Embracing suffering

Father David Epps's picture

I have just finished a book on the topic of suffering. The book, “Suffering: the Catholic Answer,” was written in 1961 by Dom Hubert van Zeller (1905-1984), a Benedictine monk and featured 14 chapters based upon the 14 Stations of the Cross.

The reason that I began to read a book on suffering, when so much of the church is focused on prosperity and achieving self-actualization, is that, in over 35 years of ministry, I have seen a great deal of suffering.

Revival movements, crusades, church growth conferences, seminars, and special classes often are concerned with the exciting, the popular, and the trendy. The topic of suffering is not likely to draw a crowd. Still, every individual and every family, regardless of spiritual condition or station in life, will be subject to hardship and suffering.

Zeller noted that people generally avoid suffering at all costs. If it can’t be avoided, we try to minimize its effects. At best, those who successfully pass through their season of suffering tend to endure it.

Zeller, however, suggests that enduring suffering is not enough — suffering is to be embraced. I must admit that, as I read this section of his book, I was uncomfortable. I am one of those who has seen the benefit of stoically, with gritted teeth and a determined spirit, enduring the pain and the difficulty, but — to embrace it?

How does one embrace the suffering found in a painful, crippling disease? How does one come to grips with the idea of embracing the pain experienced in the loss of a friend or a family member? Embracing the suffering found in economic, physical, mental, or spiritual pain seems absurd and unthinkable.

Yet, as Zeller notes, Jesus not only endured the suffering of the cross, he embraced it.

We tend to avoid suffering when we can and, when we cannot, we endure it, trusting that, somewhere and somehow, the pain will cease. But to have a choice to suffer or not suffer? Who would choose to suffer? Who would choose pain? Who would embrace the cross willingly? This, however, is exactly what Jesus did.

Looking ahead to the greater good, he embraced the suffering, torture, and brutality of the Roman soldiers and he embraced the horrific agony and humiliation of public execution on the cross because, without it, humanity would remain separated from God.

Suffering, in this instance, was embraced for the greater good — and Jesus encouraged his own followers to willing “take up the cross,” to embrace, not merely endure, their own suffering.

Suffering is an intensely personal matter. No matter how much I might tell a suffering person, “I know how you feel,” the truth is that I do not. I may know how I feel, but I do not know how another feels.

I hesitate to suggest to someone that they embrace their suffering because I am not certain that I know how to embrace my own. I still desire to avoid it, if possible, and if not, to endure it until it passes.

It takes trust and faith to believe that there is a greater good and to be able to say, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV).

It takes extreme courage to face suffering and at the same time, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18 NASB).

Yet, there are those who have done so and stand as testimony that embracing suffering does, indeed, occur for a greater purpose; it leads to a greater good.

I have not arrived, I confess. I am still pondering, arguing, trying to wrap my arms around this thing. Yet suffering is always present and, if the church chooses to ignore it and concentrate on “pop” theology and “feel-good” Christianity, who, then, has an answer?

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muddle's picture
Submitted by muddle on Sat, 07/12/2008 - 1:35pm.

I'm thinking through this very topic as, of late, friends have told me that I remind them of Job. Sad I hope to have something to offer here on the subject soon.

Meanwhile, I am glad to see a local pastor addressing a subject of substance. And I was taken by this line:

if the church chooses to ignore it and concentrate on “pop” theology and “feel-good” Christianity, who, then, has an answer?

Indeed. And it may be worse than that. Is it pop theology or is it rather a baptized version of pop psychology? David Wells, author of No Place for Truth suggests that the contemporary church has bought into a therapeutic version of the gospel that strays far from any real theology at all and, instead, offers a carefully marketed product to a culture that is obsessed with psychological wellness.

Don't tell me that coming to Jesus will cure addiction, disease and crabgrass and render my dysfunctional family harmonious. Nice things, those, but the principal reason must be that the core truth claims of Christianity are true. Else, why bother?

Submitted by Tom1939 on Sat, 07/12/2008 - 12:26pm.

Father Epps this is a very interesting read that I have enjoyed. Over the years I have thought of the purposes of suffering and have arrived at these conclusions.

Man is created to serve the purposes of God, not himself. However, since the fall man has sought his own purpose and to live a life of self. This makes man selfish, which is the root of man's sinfulness. God has decided, for His purposes for man to be fulfilled, that it is necessary that man make the decision to return his self-centered will over to God's will and allow God to reign in his life. Suffering causes man, self centered, to become God-centered, as man was designed to be.

Through suffering man draws close to God and seeks God's face and seeks a relationship with God and seeks to involve God in his life and seeks God's will and purpose and how to align himself with God's purpose. Through suffering we learn how small we are and how large God is and that God is the source of our life, peace, security and happiness!

Plus, there is more. God desires that man become transformed from the image of Adam into the image of Jesus, our Christ and our brother, the first born among many. As stated earlier God's plan is for us to be transformed from the self-centered man, Adam, into the God-centered man, Jesus.

Jesus desires to have an intimate relationship with us who are the object of His love and affection. He died for us to share His inheritance with us. Jesus knows us intimately ... but Jesus wants us to know Him intimately. During the times of my greatest suffering it was only then could I know what Jesus must have gone through, know His pain and suffering and truly begin to feel close to Him in a special way, which gave me a greater sense of intimacy with Him as my savior, my Lord, my brother and my friend.

Jesus wants to share His pain with us just as we share our pain from Him. Then, we are truly able to have an intimate two way relationship created by the shared experience of suffering. This causes me to grow more and more in Christ, leaving more and more of Adam behind until I meet my savior, Lord, master, brother and friend Jesus face to face.

Submitted by sageadvice on Sat, 07/12/2008 - 12:59pm.

It is very logical that if you know that God exists, and at the same moment in time pain exists for people, then pain must be allowed by God, no matter who caused the pain.

It is hard to imagine that such a divine existence couldn't have a perfect human if he wished them all to be.

The turning of will over to God, where I assume it was originally, is the part most find hard to know when that occurs as a permanent thing.

I don't see being religious one day and not that night!
Then sleep, wakeup and do it all over again.

Being good to get out of pain also seems somewhat odd.

It exists, we exist--dead or alive!

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