Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet
In the opening scene of the television series House of Cards the character Frank Underwood looks into the camera and says, in a drawl, “There are two kinds of pain: the sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain—the sort of pain that is only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” He reveals something to us about his character, and sure enough suffering soon comes to Frank. But he and his wife Claire, seeing suffering as useless, leap into strategies designed to manipulate, to destroy, and to seize. They refuse to suffer and in doing so, bring great suffering to others. That is Frank Underwood’s philosophy on suffering. In Paul’s letter to the Romans we see a very different perspective. He writes:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us….”
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
A few weeks ago Doyt preached on suffering and how our experience of suffering is greatly shaped by the soundness of our souls at the time when suffering arrives. So, how do we promote soundness of soul so that when suffering comes it is not experienced as useless, but in fact becomes a period in which hope and faith increase?
There are some very practical things that I think we can do to help nurture and expand the soul so that it becomes a healthy, vibrant source of peace, patience, and joy. Doyt has spoken much over the last year about the value of the spiritual disciplines. I know from my own life that when I have a regular prayer life, I seem more resilient throughout the course of a day, more able to flex with disappointments and to navigate difficulties. Prayer and stillness seem to be a vital discipline, one that prepares the soul to meet adversity with patience. I also know that weekly participation in worship helps sift out patterns of thinking that crowd my head and drown out my soul.
The spiritual disciplines are deeply beneficial. So are some other really practical things like regular sleep, healthy eating, and exercise. Over and over again I seem to rediscover how related the body and the soul actually are.
I’d also argue for something that might sound strange: adopting a practice of allowing greater discomfort in daily life. I don’t mean that we should go looking for suffering. But I do mean that many of us structure our interactions with others in a way that delays or avoids uncomfortable conversations or challenges. We say at Epiphany that in the kingdom of heaven relationship is primary, but who hasn’t realized that relationships are kind of messy and hard at times? Who doesn’t occasionally think, “I know the healthy thing would be to discuss this with my spouse” only to feel immense discomfort at bringing up a tough subject? How many of us find ourselves smiling and nodding in a meeting at work instead of offering a point of view that we know will be unpopular? How many of us find ourselves from time to time sitting on a couch mindlessly eating chips from a bag while watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show—as an escape from the worry or the pain of the day—or from the task we don’t want to do? When we numb ourselves in these kinds of ways, we silence our souls, and according to researcher Brené Brown we can’t numb the unpleasant feelings without also numbing joy. Numbing is numbing; numbing is indiscriminate. If we want our souls to be sound, and capable of experiencing joy even in the midst of suffering, we need to avoid chronic numbing and practice a little more daily discomfort, the kind of discomfort that leads us into greater truthfulness, intimacy, and adventure.
Something else we can do is to accept that suffering is. Suffering happens; it is part of the established cosmos of which we are a part. While there are things that we can do to prevent needless suffering to ourselves or others, we live within an ordered but complex and expansive cosmos consisting of unfathomable interdependence and endless causes and effects. None of us can fully comprehend the elaborate interplay of all living things and systems—and how the interplay results in both profound beauty and profound suffering. Our EfM group read a book this last year by Diogenes Allen who writes on the value of accepting that we are material beings. We are matter he observes, and “as matter we are vulnerable to wear and tear, illness, accident, decay and death.” If we can allow that to be, if we can choose to accept that reality, in facing our own materiality we can also discover freedom—freedom from the endless tyranny of constantly trying to secure what we want and think we need. We are free from the question, “Why?” We stop being the center of our own universe.
Accepting our own materiality, we discover that our ability to embrace such humility reveals that we are not only material; we are also profoundly spiritual. It is possible in the midst of suffering to discover that we are “not crushed, not degraded” by pain. Our soul, whatever comes, remains intact, free to choose its response. However racked by illness or loss, our soul is still there, pulsing with life. There is something within us that is out of reach of illness or even death. This truth is at the heart of the gospel.
And when we embrace both our material and our spiritual natures, we see our souls in profound connection with other souls who seek to navigate the difficulties and the joys of life. We see ourselves within the spiritual journey of the entire human race. Paul writes:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Paul offers the metaphor of labor to talk about the shared groaning of not only humanity, but all creation. And what is it that creation is longing to see born? Paul says here that it is the “adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” I interpret that as humanity and all creation longing, and sharing in the hope, for what is in progress but is not yet complete: the full permeation of our material realities (or what Paul calls our bodies) with true spiritual aliveness. Perhaps full adoption, or redemption, looks like humanity using its freedom to align our individual wills with the divine will, to take actions that flow out of deep mindfulness of the wisdom implanted in our souls, and to engage in pursuits that bless and enrich the rest of creation.
In other words, the redemption of our bodies is that point at which we fully enter living the lives Christ would lead if he were each of us. And I think this kind of redemption has been unfolding over centuries. I think it is about all of humanity groping and straining throughout time to come into a way of being that embodies the kingdom of heaven here, here on earth—even in the midst of pain and suffering. I think that Paul suggests that this is where we are headed, even if it doesn’t really look like it now. Paul says, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” And patience, Doyt has told us, is an indicator of the soundness of our souls.
I asked earlier “How do we promote soundness of soul so that when suffering comes it is not experienced as useless?” And I have provided some thoughts on things that I believe can be helpful in preparing our souls: spiritual practices, physical practices, choosing discomfort and engagement over numbing, and accepting suffering as a reality of our material nature and our connectedness to other beings.
But what do we do when suffering comes and we begin to suspect that our souls are not as sound as we would like them to be? What if we catch ourselves responding with impatience, anger, fear or resentment? I think that is when we take hold of the numerous promises of God that we are loved and met, where we are, as we are. I think we acknowledge the impatience, anger, fear, or resentment, and recognize that we are in the throes of labor—we are groaning and hoping, straining toward redemption. Something wants to be birthed in us, and God is eager to see it birthed.
Labor is rarely pretty or effortless; it seems to require sorting out instincts that enable delivery and instincts that obstruct it. Something as simple as breathing is relearned. Navigating suffering is like that. Some instincts open up new ways of seeing God and oneself, while others blind us from really seeing. And so, in such times, it is perhaps best to trust that we have not been left without a midwife, or without a body that can still learn the rhythms that will result in life.
We hope for what we do not yet see, learning in the midst of our labor how to understand what is being birthed in us.