Participation: Suffering as an Invitation, part 4
Over these last few blog posts, we’ve been looking at suffering as an invitation. It may sound strange to link suffering and invitation together but it is something that the Biblical text does over and over again. Because of the pain that comes along with suffering, we generally would say “I’m just fine, thank you” with no need for invitations in sufferings and would rather just get back to “normal” life as soon as possible.
Indeed, this is an overall temptation in all suffering: to just grit our teeth and get through it. Of course, we don’t want to experience pain, loss, and grief so the natural response is to think through how we can muster the strength to just get through it. However, when we just try to get through it, we run the risk of missing the gifts that come in suffering. It is a radical concept but Jesus makes it clear that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) He goes on to say: “whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The concept of “loving” one’s life is to try to preserve it. And, if we try to preserve our life, we ironically will lose it. In other words, we will stay committed to those life-preserving strategies that we believe can keep us from pain. But in trying to protect ourselves from pain, we miss the gift that pain brings. So if we choose to “hate” (or let go of our life) these life-preserving strategies, we will find that our lives become connected to eternal life. And, by “eternal life,” Jesus means that quality and dynamic of life that we experience in God. So, again, the gift of suffering is that we are stripped of that self-protective instinct and ushered into a way of life in which we are stripped down to nothing but love – the love that is God Himself.
Of course, God does not cause suffering but He does use in it our lives to do things that can’t happen any other way. Suffering can be received as an invitation to learn and grow because suffering is a teacher like no other. Suffering will strip us of all illusions of security and power and control, if we let it. And then … we are ready to see. Further, we are ready to receive the love of God in purity and in ways that fill our empty souls. Suffering empties us and when emptied of all else, we are ready to receive the fullness of His love.
Simone Weil makes this observation: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.”
Part of the task of the spiritual journey is to allow these empty spaces to arise and simply exist. From the time we are children, we fill the empty spaces with experiences and things and people we believe will fill them. In addition, we develop self-protective strategies to keep control of what comes in and out of our hearts. Suffering empties us in the most gracious way.
As we continue to look at Jesus in Matthew 4, we see the struggle between receiving the invitations of suffering and the temptation to self-protection. In the first temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to provide for Himself in a time of suffering and decides rather to listen to God as His sustenance. In the second temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to prove that He is loved and decides rather to rest in God’s love. And finally, in the third temptation, Jesus rejects the temptation to try to control life and decides rather to participate in God’s life.
When we are suffering, everything feels out of control. In a sneaky way, this is one of the gifts of suffering. We are given a glimpse into the reality that we are not in control of anything. Control is indeed an illusion. However, this is not a vision we usually welcome. We cling tight to the idea that we can control and defend and protect our lives. Even when tragedy strikes, we want answers and control and strategies.
In this third temptation, we read:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)
How is this a temptation? It is a temptation for the same reason that we buy a lottery ticket. We believe, “if I just had more money, then I can control life.” The idea is that if we had all the kingdoms of the world, we could protect ourselves once and for all from anyone or anything that might hurt us. Clearly, we might not be tempted with all the kingdoms of the world, but it might be the promise of more money or accomplishments or power that seduces us. If we fall down and worship ourselves as we seek to control, the temptation has taken hold.
However, Jesus shows us the invitation as He responds:
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Jesus knew that no matter how difficult the trial and season of suffering, His life was about participating in the life of God. We often reduce the concept of worship to singing songs or perhaps the way we live our lives. However, worship is about an orientation of our lives. What we worship is that around which we orient our lives. To orient our lives around God means that we become a participant in His life. More often than not, we think about the ways that God is involved in our lives but what if we began to ask how we are involved in His?
2 Peter 1:3-4 beautifully paints a participation of worship …
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
Notice the word “partake.” The idea is that we participate in the divine nature. And what is “divine nature?” It is the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. We are invited to participate in their life. When all the facades are stripped away and we have no ability to control, this invitation becomes so clear and so attractive. As we come to the end of ourselves, we begin to walk into the life of God.
As we notice the choice between trying to maintain control and the invitation to participation, we might also notice elements of anger and desperation. We experience anger because our efforts to achieve and accomplish and produce are falling short. We may feel desperation because those last shreds of self-protective fibers are still trying to hold on and we know we are no longer able. At that moment, the choice is to delve further into anger or to surrender.
The joy of surrender is that we are led into freedom. There is a deep, intense freedom that comes when we choose to immerse ourselves in the life of God. And, what does that look like? It looks like asking God, moment by moment … “what are you up to? What do you see? What are you saying to me right now?” And then we wait …
Henri Nouwen shares:
“To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is trusting that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.”
How can you practice participation in the Divine Nature today?