JOY AND SUFFERING

 

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you . . . you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. But rejoice . . . as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, . . . be glad and shout for joy . . . ” — 1 Peter 4:12, 9, 13

It’s really quite strange how strange we find suffering to be. The beleaguered first-century Christians whom Peter instructs in this letter, laborers and slaves living in the cities of Asia Minor, must have been asking questions about suffering much like we ask today: “Why me?,” “Why must I go through this?,” “What did I do to deserve this?”

Undeserved suffering always arrives as a bolt from the blue. We’re confounded by it. We think of our trials, our difficulties and pain as something that shouldn’t be happening to us. We’re disheartened by suffering: it makes us feel as if we’ve somehow failed at life. We feel wounded and defeated by it.

Happiness, by contrast, is another matter. We think of happiness as our due. As a pastor, I can’t count the times that someone has asked me ‘Why does God allow such suffering?” But rare are the times when I’ve been asked, “What did I do to deserve such happiness?” We don’t stop to question God when all is going well.  But everyone must deal with suffering; it’s part and parcel of the human condition. No one gets out of life without going through difficulties: a friend betrays us, a marriage fails us, a loved one dies on us, an illness depletes us, advancing age hobbles us, people hurt us, and so often we are a disappointment to ourselves.

 Life’s difficulties and hardships may be inevitable, but the way we respond to them is our choice.  Suffering has the power to embitter or to ennoble us. Depression and despair are two possible reactions in the face of pain and trial, but they surely are not the only ones. “Suffering can be experienced as a curse or a blessing,” the poet Carolyn Forché reminds us: “the luckiest is the one who can experience it as a blessing.” (Quoted in Fearless Writing for Women, Susan Gabriel, 2014, Section “Poets Talk Poetry”)  The difference between living with a curse or a blessing lies in whether we are able to find meaning in our suffering.

And meaning is what Saint Peter offers us in this text.  The spiritual treasure at the heart of Peter’s teaching is that we don’t need to see the inevitable, unavoidable, uncontrollable suffering in our lives as an implacable adversary.   Look to your suffering, he tells his flock of beset and troubled Christians, and find in that harsh soil the seeds of real joy. Beyond fearing or fleeing or fighting our sufferings, Peter wants us to see in them the opportunity for a blessing. This paradoxical teaching about suffering is the great spiritual secret found throughout the New Testament: joy is possible, right in the midst of our sorrows.

But note, we are not talking about ‘happiness’ here. What the scriptures call “the fulness of joy” is quite different from ‘happiness.’ Happiness is a sometimes thing; it comes and goes, depending entirely on circumstances. But joy is different. You can’t be happy when you’re suffering, but a fulness of joy is possible, even in the midst of pain. We were born for this kind of joy. Not for mere happiness, but for a deep, sustaining joy that will not be defeated by pain or suffering.

Peter urges Christ’s beleaguered followers to recognize that sufferings can have a chastening, refining character. As Archbishop Tutu puts it: “There are very few lives that just move smoothly from beginning to end. They have to be refined. It is almost an axiom that a joyful spirit seems to require that one will have setbacks to remove the dross.” (The Book of Joy, 2015, p.154). Our own “fiery ordeals,” to use Peter’s words, are to be seen as a testing, as learning, growing, deepening experiences.  Think about it, which do you learn more from, your successes and your achievements, or from your failures and your losses? Our personal heroics don’t teach us all that much, but suffering is the school of wisdom.  Our heartaches and misgivings can lead us to a deeper understanding of our lives and ourselves.

Peter’s second teaching is the profound lesson that suffering not only deepens us, it connects us with others. “Your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering,” St. Peter reminds us. (1 Peter 5:9) There is comfort in knowing that, as Henri Nouwen put it, “we are the same as other people: fragile and mortal. It is the joy of belonging to the human race.”  If we allow it, our own suffering can become a school for compassion, and that can bring us deep joy, as well. The trials we go through help us to connect with others when they experience adversity. Nouwen writes: “ . . . being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty … such experiences can bring us deep joy, . . . the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family. Often this is a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness, but it leads us to the center of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.” (Henri Nouwen, 1997, Bread for Today, Feb. 1)

Finally, St. Peter assures us that we can be full of joy because in our pain and anguish, we “are sharing Christ’s sufferings.” To think that our own sufferings have a weight, a meaning and a power in common with the saving sufferings of Christ, himself! I believe in this great spiritual mystery of suffering in common with Christ. I can’t explain why it’s so or how it works, but I know this key tenant of faith in Christ and can be a tremendous consolation for one’s life.

Don’t ever think that your undeserved, unsought for, unwanted pain and suffering is meaningless. Your suffering is valuable and consequential and, in some mysterious way, an integral component of God’s inscrutable work of redeeming the world. You, in your loss, your pain and your discouragement, are a precious part of this holy work. And for that you can rejoice, in the midst of whatever might beset you, rejoicing, as St. Peter exultantly put it, “with an indescribable and glorious joy!” (1 Peter 1:8b)

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