Thursday, February 26, 2015

Is Suffering Beneficial?

As a new pastor (many years ago now), I welcomed my church to a Sunday evening bible study.  Only a few people showed up at first, but we had the occasional visitor.  A tall, red-haired man and his wife showed up, and sat down listening while slightly uncomfortable.  The subject that night was the New Testament teaching on suffering, and how suffering is seen as beneficial, for it develops character. 

We read Romans 5, “Tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” (Rom 5:3-4).  And Paul in Acts, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22)  And James, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  (James 1:2-4)

The red-haired man finally spoke: “That is a load of crap.  I have suffered pain for the last five years, a degenerative condition in my back and neck that leaves me immobile for days.  I function as well as I can, but often I can’t do anything.  And I’m here to tell you, my pain and ‘tribulation’ hasn’t improved my character one bit.  In my suffering I am only more irritable, irrational, frustrated and hateful.  My wife hates who I’ve become and no one visits me because I’ve become a miserable wretch.  So don’t give me some fairy tale about suffering developing character.  That’s na├»ve bullshit.”

It seems that I gave him some platitudes and unsatisfying dogmatics that night, but I don’t really remember much about my response.  I’ve never forgotten his honest evaluation of the text, however.  It’s easy for a young person who hasn’t undergone chronic suffering to quote and evaluate texts in the Bible and to express an opinion, but until one has actually suffered our opinion doesn’t count for much.  We should listen to Paul, Jesus, James and others in the NT because they knew what they were talking about.  They understood suffering, and knew the consequence.  But they gave us little more than summaries of their experience.  Not enough for a person unexperienced with trauma to comfort anyone.

Since my experience with the red-haired man, I have had a number of encounters with suffering.  I’ve suffered chronic, deep pain with gallstones and an inflamed appendix.  I’ve had sciatica which shot pain through my leg for weeks at a time.  I’ve experienced a decade of depression.  I’ve been rejected by my friends and co-workers, accused of all kinds of immoral and criminal activity.  I’ve had the police, the homeless and the mentally ill scream threats at my face.  I’ve encountered the deaths of too many of my friends and seen my wife suffer because of a lifestyle that has been hard on both of us.  I don’t say this in order to obtain sympathy, but to establish my qualifications:  After the last two decades, I have gained the right to draw some conclusions about suffering that I was unable to say as a young pastor.

1.       Suffering benefits no one if it disregards our responsibility
Often when we suffer, we are looking for the cause of our anguish.  That makes sense, because if we find the cause of pain, then we can often resolve it.  All too often, however, we think that the cause of our anguish is the final trigger of us snapping, rather than the chronic precursors.  It is easy to blame my child’s noise for my anger, instead of my overwork or the constant pain in my back.  I blame my child, not because she is the real cause of my suffering, but because she will accept my blame and agree with my evaluation.  If I blame causes that have no real solution, or no easy solution, then I cannot give myself the temporary satisfaction of having “solved” the problem.   Suffering can allow us to misjudge the source of our suffering because we find the true source to be difficult to find.  This is self-deception, and perpetuates our mental anguish.

2.      
Suffering benefits no one if it excuses our tendency to cause others to suffer
When we suffer, our natural response is to pass that suffering on to others.  We don’t mean to cause others to suffer, we simply want to reduce our own suffering by controlling others’ actions.  In our mental anguish, the only way we find to control others is by increasing their suffering.  As if our suffering excuses our causing suffering in others.  What we don’t understand is that if we increase others’ suffering, then those around us will be miserable, isolated, and respond to us with increasing our suffering in turn.  This cycle of suffering producing suffering comes back against us, and we end lonely, bitter, and angry.  This end result of this cycle is that we become a small, shriveled, black mass of hate.

3.       Suffering is a benefit if it teaches us to lessen ourselves
The first lesson we must learn from our anguish is that we are weak.  We are not failures, we are not corrupt, but we are weak and we can accomplish nothing in and of ourselves.  We need to stop thinking that we are the power in our world, that we do our work of our own power or ability.  Suffering teaches us humility.  It teaches us the need for rest, because we are unable to function without a Sabbath.  It teaches us the need for community, because we are unable to function without others to support and take our place when our suffering is too great.  It teaches us to depend on God, for only God never fails, is always strong.

4.       Suffering is beneficial if through it we accomplish God’s will
An acquaintance of mine has suffered with fibro myalgia for years.  For those who do not know, FM is daily pain, some days worse than others, where the cause is unknown and it is incurable. She is also the mother of two, one of whom is autistic.  These children are her life, and she has the most remarkable parental wisdom I have ever heard.  She is not a perfect parent, but she is an amazing person because of her focus on her children.  For a person in great pain, she is full of love and is so inventive.  Her suffering sometimes limits her because when she has a bad day, she is unable to function at all.  But she has others who help her, her husband and a small group of friends.  She is an inspiration to many, not just because of her pain, but because she knows what God’s will is for her life—raising her children—and she pours her energy into that work, not allowing her ailment to stop her.  This gives her a strength of character and wisdom that without her suffering and work she might never obtain.

5.       Suffering is beneficial if it drives us toward empathy

I have seen a wrong attitude toward the poor cripple people.  Many people have a poor view of the homeless.  Some think that the homeless are criminals, lazy, worth nothing.  Many of these people become homeless themselves.  Some do not change their opinions.  Some homeless steal, and they think that all homeless are like that; some homeless leave piles of trash and they think they all do that.  In that way, they also hate themselves, because they see themselves as a part of this horrible group.  Others become homeless and it opens their eyes.  Suddenly, they understand that the homeless are a compassionate, supportive group, struggling to survive against the odds.  These homeless use their suffering to empathize, to have compassion, to understand others’ pain and struggle.  When I was in the depths of my depression, I stumbled into a pornography addiction.  This allowed me to understand the addiction of many people that I knew, and gave me the compassion to deal with them gently, to have the wisdom and strength to help them make better decisions.  Suffering can help our neighbor if it increases our love.

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog reflecting on suffering during the Lent season of 2015.  To read more articles in this series, go to http://mennonerds.com/tag/mennonerds-lent-2015/.  To find out more about MennoNerds in general, go tohttp://mennonerds.com/about.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Hell

You told me that you were going to hell.

Did you say that because you’ve fallen in an addictive behavior? Did you say that because you can’t control your temper? Did you say that because life is so bad for everyone you really love and you can’t do anything to fix it? No, my friend.  Hell isn’t what’s ahead of you.  It’s what you are living right now.

Hell is raising small children that never stop screaming and you can’t do anything to stop it. Hell is seeing your teen ruin her life with stupid decisions and you are helplessly watching her do it. Hell is taking on lives that another man screwed up and trying to deal with his mess. Hell is knowing what you need to do to take care of yourself, but setting that aside again and again because that’s not what’s good for the family as a whole. Hell is working all day, stress-filled evenings and  chronic lack of sleep. That’s right, you are living through hell right now.

As a pastor, it is not my job to lessen that knowledge.  It would be a lie to tell you that God gave you the strength to deal with all this, because you already know that’s not true.  As far as you are concerned, you’ve already failed.   So the biggest hell you are living in is looking around you and seeing failure.

Now I want to tell you what you need to hear, like it or not.

1.       You have not failed
Anyone can look in the middle of a marathon, see how many people are ahead of them and think they’ve lost the race.  Anyone can look at an unhappy child and say they weren’t raised right because they aren’t happy right now.  Anyone can see the stress that they’ve lived in for years and throw up their hands because they don’t see how it will end. 
But the middle isn’t the end.  You don’t know how you or your children or your relationships will end.  That’s still to come.  All you have to do is not give up.

2.       The future will get better
Living in the middle of hell seems endless.  You can’t see the future, because there is a wall of stress and anger and inadequacy that is covering your eyes so you can’t see.  But I can see it, and your future looks great.  You aren’t in hell, technically, but purgatory.  You are in the middle of fire, but you are already in the process of putting that fire out, with God’s help.  I know you don’t see it and it makes no sense where you are, so I just ask that you trust me for a moment.  I’m looking from a different perspective.  It will take some time, but all this stress and fire and anguish will fade away.  Rest is coming.

3.       Have faith
Many people say that faith is trust in dogma, but you know that isn’t true.  Faith is trusting in a trustworthy person.  The only trustworthy person.  Faith is saying that you know who God is.  That God is love, and so He offers you forgiveness.  That God is powerful and can deliver you from your hell.  That God really cares for you, personally and so will deliver you, but perhaps not when you expect it.  You don’t have to trust in anyone but God.  And God is on your side.  Even now.

4.       Rely on God’s community
God didn’t leave you alone, but He already gave you people to help.  He gave an overworked pastor to set an hour aside to talk to you (or write you an encouraging note).  God also sent you Mary Anne who can provide babysitting for you so you can get a break.  God sent you Jeff to build you up.  God sent you Genevieve to financially support you when you needed it.  Sometimes you want to deny these gifts that God gave you.  But you need to accept them, and take what little bits of respite that God has provided.  

5.       The Lord has appointed salvation for you
You may think that you will go to hell, but God has a different plan.  God said that the people who seek their own comfort to the harm of others are going to hell.  But those who go through hell now for the sake of others, God has provided comfort and rest and everything they need.  Jesus said, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.”  Just by being there, taking the abuse, and doing what little you can both for your own children and the children God gave you, dealing with the stress and the sleepless nights and still providing and forgiving and apologizing… that’s all God asks of you.  Sorry, but hell isn’t your destiny.

6.       Joy
Jesus never said that perfect joy is for this life.  Look at his life—he suffered and had anguish and disappointment and sacrifice.  The joy we have, he said, doesn’t come from our present circumstances, but because we look ahead.  We look in faith at the God who sees all the hell we are going through and all the suffering and all the sacrifice we make for others and we know that God takes people like that and gives them perfect rest.  Not today, but soon.  We know that because of our present anguish we will receive a better life than we could possibly imagine.  We don’t choose a horrible life because that’s what we want.  But because God will grant us a better life.   That’s my faith.  I am not joyful now.  I am content.  And that contentment will become joy eventually, because of the hell I’ve had to go through.  And you will get the same.


Be at peace. 

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog reflecting on suffering during the Lent season of 2015.  To read more articles in this series, go to http://mennonerds.com/tag/mennonerds-lent-2015/.  To find out more about MennoNerds in general, go tohttp://mennonerds.com/about.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Wolf At the Gate by Mark Van Steenwyk

When I received my copy of Wold at the Gate in the mail and I cracked open the cover, I instantly became a child again.  Stickers!  I love stickers!  What a cool surprise!  I wasn't sure where I'd put the stickers, but the joy I felt in seeing them was a definite plus.

As I began the thin volume, I was a little disappointed.  It read like an academic writing a children's book: well plotted, but without any levity, charm or prosaic interludes.  It is not aiming to be a classic in children's literature, but a moralistic allegory.

But what a clever allegory it is. While on the surface it is a retelling of the legend of St. Francis and the wolf, it goes far beyond that into the motivations of evil and criminals, and how one can transform them through love and acceptance.  While I found a couple of the turns a bit too quick, I think the bravery of both Francis and the wolf and their unique approach to evil is excellent and full of hope.

All my children are grown (thank God), but I wish that at least one were small that I could read this book to them and to get their opinion.  So I challenge you: get a copy of this book, spend a few evenings reading it to your elementary-school-age child and then discuss it with them:

When someone is attacking us, how should we respond to them?
How did Francis respond to the wolf?
Do you think that's a good way to deal with bad people?

Then let me know if your child was engaged enough to respond to the story.  I'm curious.