Nowhere is the power that the fear of suffering can have on faith more evident than in Matthew 16. Peter goes from being the rock on which Jesus will build his church (v. 18) to a “stumbling block” to Jesus just five short verses later. How is that possible? Because Jesus raises the ugly specter of suffering as a prerequisite for Christian discipleship.
Suffering is not my favorite thing about being a Christian. In fact, if we were to do a David Letterman top 10 list of my favorite things about being a Christian, suffering wouldn’t even be on it. I really identify with Peter when he argues with about his need to suffer and die. But Jesus’ reaction is swift and sharp. He says, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” Pretty harsh reply from Jesus, don’t you think? But maybe it’s not as nasty as it sounds if we look more carefully at that story. Jesus goes on to say, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Remember the old childhood game, follow the leader? Following requires that we get behind the leader. In elementary school, students line up behind the teacher or other designated leader to go everywhere; it’s what followers do. Jesus is just reminding Peter (and us) of where we need to be. We need to get behind our leader, and this leader that we profess to follow, whose name we claim as Christians, makes it clear over and over again that cross bearing is part of what we have signed on for at our baptism. It’s in the fine print!
For Christians, suffering goes with the territory, unless we want to give up the reward for genuine suffering, which is eternal life here and forever. In Romans 8, Paul says, “We suffer with Christ so that we may be glorified with him.” But we still wish it wasn’t so, don’t we?
Four years ago some members of my church gathered with other Christians on Good Friday for an annual ecumenical Cross Walk. They process silently down the main street of Dublin, Ohio carrying a large wooden cross. This community witness has been going on for years and all was well on Good Friday 2007 until the group realized that the communication about who was responsible for supplying the cross had broken down. They were ready for the Cross Walk but had no cross with which to walk. So one of the members of my church had to make a hasty trip to the church to get the cross. After a few broken speed laws, the walk proceeded a few minutes later than planned.
When I first heard that story, I said, “That’ll preach!” Wouldn’t we love to have Easter without the suffering and pain of Good Friday, the garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal and denial that broke Jesus’ heart long before the executioners broke his body? I would. I am not a fan of the no-pain-no-gain school for either exercise or theology. If there is an easier way to get in shape than sweating and having sore muscles, I’m all over it. And if someone can find an easy path to salvation, I’ll be the tour guide. But, oops, there’s that nasty verse in the Sermon on the Mount, (Mt. 7:13-14) that says the wide easy freeway leads to destruction, and that’s the one without the cross. That’s the one most people choose, because it looks easier and lots more fun in the short run. But when it comes to matters of faith, don’t we want to focus on goals and consequences for eternity, not just the path of least resistance for today?
There are different kinds of suffering, and some are easier to deal with than others. First, and easiest in some ways, is the kind of suffering we bring upon ourselves. Charlie Sheen comes to mind as one of this year’s nominees in that category. Tiger Woods was last year unanimous winner. You can think of other nominees, less famous ones, perhaps, and if we’re honest we could all be on that list at one time or another. The difference for most of us is that we aren’t celebrities. Our screw ups usually don’t show up the CBS Evening News or in big bold tabloid headlines for the world to read in the checkout line at Kroger’s. But that doesn’t mean they are any less painful or hard to live with. Mistakes have consequences which mean they usually hurt us and/or other people, and hurting is a form of suffering. We all make bad choices, it goes with our free will that none of us want to give up. We make bad choices that impact our health. We drive when we are distracted by electronic gadgets or when our judgment isn’t 100%. We say things in anger that we regret and break promises to people we love. We give into worldly pressure to succeed or cut corners, knowing we’re violating our own values. We may get away with it for awhile, or think we have, but sooner or later, our chickens come home to roost and we suffer.
That kind of suffering is very painful and hard to deal with, in part because there’s no one else to blame but ourselves; but at least self-inflicted suffering makes some sense. We can understand where it comes from and why.
The second type of suffering makes less sense to me. We only have to remember the heart-wrenching images of the Tsunami in Japan to feel the suffering of innocent, helpless people, thousands of them, minding their own business one minute and suddenly swept up in what looked like a science fiction movie about the end of the world the next. The nuclear fallout, pun intended, adds insult to injury when we think about the irony of the only nation ever victimized by nuclear weapons now, 66 years later, experiencing the ravages of the worst nuclear accident in world history. Sure, you could make a case for putting that suffering up in category number one. Building nuclear reactors is risky business at best, and God help us if we don’t understand that now, but to build them in earthquake and tsunami territory, is highly questionable, as hind sight so clearly shows us.
But I digress, suffering type number 2 is the kind caused by natural disasters or criminal attacks, or lung cancer in someone who has never smoked a cigarette– the kind for which there is no justification or cause we can find. Innocent children who are physically or emotionally or sexually abused. Faithful spouses who are cheated on, taken advantage of and left with nothing to sustain life. You get the picture.
This is a good place to clarify what suffering isn’t. Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami, the governor of Tokyo made a public pronouncement that he believed this disaster was divine retribution on the people of Japan for their greed. This gentleman is a follower of the Shinto religion, and I have no knowledge whatsoever of what Shinto theology is. I do know there are those in most religions who resort to blaming God when we can’t figure any other way to justify or explain why bad things happen. Christianity is not exempt from such bad theology. We all remember the Christian preachers who claimed that hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast a few years ago because of the sin and wickedness of the Big Easy.
Please understand, I’m not saying actions don’t have consequences or that sin doesn’t cause suffering – those things are built into the natural order of things. But that does not mean that the loving God I know and worship would kick people when they’re down by saying “Gotcha” or “Take that, sinner” over the broken and shattered ruins of a devastated life or city or nation. When we need God’s comfort and strength and presence the very most, in times of tragedy and loss and despair, would God choose that time to teach us a lesson? NO, that is the time that Emmanuel, God with us, carries us and comforts us. When we suffer, God is close enough to taste the salt of our tears.
Now, I know we can find plenty of places in the Bible where we are told that God punishes sinners with plagues and boils and hell fire and damnation, and we need to deal with that problem head on. The Bible was written over centuries by many different authors who were trying to answer the hardest questions and mysteries of life. Those who experienced God in their suffering as punitive and judgmental wrote about that experience, and almost all of them did so without the benefit of knowing Jesus Christ, the best revelation possible for embracing our loving, forgiving, grace-full God.
We need to remind ourselves that many Jews who wrote their Bible, our Old Testament, also knew the loving, merciful side of God. That compassionate part of God’s nature had just not come into clear focus for them as it did in the incarnation of God in Jesus. We sometimes forget that many of the most beloved images of God – like the good shepherd of Psalm 23, come from the Hebrew Scriptures. The very essence of Jesus’ teaching, the great commandments to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself come straight from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18.
To go a big step further, Christians believe that suffering is not just a necessary evil but actually a positive quality of Christian life. Romans 5:3-4 says we even boast about our suffering, not because of some masochistic streak, but because suffering produces endurance, character and hope. It’s fairly easy to see how the first two kinds of suffering, self-inflicted and undeserved, can build endurance and maybe character, but what about hope? We need a 3rd kind of suffering to understand how it builds Hope, and that is what followers of Jesus do when we voluntarily take on suffering as an act of sacrificial compassion.
The reason Christians embrace and even boast about suffering, and the reason Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him, is that com-passion is essential to the Christian faith. The word “compassion” comes from two Greek words that mean to suffer with. Compassion is the kind of love Jesus came to teach and live. Compassion is the love we feel for neighbors and enemies we don’t even know, simply because we share a common human condition. Compassion is what we feel for the Japanese because we identify and empathize with them and share their suffering as fellow members of the human family. We feel their pain because, as one of my students told me recently, God doesn’t have grandchildren – just children; so our fellow human beings are not cousins once or twice removed, but are siblings – brothers and sisters together with Christ.
Compassion is a key to God’s very nature. Why else would God allow Jesus to suffer and die for us while we are yet sinners? When John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus – that’s compassion and empathy to the max. God becomes one of us in human form to share our existence, including our suffering.
Understanding Christian suffering as compassion helps us overcome the stumbling block that suffering and the cross can be. Just as Jesus labels Peter’s resistance to suffering as a stumbling block, Paul describes the cross as a stumbling block for prospective Christians in I Corinthians 1:23. Our aversion to pain and suffering is a natural component of that stumbling block, but mistakenly blaming God for our suffering only compounds the problem.
One unfortunate way this happens is when the suffering of Jesus on the cross is portrayed as a necessary sacrifice or punishment required by God for the sins of the world. A prime example of that theology was Mel Gibson’s awful 2004 film, “The Passion of Christ.” A God who would intentionally inflict that kind of brutal suffering on his own son is not one I want to follow. But when we experience the cross of Christ as an act of compassion and sacrificial love, that kind of suffering is much easier to embrace and to imitate in our own lives.
The suffering of the cross for Jesus is an example writ large about how a person of faith handles suffering. Jesus doesn’t repay evil for evil; he doesn’t lash out in violent anger when he is suffering. He continues to live life in harmony with the will of God, bearing the ultimate suffering in love, compassion and forgiveness – staying true to the way of love which is the essence of life and of God. How can we follow Christ’s example and take on the suffering of life with character and hope? Paul says, “Hope does not disappoint us [even in the worst of times] because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) We can’t line up behind Jesus and follow his lead, but God living in us can.
The cross is both a symbol of suffering and hope, because if Jesus’ life ended on Good Friday, suffering would be the final fate of human kind. Death would define our existence. But hold the phone; we know the rest of this story. For those who don’t give up and leave the ball game when the score looks hopeless, there is good news. As post-resurrection people we already know that suffering and death are not the final chapter in our story. Thanks be to God’s ultimate, victorious will, we can endure suffering and even embrace it because we know it builds our character and makes us people of hope with Easter in our eyes.
Many years ago I did a funeral service for an elderly woman who had been in a great marriage for over 50 years. The loss of his life-long companion was very painful for her husband, Walter, but her death was also a release from weeks of suffering from the cancer that killed her. A few days after the funeral I stopped by to visit with Walter and I asked him how he was doing. I’ll never forget his reply. He said, “Steve, I’m doing OK. I miss Myrtle terribly, but I know she’s in a better place now; so I’m smiling through my tears.”
We boast in our suffering because it is a sign of love and compassion that we voluntarily embrace as the way and truth and life of the one we are proud to call our leader – the one we take up our crosses and follow, smiling through the tears of sacrificial suffering and compassion.