Connections between Suffering and Hope
Rev. Carol Shaffer, July 28, 2019
As a hospice chaplain, I often work with people who are struggling to find meaning in their suffering: “Why does my 45-year-old sister have cancer?” “Even though he’s 90, I’m not ready to lose my husband.” So, I decided to focus on connections between suffering and hope today.
“Why do we suffer?” is the first question we often ask. Sometimes, we think God is punishing us through our suffering. In the earliest scriptures, we see the idea of God punishing people for their sins. But fortunately, humans’ understanding of God has evolved and changed. God does not punish. Jay recently proclaimed that in a sermon. Jesus taught that God does not punish. According to the gospel of Luke (chapter 13), Jesus said, “Remember those people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Were they worse sinners than others? No!” And in the gospel according to John (chapter 9), when people saw a man who was born blind, they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, that this man was born blind? Him or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither one!”
When we struggle with this question, we conclude that for, whatever reason, God’s creation is good and imperfect. It contains illness, natural disasters, human violence against others, and death. Even paradise, the Garden of Eden, contained a serpent focused on temptation and rebellion from God. In the apostle Paul’s words, all of creation has been subjected to futility, not of its own will, but of the will of the One who subjected it. Suffering is part of every human life.
When we accept the fact that suffering is inevitable, we can begin to look for meaning in it. One purpose of suffering is, of course, to learn. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgment.” We have opportunities to grow and learn from our mistakes. Our suffering can also teach us more about compassion, patience, and other gifts of the Spirit. After we have suffered a significant illness, we may have more compassion and understanding of others who are ill.
Another source of meaning is suffering as we work for truth and justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. called this “unearned suffering.” He followed the work of Mohandas Gandhi in opposing injustice with non-violent resistance. King and many followers suffered as they worked for civil rights in our country. People who suffer as they work for justice in the face of injustice participate in the healing of the world.
When we willingly join Jesus in suffering, we participate with him in what Mother Teresa called “Life’s greatest drama: the mystery of suffering, death, and resurrection.” By taking part in this drama, we join in God’s holy work of redemption. Whatever we suffer: illness, loss, disaster, violence, or injustice, we are called to follow Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” One of Mother Teresa’s prayers can guide us. Let us pray it together:
Lord, help us to see, in your crucifixion and resurrection, an example of how to endure, and seemingly to die, in the agony and conflict of daily life, so that we may live more fully and more creatively…
Enable us to go through [trials] patiently and bravely, trusting that you will support us; for it is only by dying with you that we can rise with you. Amen (from Suffering into Joy: What Mother Teresa Teaches about True Joy, by Eileen Egan and Kathleen Egan, OSB, Charis Books (Servant Publications): 1994).
The primary connection between suffering and hope is participating in this drama. Psalm 85 includes beautiful images of suffering people seeking hope in God. For example, in verse 11, we can imagine human faithfulness springing up from the earth to receive God’s righteousness coming down from the sky.
This image, long with the apostle Paul’s image of creation set free from bondage and decay, calls us to expand our understanding of hope. We often hope for specific outcomes, such as good weather, good health, or recovery from illness. Paul is calling us to a larger perspective: to hope in Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection as the “first fruits” of God’s renewal of all creation. This kind of hope trusts that God is at work in this world for the redemption of all people, even the ones we can’t stand. Hope believes that God is redeeming all of creation, not only the parts we know. In John 3:16 the gospel writer proclaims, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son”…not one race or one people or one country.
This kind of hope is very different from the world’s values. It’s certainly different than the American dream, where each generation hopes to be better off, economically, than the previous one. Christian hope envisions food, shelter, health, well-being for all people. Christian hope is confident that God has ultimately defeated sin, evil, and death, even though in the present time we witness much suffering.
How do we practice this robust hope in our daily lives? As a hospice chaplain, I often encourage people to practice moving toward, rather than away from, their suffering. Our natural tendency is to shield ourselves from it. It takes courage to welcome our suffering, sit with it, and begin to have a conversation with it. We are able to do this because God meets us in our suffering in ways we may not expect.
We also practice hope by remembering that we don’t suffer alone. We aren’t the only one in our predicament, even though it might feel that way. Recently I was talking with Sarah (not her real name), who suffers loss of vision, hearing, and balance in her old age. She mourns no longer being able to do many things she used to. She commented on how nice the weather was, and I offered to take her outside. She refused, saying, “I only feel secure in my apartment.” When I suggested that she might join with Jesus in her suffering, she nodded and said, “I talk with Jesus every night, and I pray for all who suffer.”
In praying for all who suffer, Sarah practices openness to God’s will in her own suffering. Like Sarah, we are all called to seek God’s will and practice yielding to it, in small and large ways, moment by moment. In doing so, we participate in Life’s great drama of Redemption.
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “This is perfect joy, to share in the suffering of the world as Christ did.” Let us close by joining in the payer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.