St Mary’s, Robinson; St Andrew’s, Edwardsville—Hebrews 12:1-14 , Luke 12:49-56
Our attention was riveted in horror earlier this month by a series of mass shootings in quick succession—in California, Texas, and Ohio. On the same weekend that two of those events happened, there were several independent gun violence incidents just in the city of Chicago, and seven people were killed. My only point in bringing that up is that, in the words of Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character from the 1970s, “It’s always something.” We are indeed regularly faced with the reality that “it’s always something.” If it’s not violence caused by human beings, it’s violence caused by nature: earthquakes, fires, floods, and storms are simply a ubiquitous part of human experience. Plane crashes, computer viruses, internet hacks, and industrial accidents will just happen. The same goes for organized crime, cancer, and flesh-eating bacteria. Even when people aren’t getting shot, drugs still get sold to school children, alcoholics who decide to drink will still drink, husbands and wives and children will still quarrel with one another, the demand for divorce lawyers will not suddenly disappear, people will still hurt and deceive and betray each other, and psychotherapists will still be able to fill their appointment calendars. In short, suffering will continue to be a part of human experience, just as it has always been since the fruit got eaten from that tree in the middle of the garden.
And since suffering is all around us, whether it’s a stubbed toe or a broken heart, it’s often tempting for us to conclude that it is therefore meaningless, random, without purpose or any redeeming value. It’s purely the laws of physics and the laws of statistics that determine which golfers get a hole-in one and which ones get killed by a lightning bolt on the green. There’s no more meaning to it than that. The best we can do in the face of such a reality to be stoic and keep a stiff upper lip.
If we don’t have that much strength of character, then we simply fall victim to cynicism and despair. This can take the form of profound depression, leading ultimately to suicide. Perhaps you have experienced this, either personally or through somebody whom you love. Or, more frequently, despair can take the form of “let it all hang out” licentiousness. We’re all going to suffer and die anyway, so let’s enjoy as many of the sensory pleasures of this world as we can while we can. What difference does it make? If you don’t see yourself as the depressed and suicidal type, then maybe you have a place among the party animals—let the good times roll and keep them rolling like there’s no tomorrow because … maybe there’s not!
Now, the reason we are all here at this moment doing what we’re doing, is that some part of us, at least, believes or hopes or suspects or wishes … that there’s another alternative. I know that’s why I’m here. Most of the time, I’m in the category of believing. There are days, however, when I am among those who can only hope or suspect or wish.
But, in any case, I have pretty well staked my life on the notion that God is in the business of providing meaning and purpose for events and experiences that seem meaningless to me, and without any redeeming value or purpose. I have bet all my chips on the hope that God is a God who redeems, who hates the thought of losing any part of his creation to the forces of evil. If I am a prisoner in this world of child abuse, human trafficking, forest fires, and serial killers, then my hope is that God’s philosophy of prison management is one of rehabilitating the offenders, in which company I number myself, rather than punishment for its own sake. When I have my rational wits about me, when I pay attention to the clues God has left about himself—in nature, in the pages of scripture, in the tradition and teaching of the church—then my confidence in the wisdom of my cosmic bet, my grand wager, that on which I have staked everything—my confidence is bolstered.
In everything that God actually tells us about himself, he is revealed as a God whose purposes are always oriented and ordered toward redemption. This includes the debris of human suffering left in the wake of mass shooters, wife beaters, child rapists, drunk drivers, con artists, identity thieves, genocidal maniacs, arms dealers, dope pushers, “frank exchanges” between ambassadors, corporate mergers, stock market crashes, plant closures, crop failures, boring teachers, stupid bosses, inattentive spouses, and bad hair days. God wants to redeem it all. None of it is devoid of meaning. All of it is ordered toward the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
Now hear me well here: I do not believe God ever wills or sends suffering. God’s not sitting up in heaven at some master control board pushing a button labeled “smite” whenever he gets the inkling. In his wisdom, however—which does not always, or often, make sense to me—in his wisdom God has chosen to allow evil to exist in the universe. And since it’s there, he finds ways to use it creatively to the advantage of his purposes.
In the classic Asian martial arts, one is taught to defend oneself, not by directly resisting the movements of the attacker, but by cooperating with them. The aggressor’s own moves are co-opted by the defender and ultimately become the aggressor’s own undoing. That’s the way God redeems suffering. He does not conjure it, but he employs it for his own righteous and loving purposes. When we’re on the receiving end of such righteous and loving strategy, of course, it often seems like we are being punished. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews likens this to the way good parents discipline their children. Real discipline, of course, operates from love, and no other motive. Otherwise, it’s just sadistic. When love is present, however, parental discipline can serve a fruitful end. It instills a knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, builds integrity, and strengthens character.
And when there is no discipline, one suspects that there is a corresponding lack of love. When I was a child, I rolled my eyes whenever I heard the cliché, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” But when I became a parent, I realized—it’s true. Many of my failures as a parent arose from not being willing enough to face the pain of being the one to hand out discipline. Surely God is heartbroken, as well, when he exploits suffering—suffering that was going to happen anyway, I should add—when God exploits suffering as a means of discipline. And when we’re experiencing such discipline, we need to remember that we are not necessarily being punished for something we have done wrong. This side of eternity, we might not ever know the purpose of the pain we are required to endure.
Then again, with some prayer and discernment, we may be able to learn something of that purpose. St Luke’s gospel records for us a talk Jesus had with his listeners about how one particular kind of suffering would be a natural consequence of the decision to become his disciple–the suffering that attends alienation from family members. Many of you have been a party to, or been otherwise close to, a marriage that is “mixed” with respect to religion. Christians often marry Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or agnostics or atheists or some other brand of Christian, or someone of the same denomination who just believes less intensely or more intensely. I don’t particularly recommend such marriages—St Paul himself says, “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers”—but they happen. Sometimes the religious disparity appears after the marriage is several years old, and the partners in that marriage experience something of what Jesus was talking about,
which is a very personal and often quiet kind of suffering when two people who are supposed to enjoy intimacy find they are at odds in their core values. Of course, this, too, is suffering that God can employ for his purposes. But Jesus goes on to chide his audience about how adept they are at predicting the weather by looking at the sky, but are unable to discern the will and purpose of God by the signs he provides in the experiences of their lives. So when we we’re on the receiving end of what might be disciplinary suffering, it’s probably a good idea to ask some questions:
“How can God use this?”
“What special grace might there be in it for me?”
“Is there an opportunity here for me to grow in faith and hope and charity?”
“What is God trying to get my attention about?”
“Is there some area of my life that I am holding back from God?”
“Is there a pet sin—even a little one—that I really know about but have been unwilling to own up to?”
If we ask ourselves these questions, we may be led to the answers. What a blessing that is! Then again, they may go completely unanswered. That’s a blessing too. At least it helps us learn trust and patience! And we’re getting the kind of practice in reading the signs of the times that Jesus commends so strongly. Inch by inch, step by step, irritation by irritation, heartbreak by heartbreak—even, at times, tragedy by tragedy—real change takes place in our souls. We are being made holy. Christ is being formed in us. We are being conformed to the image of Christ, which is the image of triumph through suffering, light through darkness, strength through weakness, victory through surrender, and life through death.
And whatever we have to endure, it’s worth it, because we are being made worthy to wear the victor’s crown. And while we are yet running the race, we are cheered on from the celestial grandstands—what a picture the letter to the Hebrews paints for us!—we are cheered from the grandstands by a “cloud of witnesses”: saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs who testify to God’s enduring and great faithfulness. So give him the glory, and keep on running.