"Honoring Our Suffering," by Zachary Helton
Indeed, I consider the sufferings of the present to be nothing compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. All creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God. Creation was subjected to transience and futility, not of its own accord, but because of the One who subjected it—in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to corruption and would come to share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that from the beginning until now, all of creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth. And not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the Spirit—we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free. In hope we were saved. But hope is not hope if its object is seen; why does one hope for what one sees? And hoping for what we cannot see means awaiting it with patient endurance. The Spirit, too, comes to help us in our weakness. For we don’t know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit expresses our plea with groanings too deep for words. And God, who knows everything in our hearts, knows perfectly well what the Spirit is saying, because her intercessions for God’s holy people are made according to the mind of God. We know that God makes everything work together for the good of those who love God and have been called according to God’s purpose. They are the ones God chose long ago, predestined to share the image of the Only Begotten, in order that Christ might be the firstborn of many. Those God predestined have likewise been called; those God called have also been justified; and those God justified have, in turn, been glorified. What should be our response? Simply this: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Since God did not spare the Only Begotten, but gave Christ up for the sake of us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that God will freely give us everything. Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? Since God is the One who justifies, who has the power to condemn? Only Christ Jesus, who died—or rather, was raised—and sits at the right hand of God, and who now intercedes for us! What will separate us from the love of Christ? Trouble? Calamity? Persecution? Hunger? Nakedness? Danger? Violence? As scripture says, “For your sake, we’re being killed all day long; we’re looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.” Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of God who has loved us. For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither heights nor depths—nor anything else in all creation—will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior.
This is one of our sacred teachings, Thanks be to God.
Hello friends. This morning, I had a sermon prepared that was a bit more polished, but in light of some of our more recent conversations, I’m afraid I scrapped it at the last minute and, instead, wrote you a letter. It’s not as refined, but I hope that what it lacks in polish it makes up for in sincerity.
We hear you. We hear that you are hurting. Every time we talk, it uncovers some new story of disappointment, some new grief and previously unknown level of suffering. I hear stories of cancelled plans, of uncertain futures, of financial fear, of a sense of meaninglessness creeping in… I hear stories of an inability to get off the couch or look away from the television, and we’re coming to terms with the fact that this won’t be over anytime soon. I hear you, and I feel you.
And before we move on to do anything with that or talk about anything else, I want to say this clearly, just in case you need to hear it: There’s nothing wrong with you. As Viktor Frankl writes, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” There have been quick, extraordinary shifts on the landscapes of our lives, and in many cases things are not okay – so don’t say that they are. Contrary to what our culture tries to sell us, it’s okay to feel pain and disappointment. It’s okay not to be okay. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Christ teaches, “for they shall be comforted.” In other words, only those willing to risk mourning, those willing to allow their feelings and the world’s pain to move them to grief, will find comfort. Everyone else, he implies, is trapped.
It seems obvious that we should be feeling our feelings, but believe me, it’s not. Our mind tells us lies – that the feelings will drown us, that we have no right to complain when others have it worse off, but the wisdom of our tradition tells us differently. We do not come from a people who shy away from their suffering, a people who ignore it or give easy, pat answers to get around it. Our tradition is one that has in its most sacred hymnal:
My God, my God,
Why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far away,
so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
I cry all day, my God, but you never answer;
I call all night long, and sleep deserts me…
Our tradition is one that feels the permission to honestly cry out:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
…All things are wearisome;
more than one can express…
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun…
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
These are not the words of a people who shy away from their suffering, even when those feelings feel like death.
We are suffering, Northminster, but let me ask you a question. What does suffering mean? Really? In the story that you tell about life, what is the role of suffering? Dr. Victor Frankl, who I quoted earlier, having survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, came to write that life is not, primarily, a quest for pleasure or for power, but a quest for meaning. Suffering in and of itself may be meaningless, but in the context of a bigger story, in the way we respond to it, we give it meaning. “If there is meaning in life at all,” he writes, “then there must be meaning in [our] suffering.”
I mean, surely you don’t really buy our culture’s narrative that life is about pleasure or escape, right? We only need to look around at those who have bought into this story to see where it goes – to see how quickly it robs us of joy and makes us slaves to distraction. So if you don’t believe that, then what is life about?
Think about your favorite story for a minute. It can be a sacred story, a movie, a book, or a story from your own life. Just think of one. Consider for a second how the story starts and how it unfolds – where the main character is by the end. Surely there is some level of suffering involved, right? What would the story be without it? Where was the suffering? What did it accomplish? What does it mean? Or, if, in your example, there is no redemption, why? What could it have accomplished, and what got in the way?
In the years after Christ was killed and his followers began to face persecution, The Apostle Paul joined their ranks, and began to taste the suffering this marginalized group had been experiencing. At some point in his ministry, he wrote a long, incredible letter to the church in Rome, in the belly of the beast that had killed Christ. I know, whenever someone starts to read from Romans, it’s easy to get lost in the theological baggage the church dumped on our shoulders, but I’d like to offer a paraphrase which I hope will cut through some of that baggage so we can hear it fresh. This is what Paul says about the universal experience of suffering:
All around us, creation is pregnant with goodness, but just like a pregnant woman, we can’t yet see what is growing. So when we see and experience the pain and the suffering, those experiences aren’t meaningless – they are the labor pains that come on the cusp of new life. We yearn for this new life, we feel the pain of waiting, but the waiting does not diminish us any more than it diminishes an expecting mother.
The waiting and the suffering are difficult, and we don’t often know what we really need to survive it, but that’s okay. Within the Temple of our Hearts resides the Spirit of God, and she knows exactly what we need. She yearns within us with sighs too deep for words, sighs that we can only hear and make our own in the silence. If we listen, though, to her yearning, and we surrender to her call, then all things work together for our good. All suffering, all experiences become the raw material for the sculpting of something good and beautiful – no exceptions.
Since the foundations of the earth were laid, this is what life has been about! This is what it means to be human! It is about surrendering to that Spirit so that through whatever comes our way, she can mold and shape us into the image of Christ. We look to Christ as the first in a family of resurrected humanity, a family into which every single one of us have been invited.
So then, what are we to say to suffering? If this is the nature of the game of life, then how can we lose? If even the suffering and death of Christ could be worked into something good and beautiful through the Spirit… if suffering itself is the way into aliveness… then what could possibly destroy us? What do we have left to be afraid of? What can work against us? Trouble? Distress? Oppression? Famine? Shame? No! In the Spirit each of these things lead us towards life and victory.
If that’s the case, then I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from the joy and peace of the Spirit. Not death or life, angels or rulers, not things present nor things future, not powers, not height or depth, nor anything else in all creation could ever separate us from the Loving, redeeming work of God.
Northminster, I wonder if any of what Paul wrote speaks to your suffering? Speaks to that yearning to be born in and around you?
In Buddhism, suffering is known as the First Noble Truth, because they acknowledge that it is only through suffering that transformation is possible. “Without suffering, you cannot grow,” writes Thich Naht Hanh, a Buddhist master who grew up in the midst of the violence of the Vietnam war. He writes, “Without suffering, you cannot get the peace and joy you deserve. Please don’t run away from your suffering. Embrace it and cherish it. Go to the Buddha [or we might say “Go to the nail-scarred Christ”], sit with him, and show him your pain. He will look at you with loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, and show you ways to embrace your suffering and look deeply into it. With understanding and compassion, you will be able to heal the wounds in your heart and the wounds of the world… Suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering, and let it reveal to you the way to peace.”
This is the pattern of death and resurrection, suffering and new life which sits at the heart of our most sacred story. Suffering is that which reveals to you where you have work to do, that which becomes your vehicle to transformation… if (and only if) you let it.
And Northminster, that brings me to my second question. In the midst of all the suffering of the present moment, of the pandemic, the interruptions in your life, the threats to your health and the threats to children, the racial tension and threat of tyranny on the national horizon… in the midst of all of the suffering we’re experiencing right now, are you living as though what you believe about suffering is actually true? Are you honoring your suffering, or are you running from it? Are you listening to your suffering with curiosity, or are you distracting yourself from it and therefore giving it the reigns to control you?
And that brings me to my last question. What can you do to live as though what you believed about suffering were actually true? What can you do to listen to your suffering, to honor it, and find its meaning for you, today, right now? What is your suffering calling you to do?
Is it calling you not to avert your eyes, not to shy away from that which breaks your heart, and instead finding some manageable thing to do about it? Is it call you to take time to learn what we weren’t taught about wellbeing, and what it really, biologically takes to be happy? Is it calling you to something simple, like getting a good night’s sleep or exercising or eating real food? Is it calling you to learn to meditate so you can hear it more clearly? Is it calling you to call someone on the phone because you’re crushingly lonely? Is it calling you to do the work of remember what makes you come alive, and then, by God, doing it with all you’ve got? Or is it calling you to seek out help – to call a doctor or therapist or a pastor to help you navigate this cloud of unowning? These are things we may be afraid to do, but we do it at the cost of our aliveness, of our joy and our peace.
Dear Northminster, we are all suffering in different ways. You are not alone in that. We are a people who honor one another’s suffering and show up for one another in the midst of it… but we are also a people who believe in resurrection. So, let us practice resurrection, surrendering to the Spirit and finding meaning in our suffering, not accepting that death has the final word.
What is your suffering inviting you to do? Let us remember that our suffering is not the problem, our feelings are not the problem… they are alarms. They are messengers, calling our attention to the actual problems, the actual places calling for work to be done. So please, let us honor our suffering and listen deeply to it. Answering its invitation is the only way to come alive and move your story forward. This is, after all, the only story you get.
Northminster, may we have courage, may we have companions, and may all things, even this, work together for our good.