"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Suffering Unto Death – Final

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Lent 1, 5 March 2017, SJE ©2017 Job 1:8-22, Ps 32, John 9:1-7 (preaching series pain and the abundant life)

Our second sermon in the series on pain and suffering and abundant life.  This is a journey all about theodicy, the question of the justice of God, and today were addressing why there is suffering in the world. There is also a question of the blessing of pain that I’ll speak to in a few weeks’ time in the series.

I’ve mentioned several times in this community that pain is a particularly ever-present aspect of my existence.  My departure from the military 14 years ago was the result of a motor vehicle accident that left me with chronic nerve damage in my lower back, resulting in chronic pain, for about 18 years in total.  I literally cannot remember the last time in my life when I was not in some sort of pain.  I’ve spent much time reflecting on the experience of pain, and the experience of suffering as a result of that pain.  I will not hold myself up as an expert as I have not mastered this – I still get down, sometimes despair, rail against God and others, but I will share some of the insight I have gained walking that road.

I need to kill one sacred cow right up front: any discussion about pain and suffering that attempts to demonstrate that a person suffers as the punishment for sin is not something that is grounded in Christ.  This is not to say our choices do not have consequences – the excessive use of alcohol will ultimately result in liver problems.  But, to ascribe a personal tragedy to God’s judgement is frankly contrary to the New Testament.  We hear this clearly through the Gospel today.  The disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Their world view is explicit in that question as there is no room for other possibilities.  The man was born blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin.  If you think about that, how is such a thing even possible – did he sin before birth that he could be born blind?  The disciple’s world view can only conceive of such a disability as the consequence of an offense against The Law.  Jesus puts that to rest by stating clearly that the blindness has nothing to do with sin.

If you remember nothing else from this bit of narrative remember this: our pain and suffering is not inflicted on us as punishment.  This is a refrain hospital chaplains hear constantly, “I don’t know what I did to make God so angry with me.”  Don made this clear last week as he spoke about how the ‘why’ of pain can only be answered by a return to the first principles of the Old Testament, and the point at which creation becomes corrupted resulting in the introduction of suffering.  Now, while God does not inflict suffering, He will certainly make use of it – as Christ continues to say, this man was born blind so that God’s kingdom could be made manifest.  Any suffering will absolutely be used by Almighty God in order to make the works of God apparent.  The pain of a believer is ultimately a tool of evangelism which convicts a dark world.

One of the particular facets of modernity and post-modernity is the manner in which we approach such questions.  CS Lewis, in his book, God in the Dock, points out that ancient man approached God as a criminal might approach a judge in court, with fear and trembling.  There has been a shift with modernity, as we now see ourselves as the judge, and constantly make assessments on how God is failing to meet our expectations of the way He should behave.  God is in the dock, that is, the accused’s chair in the court of the culture.  Our expectation is that God owes us an explanation for everything we wonder about, and so our first response when faced with pain and suffering is to ask the question, “Why God?” Why me?  Why this? Why now? And inevitably, “What have I done to deserve this?”  These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in the face of pain, mostly because the answers tend to lead to more pain.  If we trace the lineage of suffering back to Genesis, the answer to pain rests in the actions that led to a fallen world.  Pain and suffering are not a part of the intended design of the creation, but they were admitted into our reality through the fall of humankind.  The reality downstream of those distant actions is that suffering is a part of the fabric of reality and a part of every person’s life.  The explanation is already there, and to ask the question of God about a particular personal context is nearly meaningless.

Now, our understanding of the ‘why’ of pain is corrupted by the cultural perception of pain and suffering.  Stated directly, first world culture has no understanding of pain and suffering beyond the imperative to eliminate them.  The enduring message of the Enlightenment is that science, and particularly medical science, will eventually solve all problems.  Our attitude to pain is to find the quickest way to remove it, which can be done a variety of ways: pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise; alcohol or other licit or illicit drugs; extreme sports; overwork; sexual addictions, and the list goes on, to find anything that removes our need to deal with pain.  This is a modern understanding of pain.

When you look at the development of western society, it was not that long ago that things like infant mortality and disease caused much higher rates of death. Walk through the infants section of an old cemetery sometime, it’s shocking.  People in earlier times, and not much earlier times, lived in the reality that there was frequent widowing, frequent death of children, and frequent death of siblings.  A second change has been the institutionalizing of suffering and dying, as it was not long ago that an ill family member would be cared for in the home, and palliative cases were almost always a family affair. We have been fleeing suffering for decades.

‘Why?’ is the wrong question to ask and it’s also the wrong way around.  A better question to ask is, “Why am I not suffering more?”  “Why not me Lord?”  Suffering is the default setting of the creation and so it is unusual to be free of pain – painlessness is the exceptional condition.  We have come to expect this as a right in the first world, as we are usually successfully oblivious to the reality that most of the world does not live the way we do.

Our first world right to be free from suffering is not really about pain but about control. The worst thing you can do to a first world dweller is to take away their sense of control.  In an article in the Miami Herald about physician assisted suicide laws the author states that the use of the law was not primarily the result of fear of pain. Rather, it is because they fear the loss of control more than anything, and so the final act of self-determination, the final proclamation of control, is to choose the time and manner of one’s death. In Oregon and Washington 90% of those who opted for hastened death under the new law did so because of the fear of loss of autonomy.  This pathological fixation with control is really a first world aspect but it is not new. The lie of control took the Israelites 40 years to unlearn, as set out in Deuteronomy 8:3, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” It is a lesson that we need to learn anew repeatedly, and one of the ways we learn that lesson is through suffering.

Theologian Ephraim Radner highlights this when he observes that today the absence of Jesus in the discussion about suffering and pain obscures the truth and, “That should tell us something about our vocation in the midst of a culture that, feeling the pain everyone feels, can only seek to destroy it, even if it means destroying the life that bears it.” The idea that pain may have benefit is a culturally heretical thought, because there is nothing in modern western culture that is prepared to accept that there is any possible benefice in the question of pain.  We have a huge pharmaceutical industry that bases much research on trying to answer the question of happiness, or at least freedom from suffering, with chemicals. This is because the world sees naught in suffering except waste and despair, and a major focus of the modern world is the ending of pain by any means possible.

A different ‘why?’ question of more use is why is there suffering in God’s broken, but very good creation?  CS Lewis does a marvelous job outlining this in his book, The Problem with Pain. It has to do with the gift of free-will, and the reality that pain and pleasure exist as a result of freedom, freedom which tells us something of God’s love, but even more about us. Why does freedom cause suffering? Because freedom allows us to choose to do evil over good, and this tells us far more about humanity than about God. Humanity is in need of a remedial or corrective good, which continuously points us back to the direction we are intended, by design to be heading.  Lewis writes these truly awful but startlingly true words, “…pain insists on being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (91) So pain exists at least partly because it has a corrective effect.

An example offered by Lewis is the narrative of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Issac. If God is omnipotent, would he have not already known Abraham would decide to go through with the sacrifice? So could the whole unpleasant thing have been skipped over, saving us the pain of trying to understand such a story?  Lewis quotes Augustine in answering that challenge by noting that the test was not to prove something to God, but so that Abraham would learn that his obedience could endure such a command. (101) Such suffering is not good in of itself, but this does not stop the suffering from being turned to the good by God.

The real question which pain should prompt us to ask is: ‘who?’  Writer George MacDonald set this out clearly in one of his unspoken sermons, “The Consuming Fire” when he notes that, “[The Son of God] suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection.” This is the focus we learn throughout Scripture, and it is key to being able to deal with pain and suffering in our lives, for it places those nasty realities in a framework which allows some comprehension of the purpose for pain in the creation.  The lesson: we should expect suffering as a part of life, and particularly as a part of a life of faith.

This moves us from the unhelpful ‘why?’ question to the critical question of ‘who?’  There is only one answer needed to the question of suffering in the world, and that answer is Christ upon the.  Who has already suffered cosmically for the entirety of the brokenness of creation past, present and future?  Jesus.  Who has already born the spiritual, emotional and physical pain to the greatest extreme possible?  Jesus.  Who has already born all of our personal pain of all kinds?  Jesus.  The answer to the question is contained entirely in God the Father’s answer to the Son’s cry on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  The answer to that question is silence, as all the pain possible in us and the entire creation is poured onto Christ.  Our answer to the question of suffering is Jesus, for we do not stand alone. (this is from Barry Parker’s sermon on the same subject, noted below)

We are called to model the radically different approach to reality.  It is one of the things that should make non-believers see us as lunatics, in that we not only acknowledge and embrace suffering and pain, but also that we ultimately at the core of our faith celebrate such things.  We understand that suffering is a part of the reality not only because of Don’s explanation from Genesis, but also because of the New Testament teaching, for example in Romans: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  This groaning is a normal part of the creation, and particularly for Christians because we know what the ultimate destination for the creation looks like.  And we know that God helps us in that suffering creation because Paul goes on in Romans to tell us that, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”  Our suffering is brought constantly before God in the groanings of the Spirit. Literally, as we lay in a hospital bed groaning in physical pain, and our loved ones standing around that bed also groan in emotional pain, the Spirit translates our groaned prayers into spiritual prayers that are too deep for words.  This is the first point of consolation in a Christian understanding of suffering, that we know God is present and experiencing our suffering along with us.  So those times when all you can do is “roll with the blast” of suffering and death (Mountain Goats), you know that God is with you.

Jesus dies, and leaves for three days.  Then he returns to the family he left, the disciples, and greets them with the peace of God (John 20:19).  This forms a model for us, and follows what intense suffering can feel like: a descent into hell, but for the Christian that is always balanced by the giving of the Peace of Christ.  In this we stand alongside Job, who also provides a model for us.  What struck me out of that reading was the physical impact of the arrival of each of the messengers, for I can remember times like that when you dread the next ring of the phone because of what it might bring.  Job tears his garments, and immediately we’re told, “20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and [and did what? Wept? moaned? no, Job] worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.””  Is it not amazing that Job’s first response after being told that all his herds, all his wealth, all his children are all gone or dead, is to fall to the ground not in despair, but to worship.

The problem of the world’s approach to suffering is that it attempts to understand the question without the fellow-sufferer of Christ.  This is the reason that an end to suffering is sought at any cost, even if that cost is destruction of the life that bears it.  Suffering bereft of Jesus has no meaning, no context, and no possible solace or succor when the wonders of science finally fail, as they always will.  Those who take God out of suffering have removed the only real source of relief.  This is why one writer can say with confidence that “The loveliest thing in the whole world is the Hill where Jesus died.” (V McNabb, 3)

What does a God who deals squarely with the question of suffering look like?  Author Tullian Tchividjian answers the question this way: “So what would a God who was present in suffering look like? First and foremost, He would be a God who suffers Himself. Maybe even dies. A God who meets people in their suffering rather than on the other side of it.”

It is this perspective that keeps me going through chronic pain, because I can always turn to the example of fellow-suffers.  So like Job, sometimes I can tear my clothes but then fall to the floor to worship the Almighty.  Like Jesus, in my loneliness of the Garden moment, I can pray to ‘take this cup away’ but also comes the critical balancing statement, ‘not my will, but thy will be done’.  And even when I feel that it is all ending – those cross moments – I know that the three days of darkness and death are always balanced with “My peace I bring, my peace I leave with you.”

Let us pray, “May God grant us, in the hour of suffering, whatever it may be, the consolation of accepting it and of having thereby the reassurance that we love Him.  May we love Him not just in the day, lest it be the day we love rather than Himself; not just in health, lest it be health of limb we love; but when the night of darkness and pain comes to limb or mind, may we think of His wounded limbs and His sufferings, and then, in our love, our suffering will seem but little to accept beside His.” Amen.  (Fr V McNabb, p 6)


My most recent blog post on pain, identity and indigenous life.

Most excellent article on pain by Ephraim Radner – certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.  Anyone talking about physician-assisted suicide should read this, “That should tell us something about our vocation in the midst of a culture that, feeling the pain everyone feels, can only seek to destroy it, even if it means destroying the life that bears it.” http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/02/15/the-craft-of-suffering/

CS Lewis’ equally excellent book, The Problem of Pain.  This, along with A Grief Observed, set out Lewis’ theology of suffering, and then how he lived it after the premature death of his wife, Joy.

A book (just arrived yesterday) mentioned in Radner’s article, The Craft of Suffering, Fr Vincent McNabb.  This was published in 1936, and I had to go to a used bookstore in the UK to find a reasonably priced copy.  Most interesting thing that Radner expands on is McNabb’s use of the idea that suffering is a craft which must be learned by the Christian.

A book titled, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, by Tullian Tchividjian.  Barry Parker quotes from this author when he says that in the crucible of trial we find the bareness of why or the grace of who. “So what would a God who was present in suffering look like? First and foremost, He would be a God who suffers Himself. Maybe even dies. A God who meets people in their suffering rather than on the other side of it.”

This series was conceived and first preached at St Paul’s Bloor St, Toronto.  Their sermons are marvelous, preached some by our own Barry Parker.  http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermons  This particular series is available: http://www.stpaulsbloor.org/sermon-series/path-through-suffering Podcast subscription too.

Some thoughts in exchange with a dear coworker over the question of suffering after we read Radner’s article.  Her thought, “When it comes down to it, we’re all in pain, whether it’s physically or mentally.  The bible says that nature itself is in pain, just waiting to be reborn.” “The mentality upheld by a startlingly large amount of people is that any life that is less than perfect is not a life worth living.  It’s been very apparent in the whole ‘vaccine debate,’ where a bunch of Facebook MD’s spout poison that equates a life with autism as worse than a life risked by a slew of fatal and totally preventable diseases.”

Scriptures appointed: Job 1:8-22, Job loses everything, literally. Psalm 32John 9:1-7, Healing of a man born blind, ‘who sinned, he or his parents?

Groaning creation. Romans 8:  18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[g] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[h] for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

And guess what God’s response to a groaning creation and groaning believers might be?  The Spirit groans along with us, putting to voice things too deep to be spoken.

And if your reaction to the idea that suffering is redeemed in Christ, and has purpose, indeed is crucial in the life of a person of faith, to the extent that if you don’t see suffering as a path to holiness, you can’t develop as a Christian. Read 1 Corinthians 1 “18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

We are fundamentally engaging a question of mystery and ambiguity.  Listen to Steve Bell’s redition of a Gord Johnson song, “Embrace the Mystery”.  http://stevebell.com/product/devotion/ and a reflection written by a priest friend, Jamie Howison: http://stbenedictstable.ca/2009/10/a-song-and-a-story/

Interesting article in the Miami Herald about PAS – it’s mostly white, well to do that are using the law in the USA.  They have always been in control of their lives, and seek to extend that to death.  It’s all about control, and much less about pain control.  http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article111472797.html   Boy, that’s telling, given that the pro-PAS rhetoric is all about ‘intractable suffering’.

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, First Series, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/macdonald/unspoken1.pdf “the face of the Son of God, who, instead of accepting the sacrifice of one of his creatures to satisfy his justice or support his dignity, gave himself utterly unto them, and therein to the Father by doing his lovely will; who suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection;”

Finally, one of the best songs about dying I’ve ever heard from The Mountain Goats, Matthew 25:21. https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3530822107858795051/

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Written by sameo416

March 4, 2017 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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