June 25, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 6:46-49.
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, listens to my words, and acts on them. That one is like a person building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when the flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built. But the one who listens and does not act is like a person who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, it collapsed at once and was completely destroyed.”
I don’t know anyone who has not experienced adversity in their lives that causes sorrow, grief, self-abuse or neglect, depression, rage, and other reactions that often seem beyond our control. Indeed, sometimes our feelings do overwhelm and keep us submerged for a long time, sometimes even until the day we die.
In our men’s weekly coffee group we’ve been reading and discussing sections from The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by Jesuit James Martin. Just this morning I was reading about finding God in the midst of suffering, which seems to be what this parable is about to me. Martin regards this as “an essential question in the spiritual life. How do you find God in suffering?”
“Suffering is part of the human condition in an imperfect world. And suffering can enable us to experience God in new and unexpected ways….In vulnerability, in poverty of spirit, in brokenness, we are often able to meet God in new ways — perhaps because our guard is down and we are more open to God’s presence.”
God does not want me to suffer; He wants me to be happy and to live life abundantly. Happiness is not a reward for living according to His commands and neither is suffering a punishment for disobedience. Suffering is just part of life. The point that Jesus is making is that when I love God, myself, and others — his great commandment — then I can withstand the flood that seeks to knock me off my foundation. As Barclay writes, “[T]he only true foundation is obedience to the teaching of Jesus.” That assures a dynamic faith that cannot be shaken. It enables me to find God in new or unexpected ways in suffering like the love and generous support of others, like acceptance of what I once thought would be intolerable, like peace and serenity, like the knowing of God’s presence that sustains me. I sometimes can draw closer to God than when things are all going my way, when I tend to rely on myself than Him. Nevertheless, suffering is still a trial and I sometimes feel that I will collapse.
Martin writes about the Ignatian way to accept suffering, “Christ is the example par excellence of the one who ‘surrendered to the future’ that God had in store… who accepted the ‘reality of the situation’… who was ‘obedient to the point of death,’ as St. Paul said. By meditating imaginatively on his [Jesus’] life, we can gain insights into what it means to ‘accept’ and what happens when we do and how God can bring new life out of even the darkest situations….’Seeing’ Jesus’ suffering is a reminder that, for the Christian, we are accompanied by a God who, even if he does not — for whatever mysterious reason — take away our pain, understands it, since he lived as a human being.”
This is a great point. Typically, when I am suffering I look for reason why. What have I done? What could I have done to prevent it? Why is God letting this happen to me? I struggle against simply accepting that it is what it is. When I finally get past that useless phase, I then turn to God, listen to His words, and try to live accordingly, to live in acceptance, as Jesus counsels. With that comes relief as I shift my preoccupation with myself to God and to others. The flood begins to recede. I have often said that I don’t know how people without faith are able to withstand suffering. Perhaps they don’t; perhaps they fall into a dark world that they can’t escape without help from God. That’s why it’s important for me to pray for people, to tell them that I’m praying for them and what I’m praying for so that they may listen to His words and begin to be lifted up by Him. What I usually pray for is that they will be comforted, strengthened, drawn to God, and find the peace that is beyond all understanding.
It may be a mystery why God allows me to suffer, but it’s no mystery about how to withstand it and to find God in the midst of it.