Suffering as an Invitation, part 1
When we walk through times of suffering, we are usually challenged at deep places in our soul. Questions arise, doubts surface, and loneliness emerges. This, all in addition to the surface pain we may be experiencing.
The primary question that seems to emerge is “why?” When things are pleasant, we don’t usually ask “why,” we just enjoy the circumstance. But pain, with all the unpleasantness, we reason must be happening for a purpose. More often than not, the question of “why” is met with clichés of all sorts and sometimes even a bravado that we will fight and get to the other side.
The reason for suffering? While so much is wrapped in mystery that our finite minds cannot fully comprehend, we do know from the wisdom of Jesus that there are things that cannot happen except through a time of suffering. Indeed, we actually end up asking “why” when we are suffering which is part of the answer of why we suffer. When we are living with questions, we are pushed to consider what really matters. Suffering purifies (if we let it) in ways that nothing else can.
Suffering pushes us to the margins of life, away from “the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in the world.” (Thomas Merton) It is at the margins, in the wilderness places, that I can find my true center, God Himself.
In Hebrews 5:8, referring to Jesus, we are told that “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” In what sense did Jesus have to learn obedience? If we understand obedience relationally, obedience is not outward action but the inward action of trust and love in which we honor (obey) another person. In Matthew 3, Jesus was baptized and His “belovedness” was affirmed as the Father spoke from heaven.
Next, in Matthew 4, we observe that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not pleasant and it was also not accidental. The text says He was hungry and in Mark 1, the presence of “wild animals” is highlighted. In addition, Mark 1 pushes the idea of being “led” (from Matthew 4) further by saying that He was “cast out” in the wilderness by the Spirit. There was a purpose in Jesus being in this place of suffering and loneliness.
His belovedness was affirmed in Matthew 3, and then His belovedness was tested and strengthened in Matthew 4. It was in the context of hunger, isolation, danger, and weariness that Jesus’ identity and human experience of God the Father was deepened.
Over the last year as I journeyed with cancer, my son asked: “Dad, why is this happening to you?” And, my response was, “why not me?” If God loves me, He will lead me through times of suffering so that our relationship can be purified and deepened and strengthened. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that He caused the suffering or gave me cancer. Indeed, there are so many questions that we cannot answer about suffering but we can know that God does things in us that aren’t accomplished any other way.
In a wilderness place of suffering, we are stripped bare and left with nothing to hang on to. And, then with empty hands, we are able to hold onto God in ways we couldn’t when our hands were on the control panel of our lives.
Often, we are specifically stripped of the notion that God exists so that I can reach a place of self-fulfillment and peace and happiness. When this illusion is gone, we are left with a God who can now fill us with Himself. When we are experiencing emptiness, there is space for His presence in ways not possible before.
In his book on Desert Spirituality, Belden Lane writes:
“I really don’t want a god who is solicitous of my every need, fawning for my attention, eager for nothing in the world so much as the fulfillment of my self-potential. One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”
In this way, suffering is an invitation … an invitation to know God in new ways and to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
We can try to run from suffering or we can receive it. God won’t force us to enter the school of His love when suffering but He does invite us.
If we choose to run from suffering, we miss the gift of spiritual growth and deepening. When we run from suffering, we usually don’t get very far and end up going in circles. When we run from suffering, we experience confusion and frustration as the dominant realities in our lives.
We receive suffering when we ask:
- How is He speaking His love to me in this time in the wilderness?
- What is the invitation to deeper love and trust in this present circumstance?
Just asking the questions, that often take some time to answer, leads us to a place of freedom because we realize that it is not the wilderness or suffering that defines us but our relationship with God.
Note: in following blog posts, we’ll examine the specific invitations that Jesus experienced in His wilderness time of testing, and we’ll see that those invitations are emblematic of our invitations in times of suffering.