Perhaps if I told you of the things that cause me to suffer you would dismiss me, saying by what right do you have to bother us with this? Perhaps you would point out my race, my class, my gender, my education level, my citizenship and marital status and label me as someone just trying to justify a sense of entitlement. Indeed, you could point out that I have a variety of privileges, and you would be right. I am privileged in many ways. I am able to live with things and do things that others are not able to do. However, just because I am privileged doesn't mean that I do not suffer, I do. You can minimize my suffering all you want and I can minimize yours, but it will not change the fact the suffering exists in all of our lives to one degree or another. For to suffer is to be human.
One of the signposts to Jesus being fully human in traditional Christian thought is the simple fact that Jesus suffered. One hundred and one years ago the world suffered the Spanish Flu pandemic, it respected no boundaries of gender, race, class, or ethnic affiliation. If you were infected you suffered or maybe even died. The existence of suffering in our lives is evidence of our belonging to a single common humanity. The spiritual question of suffering is not so much about whether one suffers or not, but rather what does someone do when they suffer. In our church we read the following verses from Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians at funerals:
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NRSV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.
There are two things going on in this short passage, which will cause problems for those with simplistic world views. The first is that suffering represents a spiritual opportunity. The God of all consolation named by St. Paul consoles us in our suffering. Suffering is an opportunity to rely on God. Many people will stop me here and complain, so what? The answer to this is that until one suffers, the person doesn't really know who his or her friends are. Those who stick by you in suffering show their love for you. If they walk away, they don't love you. Paul tells the community in Corinth that because of the cross and resurrection we have proof that God sticks with us. We know that we are loved by God, and that can change things.
The second point that Paul makes is particularly relevant for today. Paul sees the purpose of one's suffering as opening the heart to the other. The spiritually mature person is called to use their suffering to direct her or himself toward empathy, compassion and acts of consolation. Our suffering should be directed to find common ground with others who suffer. It is a call to transform the bad that happens in our lives to good by connecting with someone who has something bad going on in their life.
As you are probably aware, this is not always how people respond to suffering. Some of those suffering may act out of their pain and condemn others because they are envious of people they perceive as having an easier life. Others may fall into despair and give up life all together. Some may lash out at those whom they blame rightly or wrongly for their afflictions. These negative responses to suffering are indeed understandable in some cases, but are never very healthy in the end. Those who respond with envy end up in prison of bitterness. Those who respond in despair end up in a prison of meaninglessness. Those who respond with revenge end up in a prison of violence.
The only way out of these traps is to choose life over death. This is done through the twin spiritual gifts of compassion and forgiveness. This is the core message contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness given in love transforms the suffering afflicted upon God's son into love for our world. God's response to Christ's suffering was resurrection and reconciliation. To forgive frees the sufferer from control of the perpetrator of the suffering. Compassion transforms what was once a detriment into an asset bring hope and healing to others.
Please understand I am not wishing suffering upon anyone. Any person who has suffered and has compassion for others could never do that. What I am saying,
is that if suffering comes your way, we have a God who is more powerful than anything that causes us to suffer. This God is able to take the evil of our suffering and transform it for good. This essay is to written to give you strength and encouragement today and in the future. It is a call to rely on the one who has suffered for us, Jesus Christ Our Lord.