Monday, February 3, 2014

Should Christians have to suffer?

Are Christians meant to suffer? If one looks at the Bible they will find, countless examples of suffering, first and foremost being the story of Job.  Job was a man who had it all; family, friends, wealth, prosperity, righteousness, honor, respect, land, etc....  One day it was all taken from him, and the culmination of the story can be found in Chapters 38 onward, when God calls Job out.  Job who laments on his misfortunes and never denounces God, but instead asserts an injustice based on his righteousness.  His young friend Elihu addresses this becoming angry with Job for justifying himself rather than God (32:3).

I was first introduced to Job in a "Problem of Evil" class in college.  There is so much to be said on Job, but the thing that stands out most to me is how countercultural the story of Job is to "the American Dream" .  Much of this story is lost in America particularly, but most of our modern society.  We are taught to strive for wealth and power and "the pursuit of happiness".  We have the Olsteens of the world and prosperity preachers teaching that "God's friends are highly favored" (in their words the righteous are made rich and powerful and the sinners are punished).

When will we open the books of scripture and do away with such nonsense?  When will we stop being Job's friends who assumed that Job was not righteous due to his suffering?  When will we begin to see that God's world is anything but this world.  That the American Dream and Christian living are not synonyms?  When will we begin to find strength in our sufferings as individuals, as communities, and even nations?

Why do we feel so alone in our sufferings?  I believe the answer is because we divorce God from suffering.  We have the mindset that if I am suffering, then God is not there.  This is based on nothing but heresy and the enemy.  Did not our savior, Jesus Christ endure the greatest of sufferings?  Shall we say that it follows that he deserved it? That he was unrighteous? That he was worthless?

Or do we see that tremendous grace and strength that came from that suffering and join our own to it?

Romans 8:16 For the Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God. 17 And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.

How does such verse fit into our thoughts today?  Do we glance over it, instead focusing on "God's blessings" of material gains?  The church has long been home to suffering servants.  Most of them are now called Saints.  Some quotes from just a few of them:

As iron is fashioned by fire and on the anvil, so in the fire of suffering and under the weight of trials, our souls receive that form which our Lord desires them to have.
--St. Madeline Sophie Barat

If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.
--Saint Ignatius of Loyola

'When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly.'
--St. Sebastian Valfre

"I do not desire to die soon, because in Heaven there is no suffering. I desire to live a long time because I yearn to suffer much for the love of my Spouse."
--St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi

You will be consoled according to the greatness of your sorrow and affliction; the greater the suffering, the greater will be the reward.  
--St. Mary Magdalen de'Pazzi

For my heart is always with Him, day and night it thinks unceasingly of its heavenly and divine Friend, to whom it wants to prove its affection. Also within it arises this desire: not to die, but to suffer long, to suffer for God, to give Him its life while praying for poor sinners. 
--Bl Elizabeth of the Trinity

If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint.
--St. Ignatius Loyola

The road is narrow. He who wishes to travel it more easily must cast off all things and use the cross as his cane. In other words, he must be truly resolved to suffer willingly for the love of God in all things.
--St. John of the Cross

One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much 
more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer. 
--St. Teresa of Avila 

Blessed be He, Who came into the world for no other purpose than to suffer.
--St. Teresa of Avila 

We of course should also take note of how many saints suffered greatly in their lives.  Many afflicted with illnesses, persecutions, different situations. 

St Therese de Lisieux "The little flower" was a young nun of the 19th century who died at the young age of 24. She suffered with illness most of her life and had many struggles.  She is known for her little way of finding Jesus in everyday things including suffering.  If she had a pain she gave it up to Christ, if she had trials within the convent, she gave it up to Christ.   She chose to reflect Christ in her little things.  It was not necessary to find some grandiose act of charity.  Charity could be found in our daily struggles and our daily encounters with others.  It was this "Little Way" that has made St. Therese a doctor of the Church, and one of who is spoken of today, despite her seemingly insignificance at the time. 

This is all easier said then done.  I have suffered immensely in my life, and I know many others who have even more than I.  It is not fun or easy, it is hard and painful, but what we do with the suffering is what brings us freedom from it. 

It is time to take back suffering.  As hard as it is, as painful as it is, it is not something to run from.  It is not something that we condemn or look down our noses at another as if they have failed.  It is an OPPORTUNITY to love .  An opportunity to love Christ and show love to others. An opportunity to open ourselves to God who is completely good and desires our good.  

The next time we decide to assert our own plans and selves before God, I ask that we remember the hope we hear from St. Paul and St. James; 

Romans 5:3-5

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

James 1:2-4 

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

As well as God's response to Job in Chapter 38, for his ways are far beyond are own.

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?
“Who shut up the sea behind doors
    when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
    and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
    here is where your proud waves halt’?
12 “Have you ever given orders to the morning,
    or shown the dawn its place,
13 that it might take the earth by the edges
    and shake the wicked out of it?
14 The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
    its features stand out like those of a garment.
15 The wicked are denied their light,
    and their upraised arm is broken.
16 “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been shown to you?
    Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know all this.
19 “What is the way to the abode of light?
    And where does darkness reside?
20 Can you take them to their places?
    Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
21 Surely you know, for you were already born!
    You have lived so many years!
22 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
    or seen the storehouses of the hail,
23 which I reserve for times of trouble,
    for days of war and battle?
24 What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed,
    or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?
25 Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain,
    and a path for the thunderstorm,
26 to water a land where no one lives,
    an uninhabited desert,
27 to satisfy a desolate wasteland
    and make it sprout with grass?
28 Does the rain have a father?
    Who fathers the drops of dew?
29 From whose womb comes the ice?
    Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
30 when the waters become hard as stone,
    when the surface of the deep is frozen?
31 “Can you bind the chains[b] of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons[c]
    or lead out the Bear[d] with its cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s[e] dominion over the earth?
34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds
    and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
    Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who gives the ibis wisdom[f]
    or gives the rooster understanding?[g]
37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds?
    Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
38 when the dust becomes hard
    and the clods of earth stick together?
39 “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness
    and satisfy the hunger of the lions
40 when they crouch in their dens
    or lie in wait in a thicket?
41 Who provides food for the raven
    when its young cry out to God
    and wander about for lack of food?

So just as Job was not there for all that, nor us, we must hold perspective and understand that our world is so much bigger than ourselves.  Stepping outside of the control we are taught to hold over everything, and placing trust in God and in the larger story of the universe and existence is where true freedom is found. 

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