Good morning Madam president, brothers and sisters, friends.
In my thirty-five-year-old week-day radio program and newspaper column, Investing In Being Human, I’ve elected many times to focus this topic, suffering, as, The Mystery And Miracle of Suffering. Material for those works, and some pertinent data used in this paper, are informed by the thinking of Warren W. Wiersbe’s deeply insightful 158-page booklet, When Life Falls Apart [WLFA], and complimented by Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart [Heart Advice for Difficult Times]. To these are added an infusion of devotional and biblical material.
I am continuously amazed at how differently individuals and groups respond to pain, suffering and distress. The real life and unimaginably tragic story of a pastor who lost his wife and two of their three children in a house fire is a case in point. What does that grief-sticken and broken man do on the Sunday following his tragedy? He mounts his pulpit and delivers an inspiring sermon to uplift the spirits of his parishioners. Another story of courage in and over pain and suffering is that of the much-quoted Fanny J. Crosby [1820-1915], who, through the mistreatment of a physician, was blinded at six-weeks of age. Fanny saw this “accident” as the providential hand of God at work. At the age of eight she wrote:
O what a happy soul I am!-How many blessings I enjoy
Although I cannot see,-That other people don’t!
I am resolved that in this world-So weep and sigh that I am blind,
Contented I will be,-I cannot, and I won’t.
Or the breathtaking personal testimony in The Upper Room devotional of Thursday, October 3rd [a few days ago, 2019] by one George T. Wilkerson of North Carolina, who identifies himself as “an inmate on death row, and under many restrictions about what I can do and have;” writing under the topic True Gratitude and the text 1 Timothy 6:8. Wilkerson ends with these words: “When I finished eating, joy flooded my soul, and I prayed, ‘Lord, thank you for the soup and for answering my prayer for gratitude’. I could sense,” he continued, “God’s pleasure that I appreciated the gifts that I had been given. I then realized that God had given me all I need and always would.” And these four remarkable closing words by a man on death row: “And I was content.”
Self-inflicted suffering – emotional, spiritual, physiological, interpersonal and cosmic - is a common phenomenon. For example, many – perhaps most of us – don’t regard ourselves as our own best friend and our own worst enemy. Our focus is largely outward oriented, seeking vainly and doggedly to change the other person or situation and not ourselves. If truth be told most of our problems and suffering, are of our own making. Faulting the other, blaming some outside reality or person, and not ourselves, is a regular pastime. We ought, therefore, to take seriously, as a life or death matter, the essence of the first paragraph of Reinhold Neihbur’s Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Interpersonal conflict, challenge, pain and suffering are part and parcel of normal life.
We spend a large block of our time and energy attempting to change things that we cannot change; and little or no quality time changing the ten to fifteen percent of things that we can probably change, or at least positively impact. For example: We can’t change the varied and profound impact of biblical-scale destruction of hurricane Dorian around us, but we can change the way we deal with the effects of that and other “hurricanes” inside us, moment by moment, day by day. Regarding super-cyclones; I contend that the extraordinary and highly irregular effects of climate change is humankinds global self-inflicted wound. We abuse and take nature for granted. Nature then strikes back with a vengeance, and we fault the Almighty, describing it as “an act of God.” Let’s embrace the fact that we are all wounded-healers. We must bind our emotional, spiritual and moral wounds, says Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen [from whose pen the term “wounded-healer” first surfaced], and at the same time be available, with divine help, to assist in the healing process of others. Can we agree that: “Most of what happens around us is beyond our control; but, for the most part, we can largely control what happens within us?” [Wiersbe p.116].
Another approach or antidote to suffering is get a handle on suffering before it gets a handle on you. We must learn, practice the art if you wish, of living fully “in the sacred now”, living in the moment, one day at a time. It sounds trite and simplistic, but Jesus said: Do not worry [be not anxious] about tomorrow, tomorrow will have cares of its own [let tomorrow take care of tomorrow] Matt.6:34. In this vein Jesus also said [Matt 6]: “Do not be anxious about your life… Look at the birds of the air… Consider the lilies of the field… First seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness…” On these life-saving themes of Jesus priest-psychologist, Anthony DeMello, comments similarly [take the green card out of my wallet and read: The present moment, no matter how painful, is never unbearable. What is unbearable is what you think is going to happen in five hours or five days. [p.130f] Each day has its own unique challenges and fresh new possibilities, so don’t take on today the troubles, imagined difficulties and sufferings that might possibly come up in the future. Get on with living today no matter how real or imagined the suffering. Don’t give up. Keep moving forward, upward and onward.
My Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, the human life of God, says: Seek first God kingdom… seek first God’s justice, God’s ways. Here we have another effective approach a powerful antidote to countering pain, distress and suffering. Believe in, embrace and live in the kingdom of God/heaven.
The kingdom of God/heaven is, in a way of thinking, the believers “alternate reality”. “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a little child [i.e. in humble dependency]”, declared Jesus, “will have no part in it” [Matt.10:15]. He also said: Without being born again no one can enter God’s kingdom of heaven [John 3:3]. Again: Only that person who does the will of my Father will enter His kingdom [Matt.7:21]. The magnificent thing is that, according to Jesus, The kingdom of God/heaven is near to us, already, in fact, in our midst! [Luke 17:21].
I need not remind you that the mystery and miracle of suffering is as old as the hills. As old, for example as sixth century B.C. Buddhism, where its “three marks of truth” or three marks of human existence is propagated, namely: Impermanence; Suffering; and Egolessness. It’s a philosophy based on our fear of impermanence, where suffering is actually celebrated. We cannot, it is postulated, have pleasure without pain and suffering; and indeed [so say our Buddhist cousins] pleasure and pain are inseparable – they go together; you can’t have one without the other. Furthermore, they assert: suffering is no more a punishment than pleasure is a reward! Get that idea out of your head!
But for the believer in the religion of Jesus and Jesus’s followers, suffering is much more than a subject for calm and dispassionate philosophical reflection. It is not a speculative topic. It is, essentially one of deep personal, spiritual, theological and biblical significance. For the believer, God’s ways – including his mercy and judgment – are often quite incomprehensible. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways! “Suffering is a school of life. Only through suffering can we acquire the necessary capacity to be forbearing and the strength to attain inner growth. This is why God cannot take sufferings from anyone. Therefore, we must trust unconditionally Almighty God and place our whole life under His guidance.” [Minute Meditations, Nov.8th]. We must, in the word of Philippians 4:6: Dismiss all worries from our mind, and present our needs to God. Unrelieved anxiety will only paralyze us.
“[But] nobody could ever accuse Jesus, my Lord and Savior, of being an unconcerned spectator in the drama of life, including suffering.” [WLFA: p.90f]. “And the greatest proof the God loves us, [and stands alongside us in good times and bad -CBA], is the cross Jesus Christ – God’s human face.” [WLFA: p.92f]. “If you trust Jesus Christ, and commit yourself to Him, your storms, suffering and difficulties will become windows through which you will see God and the vast horizons of blessing He is preparing for you.” [WLFA: p.72-73].
God usually speaks to us out of the storms of life. But are we listening? Of this we are reminded in the Book of Job; for “the fundamental theme of Job’s life is not suffering, as many suppose, but God. The key question in the Book of Job is not, ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ but, ‘Do we, [dare we – CBA] worship [trust and place our hope in] a God who is worthy of our suffering.?” [WLFA: p.41]
Also, suffering is not always punishment. The story of the blind man healed by Jesus in John chapter 9 bears this out. “Rabbi”, the disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned”, said Jesus, “but this has happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”. “Some suffering is the sad consequence of our disobedience. Some suffering is preparation for further service [as in the case of Joseph, and many others]. But some suffering, as with the blind man, is simply for the glory of God.” [WLFA: p.43].
“Sometimes our faith in God delivers us from difficulties and sometimes it delivers us in difficulties.” [WLFA: p.106]. Our Lord Jesus reminds us in John 16: 33, that “In the world we will have affliction [we shall suffer]… But take courage”, he assures, “I have overcome the world”. Dorothy Sayers reminds us “That God did not abolish the fact of evil [and suffering CBA], He transformed it. God did not stop the crucifixion [and suffering CBA]: He rose from the dead.”
In our time of trials, temptation, challenge and suffering let us adopt the holy habit of walking in the footsteps of our Lord, who in His greatest hour of suffering placed his life, body, mind, soul and spirit, into the hands of His father, praying fervently: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup [of deep pain, suffering and affliction] pass away from me; yet not as I will, but as You will [Matt.26:39]”. “May you put”, in the words of 1 Peter 5:7, “all your cares on Christ… for He cares for you”. Let us be deeply assured by 1 John 5:4, that “the victory that overcomes the world [and all the difficulties that come with life and living – CBA] is our faith”. “Where reason cannot wade, says Thomas Watson, there faith must swim.” And this, by the famous British preacher, Charles Spurgeon: “The promises of God never shine so brightly as in the furnace of affliction [and suffering – CBA]. Let not your heart [mind] be troubled, declared Jesus; Trust in God, trust also in me” [John 14;1]
The deeper meaning of my trials
O Lord, you’ve kept from me;
But some small part of your great plan
I pray, Lord, help me see [D.J.Dehan]
The pilgrim way for us as would-be fully devoted disciples of the tortured, crucified, resurrected and ever-present Christ is to accept our individual or community suffering as God’s gift! With the help and strength of Almighty God we have to “enlist our suffering so that it works for us and not against us. Nobody can deny that what happens to us is unimportant; but what happens in us is infinitely more important!” [WLFA: p.115]. Our challenge is to allow ourselves to be so available to God, as, for example, did the persons of extraordinary faith mentioned in The Book of Hebrews, chapters 11 and 12, so that deeper Christian character is developed in and among us. Remember: “The same sun that melts the ice also hardens the clay.” [WLFA: p.115]
The long-suffering missionary to India for fifty-six years, Amy Carmichael, who after suffering a serious fall and being confined to her room for the next twenty years in almost constant pain, during which time she wrote thirteen books, has said: “We must learn to pray more for spiritual victory than for protection from battle-wounds, relief from havoc, rest from pain. [The triumph which God gives] is not deliverance from, but victory in trial, and this must not be intermittent but perpetual.” [WLFA: p.121f]. Isn’t it wonderful to know that in our times of deepest suffering, you and I worship The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort? [2 Cor.1:3] I’d like to close with a story of my vocational mentor, Howard Thurman, which he often shared with many who knew him personally, and recorded in his autobiography, With Head and Heart. Howard speaks of the time along with his wife Sue and others in a team he led, when they met with the great Indian moral reformer and patriot, Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram in India. Before they left, Gandhi asked Howard and his group to sing for him a Christian hymn. “Which hymn shall we sing?” they asked. “Sing the one that best expresses what you believe”, Gandhi replied. They sang the hymn: “When I survey the wondrous cross..”
[HOLD ALOFT MY SMALL CRUCIFIX AND THE CROSS] “Often we take for granted the symbol of the cross. We forget that in Jesus’ day, the cross was a despicable thing, reserved for the vilest offenders society could condemn… But, magnificently, Jesus our Lord and Savior, God’s human life, not only did something on the cross He did something to the cross. Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of suffering to a symbol of victory and glory!
The sacrifice and suffering of God’s only Son, Jesus the Christ, far surpasses whatever you and I might endure. And regardless of what a person may think about Jesus Christ, anyone who seriously examines the subject of suffering – and any approach we take to it – must confront Calvary.” [WLFA: p.87-90]
“God demonstrated His love at the cross when Jesus died for lost sinners, but He also shares His love with us personally in the here and now through the living presence of His Holy Spirit.” [WLFA: p.121-122] “So, brothers and sisters, the great good news is that if we submit and trust God [in Jesus Christ -CBA] suffering can become our servant [and not our slave CBA]” [WLFA: p.122-123]
Jesus said to his first disciples and us today: “Do not let your hearts [minds] be troubled. Trust [believe] in God; trust also in me.” [John 14:1 Sing: While seated and heads bowed in a prayerful attitude, the hymn: “When I survey the wondrous cross” [MHB: 182]
Prayer: “Lord! Turn our distressing cares into ease, our hardship [and suffering CBA] into comfort; our abasement into glory, our sorrow into blissful joy; O Thou who holds in Thy grasp, [into Thine Almighty Hands, every personal and unique life – even each one assembled here – CBA] and the reins of all humankind.” [Abdu’l-Baha].
Thank You Lord Jesus, that You have placed at our disposal Your divine gifts and resources of faith, hope and love; Your supreme agape love is stronger than our deepest suffering, challenges and difficulties, deeper even that our severest doubts and fears! Amen.
Colin B. Archer,
Trinity Methodist Church,
Nassau, N.P., Bahamas
October, 5th 2019