In a spirit of full disclosure, I have to I say really don’t know that much of suffering first hand. I do know enough, and I have witnessed enough of it in others, however, to know I would rather not.
And yet, there was a night last November when as I attempted to fall asleep, I simply could not make myself comfortable. I tossed and turned until finally I thought to press against the area right beneath my right rib cage. Instantly I was pretty certain it was my gall bladder making itself known in a way it never had before. When finally I could hardly catch my breath, I called a friend who came and gathered me up and took me to the Emergency Room. My diagnosis was spot on. My nurse gave me something for the pain, injecting it directly into my i.v.. She turned to leave the room, but as she reached the door, she turned and asked how my pain was then. In a matter of those few footsteps, that which had taken my breath away a moment before, was now simply gone.
And yes it is so that in that hour I comprehended something about the appeal of Opioid drugs for those who suffer, whether their pain be chronic or acute, physical or psychic. I could understand the desire to numb it so completely, if only for a little while.
And so it is that next Saturday I will officiate at my second funeral of one who has died at his or her own hand in less than a year: two individuals who clearly had suffered long and hard in this life and who, in the end, apparently could not see any other way to end their pain. I have long since abandoned any sense of judgment over those who find themselves in such a place where the options had evidently narrowed so profoundly. Even more than that, it is so that I rest more and more in the abundant mercy and love of God. I, for one, cannot believe that God lets go of one who has suffered so. I simply cannot. Even with that, though, it is hard to know what words to offer to address the residual pain which will be carried by their loved ones for the rest of their lives.
And so we come up against the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans today. Admittedly, perhaps especially today, I find myself arguing with him. Indeed, as much as I love the cadence of these words and as much as I yearn for the truth they point to to be so, I do believe there is a whole lot of suffering in this world which is just not all that redemptive. Sometimes, too often, I have looked on while suffering just breaks us down. Oh, as much as I want Paul’s words to be true, I surely cannot say that it is always so.
So what are we, what am I, to do with what Paul offers now when he says that we know that
Suffering produces endurance and
Endurance produces character and
Character produces hope, and
Hope does not disappoint us?
Again, in my experience Paul’s words do not always ring true. Or at least they don’t if we only hear them through our western cultural lens which typically defines suffering and redemption as only that which happens in the lives of individuals and not in the shared lives of communities.
For it is worth noting, it seems to me, that these bracing words of Paul are addressed not so much to individuals as it is to a shared ‘we’ of some sort. While we can pull out the words above and apply them to individuals, all through this section, Paul is speaking in the plural. Take another look with me. He writes:
We are justified
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
And not only that but we boast in our sufferings…
And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Yes, of course, much suffering is experienced individually, but the promise Paul extends today is grounded in God’s people all being in this together. More than that? Perhaps Paul’s words are not really meant to address the sort of suffering I experienced one long night last November. Maybe instead they are meant to speak to the sort of suffering we do in behalf of one another — as my friend did who lost a night’s sleep, too, in taking me to the hospital. As my nurse did, who worked the night shift so as to be about saving lives. Indeed, as Christ did — in behalf of the whole world. Maybe that is actually the kind of suffering which leads to endurance and character and the kind of hope which does not disappoint.
I cannot pretend that this is an easy understanding to embrace — especially not in the culture I call home where we have learned since birth to view all of human experience through the eyes of the individual or at the very most, through that of the nuclear family. And yet, week after week, we are a community together, aren’t we?
- Sunday after Sunday it is ours to stand alongside others who have experienced something of what it is to have God’s love poured into their individual hearts.
- Time after time together we receive the promises of God proclaimed in word spoken and bread broken and wine poured.
- Again and again we hear the call to love this world as Jesus did and does.
- And sometimes. Sometimes as we struggle to be and do who and what we are called to be and do, we experience together a struggle which leads to the sort of strength Paul’s words promise now and which fills us with the kind of hope which is grounded in the real experience of God’s presence in this place today.
And there is this, too.
Yesterday morning I came in to church to wrap up some details for Sunday morning and to try to capture these words here. I took a break to walk upstairs to the nave where some of God’s faithful were cleaning and vacuuming and polishing. Many of them are decades old friends of those who have suffered the most recent tragic loss in our midst. And so we paused to put our heads together, wondering at the well being of those whose pain is indescribable today. And we began to formulate next steps for what it will mean for how we will love them next and through this week and for the rest of their lives.
Yes, in a situation like this we do suffer together. And that is, or can be, the start of something more, it seems to me. For in our human love for one another together, we experience empathy when one suffers. And we are changed by this. Oh, we are changed by this — perhaps so much so that our eyes are opened and our wills are bent to love ever more and to make a difference in a world so that fewer and fewer might have to know the pain of this particular kind of loss.
This can be, indeed, the beginning of
Suffering producing endurance and
Endurance producing character and
Character producing hope:
Hope that does not disappoint.
And perhaps it is so that as we experience the promises Paul outlines here as a community together, we may also discover their truth in our own individual lives as well.
What do you think?
- Have you ever found yourself arguing with Paul’s words here in Romans? Why or why not?
- I needed to remind myself again this week that these words of Paul are not necessarily meant only for individuals, but might be better heard and understood by the whole community together. This being so, does this change how you hear them? If so, how is that?
- Have you witnessed or experienced examples of this sort of resilience being built in the community of believers? What has that looked like for you?