or sorrow creates a powerful bond.
In the times where I was able to visit someone in a hospital or in hospice care, I made connections much deeper with them and the family than I ever could have made having a nice lunch at Panera. Demonstrating care when people are are their lowest is worth more than gold.
I had the privilege of being on the receiving end of this kind of comfort and care recently (though in a situation unrelated to illness). I will treasure the kind words of my friends in those days for the rest of my life.
I have also sensed the comfort of God. I know that the next time I encounter someone who is at a low point, I will have a wealth of compassion from the love shown to me which I can draw from in order to provide comfort to that person.
I didn't want to suffer, but I do want to be able to comfort others who mourn and grieve.
I believe that the God who sent a Messiah to die on a cross instead of a Messiah who would conquer the world through force has shown us he intends to renew and restore this world not through political or military power, but through tools like suffering.
Seems like a terrible idea, right?
Yet I believe God does it this way, in part, to demonstrate it was no result of humanity's ingenuity or strength, but rather through the generosity of God.
Suffering to make all the wrongs right. It certainly doesn't add up in a logical, linear way.
Yet you and I live in a world completely revolutionized by a Messiah who died and raised from the dead, and his immediate followers who were nearly all murdered. Hospitals and universities and civil rights movements have all been dedicated to this Christ and the fulfillment of his mission.
I wish I could tell exactly you why you suffer. Why do you have that diagnosis. Why you lost that loved one. Why the most recent shooting happened. But I cannot draw some direct correlation. I do know that these things often create stronger bonds of community among people. Perhaps that is the main point.
A story told by Rabbi Paysach Krohn speaks of a father who had a boy with severe special needs, Shaya. The father asked a group of educators, if God makes everything perfect, where is the perfection in his son, who cannot understand even simple things.
As the shocked crowd remained silent, this father answered his own question. Shaya joined a local game of baseball and the other players collaborated to help him hit a homerun.
When Shaya reached home plate, they hoisted him onto their shoulders and celebrated him as the hero of the game.
The father explained that God's perfection was reached when a community of love and support was created around his son.
As a parent of a child with special needs, I find this story to be brilliant. I know some criticize it as pandering to a boy with special needs, yet I feel those criticisms are misplaced. While our society values individual identity and self dependence, I believe community is our ultimate purpose.
Suffering, I hold out to you, is designed to create community - and community will eventually, with God's empowerment, will be the vehicle to eliminate suffering.
I wish the end of this post was a list of ways to not suffer. Yet I hope you now see that such a goal would be not only impossible, but also counterproductive.
Instead, I would encourage you to connect to those who are suffering, and when you are experience it yourself, you be open with others. Allow them to form community with you in that moment.
God chooses to work in and through community, so we must accept the tools he wishes to use in order to create community. When you suffer, don't lose hope and don't lose faith. Trust in the God who has promised to make all things right. Trust that what you're dealing with isn't just wasted pain or pointless suffering.
The God of redemption and recreation has said he will use everything to complete his good plan (Romans 8:28). So trust, hope and ask for peace as you open yourself to others - especially in your hardest moments in this lifetime.