1 Peter 4:12-14, 19
Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of Glory and of God rests upon you…those who suffer in accord with God’s will hand their souls over to a faithful creator as they do good.
We have been asked by our bishops to set aside a Holy Hour once a month and to pray as a community that those who serve us in public office will uphold the intrinsic dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death, that they affirm and support the unique meaning of marriage, and that they will defend the importance of religious liberty for all.
For us to speak out on the issues of life, marriage and religious freedom in the public square will cost us; the world is not happy that we are active and vocal in our opposition to abortion and Dr. assisted suicide, that we affirm that God intends marriage to be between one man and one woman for a lifetime—they view this as antiquated—even antediluvian—suspecting that we haven’t had an original thought since the great flood drowned everybody and everything except, Noah, his family and all the critters on the Ark.
But we stand fast, striving to be neither shrill nor mean. Quietly—lovingly—prayerfully confronting wrong thinking and wrong behavior that leads to evil. If we remain faithful in doing this, we will suffer. Usually in small ways by being mocked or even rejected by friends and acquaintances, perhaps even some family; we may suffer financially and probably we will suffer socially. But we stand fast.
There are four aspects of suffering that I briefly want to bring to your attention this evening.
1. The first is suffering as discipline. Any one who has spent anytime in a sports setting knows the old coach’s adage “No pain—no gain.” Suffering in this sense is a toughening agent. It’s what lies behind boot camp in the military and training camp in athletics. People need to be toughened if they are to take on the difficulties of this life.
35 years ago I was an assistant at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Yakima, Washington. We hit some tough times financially, so I spent my vacation working for an apple orchardist trying to pick up a few extra bucks. He had me shaping and putting in spacers in young apple trees. Spacers are wooden stakes that prop branches apart to give more room for the fruit to grow, to provide better ventilation, and to serve as braces for limbs so they don’t break when the apples get really heavy.
As I was doing this the orchardist gave me a bit of advice that really caused me to think. He said “Apple trees are like kids—for the first few years of their lives they need to be pampered and coddled, protected and nurtured. If they aren’t then they can be permanently damaged. But when the trees get to be adolescents, they need to suffer so they can bear more fruit.” So he’d go out and sometimes beat on the young trees and in response the crop of apples would increase substantially. I’m reluctant to take this too far, but the point is worth noting. Until we’ve faced serious adversity, we don’t know how fruitful we can be. Until we’ve endured serious pain and hardship, we won’t know how to withstand real temptation. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness—a time of severe deprivation and pain and cruel temptation by Satan.
But this was a time of toughening for our Lord so that he could better withstand all of the difficulties that were to confront him at a later date. Suffering strengthens us so that we can better resist temptation and stand firm in the face of sin. Suffering enhances discipline.
2. Suffering is something to be resolved. Whenever we can alleviate someone’s pain, it is a blessing. That is why we have the sacrament of reconciliation; that’s why we have the sacrament of anointing. That’s why we need medical professionals. They all alleviate suffering, which is so important in sharing the goodness of God’s love.
Often it is a word and act of comfort during suffering that brings the most good. For example you can explain to a child all the medical reasons why he must have a shot in the arm, but after the nurse plunges that needle into his arm, he runs to mommy. Comfort comes not in always knowing the reason why, but in knowing the comforter.
And for us, our comfort comes from God who ultimately will resolve all suffering.
3. Suffering is redemptive. Whether it be great suffering or minor irritations, if we actively and prayerfully offer them up with Jesus on the Cross, it can be redemptive. Whether we offer them in indulgences for ourselves or for the poor souls in Purgatory, the offering of our suffering is redemptive. God does not allow our suffering to go to waste, particularly if it is for the defense of the faith and the welfare of others.
4. Suffering can a mystery that draws us closer to God. I want to end with this story. There was a devoted man who spent his life in great pain—a lonely, private man who suffered with great dignity. He wrote—
“Loneliness is not a thing of itself, not an evil sent to rob us of the joys of life. Loneliness, loss, pain, sorrow, these are disciplines, God’s gift to drive us to his very heart, to increase our capacity for him—to sharpen our sensitivities and understanding—to temper our spiritual lives so that that they may become channels of his mercy to others and so bear fruit for the kingdom. But these disciplines must be seized upon and used—not thwarted. They must not be seen as excuses for living in the shadow of half lives—but as the messengers—however painful—to bring our souls into vital contact with the living God—that our lives may be filled to overflowing with himself in ways that may—perhaps—be impossible to those who know less of life’s darkness.