O Lord our God, whose blessed Son gave his back to be whipped and did not hide his face from shame and spitting: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The issue of suffering has been at the heart of the human quest for meaning.
Russian Orthodox Bishop Alexander Mileant says in a missionary pamphlet, “Afflictions in Our Lives,” that
daily, our life convinces us that sorrows are inevitable. Some suffer from need, some from the loss of loved ones, some from illness, some from slander and human malice, and some are tormented by their own passions, shortcomings or mistrust. Sometimes a person appears to be happy, but in reality, while experiencing torments of the soul, he is hiding his sorrows.
On this Tuesday of Holy Week, we pray to the Father for the capacity to suffer for the cause of righteousness. In this collect we hear clear echoes of St. Peter’s instructions to Christians in exile: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13, ESV).
As Christ’s disciples, we ask our Father that we may accompany Jesus in the Passion.
But perhaps you are like me. My feelings of faithful love can grow cold at times. I am not entirely fired with passion by the love of Jesus. So it is necessary for the health of my spirituality to pray for clearer vision and unobstructed hearing for Christ’s love through every suffering of his Passion. I have to pray for God to develop in me a greater openness and readiness for change. “Lord, I honestly don’t want to suffer right now. Please help me to change this attitude.” If I try to change myself through my own efforts, I come up short. Therefore, I find it helpful to say often a slogan I have learned in Twelve Step Recovery Programs, “I can’t, God can. Let him.”
With St. Paul of the Cross (founder of the Passionists in the 18th century), let us petition our Lord that his most holy wounds be our delights and that we can keep him company in the Garden of Gethsemane. We can entreat our Lord that we gain the will to carry the tears of Jesus in the bosom of our souls, with great love and sorrow.
Because of our tragic fall from God, our turning away from our Heavenly Father, we have been led down a road to the depraved direction of our wills.
This depravity is the source of all humanity’s sufferings and miseries. Diseases, sorrows, and physical death have arisen from moral evil.
Out of Israel’s experience, a constant conviction emerges that God’s people experience happiness and solace because of God’s favor. On the other hand, their afflictions emerge from their own trespasses and from the wickedness of others, a kind of punishment for sins as a form of “revenge” for disobedience. Yet, the Old Testament Scriptures do present a counter notion of vicarious suffering on the part of the innocent servant, Israel, particularly in Isaiah 52:13–53:12. Sometimes God’s people suffer not because of sin but even while remaining innocent.
Foremost in the New Testament is the notion that our redemption comes by the voluntary sufferings of the incarnate Son of God. These sufferings are not simply a retaliation for a trespass; they have an active redemptive power. Drawing from Bishop Alexander once again, he reminds us that “suffering is the fountain of renewal and salvation. God does not hide beyond the boundaries of vast space and He is not indifferent to humankind’s misfortunes, as once thought the pagan wise men. On the contrary, He ‘so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ (John 3:16)”
C. S. Lewis declares in A Grief Observed that we too are promised sufferings just as our Lord Christ endured. With penetrating incisiveness, he says that
sufferings were part of the program. We were even told, Blessed are they that mourn, and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.
Why does God allow us to suffer?
But part of my struggle, and perhaps yours, is with reconciling how a loving God invites and exhorts me to suffer. Again, let us hear from Lewis, but this time from The Problem of Pain:
The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love,” and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest “well pleased.”
One of the great saints of the Syrian Church from the 4th century, St. Ephrem, gives us wise counsel on dealing with suffering and affliction. Listen to him.
Can you not endure insults? Keep quiet and you will be calmed. Do not think that you are suffering more than others. Just as one living on earth cannot escape the air, so it is impossible for a person living in this world not to be tempted by afflictions and disease. Those occupied with the earthly from the earthly—experience afflictions, whereas those aspiring towards spirituality about the spiritual suffer with the soul. However, the latter will be blessed because their fruit has been plentiful concerning God.
When afflictions or difficult circumstances occur, we shall with humility and patience await relief and help from God, so that we would not be depressed with the thought that there is no hope of salvation for us. As we endure the sufferings and hardships that come our way as Jesus’ followers, let us believe that these tribulations have lost their acuteness and darkness because of Christ’s power of redemption in us. For the resurrected Christ is in us, and he is the hope of glory that surely includes our own resurrection.
Michael Matlock is an assisting priest at St. Andrew’s in Versailles, Kentucky and a professor of Inductive Biblical Studies, Old Testament and Early Judaism at Asbury Theological Seminary. Fr. Michael serves as the chair of the Department of Inductive Biblical Studies and co-director of the Anglican Formation and Studies program.