Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope. Even though this winter has been mild I figure having lived through 77 Ohio winters; I should be one of the most hopeful characters in captivity.
Suffering is not my favorite thing about being a Christian. In fact, if we were to do a top 10 list of my favorite things about being a Christian, suffering wouldn’t even be on it. I really identify with the Disciple Peter who argues with Jesus in Mark 8 when Peter tries to talk Jesus out of his need to suffer and die, remember what Jesus says to him – “Get behind me Satan, you re on the side of men not of God?” Pretty harsh reply from Jesus, don’t you think. But if we look more carefully at that story Jesus goes on to say, “take up your cross and follow me…” you see, following requires that we line up behind the leader. Remember those days in elementary school when you lined up to go everywhere, 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.
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? When I first heard a story about a Good Friday cross walk several years ago when the faithful from several churches gathered in Dublin, Ohio for their walk and realized they had no cross with which to walk, I said, “That’ll preach!” Wouldn’t we love to have Easter without the suffering and pain of Good Friday and the Garden of Gethsemane? –the betrayal and denial that break Jesus’ heart long before the executioners break his body?
I would. I am not a fan of the” no pain no gain” school of 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, 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 for today?
There are different kinds of suffering, and some are easier to explain or to deal with than others. First, and easiest in some ways, is the kind of suffering we bring upon ourselves. Kanye West and Will Smith come to mind as two of this year’s nominees in that category. Or anyone who was injured trying to take a selfie in a dangerous place? 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 on channel 10 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; we break promises to people we love. We give into worldly pressure to succeed or cut corners, knowing we’re violating our own values, and 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 we know 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. It’s been 12 years now, but I still remember the heart-wrenching and horrifying images of the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. Innocent, helpless people, thousands of them, minding their own business one minute who were suddenly swept up in what looked like science fiction movie about the end of the world the next. Or name any mass shooting or the inhumane brutality of Putin’s now year old war on Ukraine. 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 satisfying explanation. 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 2011 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 or believes. I do know there are those tempted in most religions to resort to blaming God for things when we can’t figure any other way to justify or explain why bad things happen. Christianity is not exempt from such bad theology, and I remember there were Christian preachers who claimed that hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast in 2005 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 are 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 us to taste the salt of our tears.
Now, I know you 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. Even in our text for today Paul says we need to be saved from the wrath of God. The Bible was written over centuries by lots of 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, who is the best revelation possible for the loving, forgiving, grace-full God we have come to know and love through Jesus.
We need to remind ourselves that the Jews who wrote their Bible, which we call the Old Testament, also knew the loving, merciful side of God, too. 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’ human form. We sometimes forget that most of our great images of God, like the good shepherd of Psalm 23, or God as a mother hen gathering her chicks about her all come from the Hebrew Scriptures. The essence of Jesus’ teaching, for example the Great Commandments to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself are straight from the book of Deuteronomy.
Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance, character and hope. We can see how these first two kinds of suffering can build endurance and maybe character, but what about hope? We need a third kind of suffering to build 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, as Paul describes it, is that com-passion is essential to the Christian faith, and 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 people of Ukraine because we identify and empathize with them and share their suffering as fellow members of the human family. God doesn’t have grandchildren – just children – so our fellow human beings are not cousins once or twice removed, but are all our 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 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.
The cross of Jesus is often misunderstood as a necessary sacrifice or punishment for the sins of the world, but when we experience the cross of Christ as an act of compassion and sacrificial love it 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.” We can’t do it, 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. “Suffering produces endurance and character and hope, and hope does not disappoint.” For those who don’t give up and leave the ball game when the score looks hopeless, there is good news. We’ll experience that in its fullness in a few weeks on Easter morning, but for those of us fortunate to be post-resurrection people we already know that suffering and death are not the final chapter in our story. Thanks 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.