Sunday, 18 August 2013

Suffering and faith?

This is the last “Stump the Preacher” topic and I think it’s taken me most of the summer to wrap my head around it. Why is being seen as longsuffering framed as noble or a good or a mark of faithful living? It is not an easy question especially on a day we celebrate baptism. Somehow over the years since Jesus first taught we’ve glorified suffering. It comes out in a variety of ways. I’m guessing you’ve probably heard it “God doesn’t it give you any more than you can handle.” I usually hear it when people are trying to comfort someone who I grieving or are experiencing a difficult time and usually follows right on the heals of this is a part of God’s plan.

            They are loaded statements and every time I hear it, I quietly cry out, “No, no, no” I know it is said with the best of intentions – to remind people that they can get through whatever they are going through and that there is a bigger picture. But here is the problem. Some people do have more than they can handle. Sometimes it can seem like there is no reason to have hope. It reminds me of the lyrics of one of Pink’s songs, she sings “Just give me a reason. Just a little bits enough. Just a second we’re not broken just bent. And we can learn to love again.”  Sometimes we are bent and we can learn to love and live again. And sometimes people are broken by life’s circumstances and they have more than they can handle. They don’t know how to get through so turn to things like drugs, alcohol, gambling, food or whatever helps to numb the pain of their current reality. Life can be hard and terrible unfair.

But maybe worse than the fact that sometimes people do have more than they can handle is the notion that God sits up there in the great heavenly realm accessing who can handle what level of suffering. It makes it seem like God gives us the suffering as some kind of test of our faithfulness. I refuse to believe that God says, “I think Miriam needs a little test of her faithfulness so I’m going to dole out a little tragedy here.”  If the God who gives his very life for us, the one who loves us more than we can imagine takes the time to plan out what kinds of suffering people can handle, then I do not believe. God just does not work that way.

            Another and perhaps more sinister way the idea that suffering is something that shows faithfulness comes out in the council that is given to people in abusive relationships. The argument goes something like this Christ suffered on the cross, so you must suck it up and suffer because Christ suffered for you. So stay where you are – don’t leave. Just accept this as a part of life. Doesn’t it just make you cringe that the God who loves us can be used to inflict such harm?

            Talk to anyone whose walked through the valley of pain and they will tell you suffering is not noble or great. So how did we as a church get to the place where somehow suffering is equal to great faith? Some of it stems from interpretations the writings of St. Paul. We heard readings from two of his letters. He writes, “And not only that, but we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has given been given to us.” (Romans 5:3- 5)

            Over the years somehow we’ve taken Paul boasting in his suffering which produces endurance, that endurance produces character and character produces hope to mean that suffering is a mark of faithfulness. Context is everything.  Hope was in short supply for Paul and his fellow Christians. They lived in a time when Christianity was in its infancy and the Christian community had to gather in secret to avoid being persecuted. Paul spent time in prison for his faith. If he was not a Christian he would not have found himself in this place of suffering. So Paul encouraged the Christian community to hold fast to their faith even though the present is bleak. He writes, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38 – 39)

            As church we’ve distorted Paul’s words and taken things like, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) to mean that our suffering is somehow expected or God given. Paul was pretty clear that God’s wish for us is abundant life – filled with God’s love.

            We live in different times. We do not know what it is like to have to defend our faith as Paul did. But we do know what it is like to encounter life’s tragedies – to be bent and sometimes even broken. Great suffering does not mean we have greater faith. Suffering is a part of all human life. It is not noble or good or a sign of faith. The gift of faith is that when pain comes, and it comes to us all at some point in our lives, we are not alone as we find a way to put one foot in front of another.

God loves us parent teaching a toddler to walk. It says in our reading from Hosea “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” (Hosea 11:3 – 4) God loves us tenderly like a parent steadying us in the midst of chaos, holding our hand and wiping our tears when we fall. God’s wish for is, is the wish that parents have for their children – to be blessed with all good things. As Paul said, there is nothing on earth or in heaven that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen


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