I love the feeling of rest that comes to me after a run. I love a great meal with loved ones and a good cup of coffee with a good book perched on my lap. I love quiet evenings to read and write or watch quality TV. I love many of life’s pleasures. It’s all well and good to love comfort… though it can easily spell trouble when I get selfish and my happiness depends on it.
Who am I when these things are taken away from me? Who am I when I wake up with headaches that return despite my attempts to hold them at bay? When I have report cards to write and am asked to sacrifice my precious down time? When the trials of life knock at my door? Paul Simon has a great line in his song Outrageous that goes, “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” My line could be, “Who’s gonna love you when your comfort’s gone?”
One of my New Testament heroes is the Apostle Paul, who wrote “I am content in all circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). He did not say this lightly since he experienced a lot of hardship for what he believed. He said God gave him strength and contentment no matter what outer circumstances were happening. His statement is such a contrast to me who gets worked up and anxious at the drop of a hat when circumstances don’t go my way and I am out of my comfort zone.
This week has been filled with many blessings – rest from work, celebrations with our church friends, meaningful conversations with family, relaxed time for recreation – and so perhaps it’s strange to read my blog topic of the week.
Suffering. There’s so much all around us when we begin to look. A former co-worker of mine is suffering the last stages of cancer this Christmas. My cousin Evy who I had the honor of having coffee with this week, is also battling cancer. Next week I’ll visit my friend Bill Howdle who is facing many health challenges. My own parents are experiencing increased diminishment as they face the challenges of aging. We all keep thinking of those parents in the States who are suffering a Christmas without their children after one man’s violent act.
All these shadows cross our paths and we wonder not if but when this Dark Visitor will come to us. We know with uneasiness that suffering will visit us all if it hasn’t already.
In November, I came across this topic in another blog I follow called Mere Inklings, a blog using the ideas of C.S. Lewis as starting points for reflection. Rob Stroud wrote about the autobiography of Freddie Sun who was a Christian in Maoist China and suffered greatly for being a believer. More than a decade was spent in a slave labor camp and he lost his career as a professor of Geology, all because he would not deny Christ. Robstround’s review of the book, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, made such an impression on me that I asked for it for Christmas and it was well worth the read this week.
We are lucky in our country to have freedom of religion. It may be unusual to be a practicing Christian in this post-Christian world, but I do not suffer because of it. This man could have escaped his suffering by denying Christ, but he would not do it. Being made to suffer could have made him bitter, but instead he experienced a deepening of his faith and commitment.
His story is amazing, but here is what really hit the center of my comfort-loving consciousness. Sun described his imprisonment as his “seminary” experience: “Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience.” These greater lessons are what scripture calls the fruits of the Spirit.
My cousin Evy has had opportunity to learn these greater lessons in her seminary of suffering. She lives in Ontario, so I’ve only seen her a few times in recent years. She has lived with cancer for almost 6 years now. When I saw her this week, I could clearly see the effects of suffering etched on her face, but in her clear blue eyes and in our conversation I also saw the tenacious fruits of the Spirit.
We talked about trusting God in circumstances that bring so much suffering.These are not easy words to live by. At every turn of the road, she has cried and asked God why this was happening to her. She is often crippled with anxiety and fear.
She may not understand the why much of the time, but I can clearly see that suffering has opened her heart. I don’t often offer to pray with people, but even though we haven’t seen each other for over 2 years, she said yes right aways and together in the cold car we asked God for strength to meet trials, and for trust, endurance, patience and faith in all circumstances, as the Apostle Paul wrote about. We thanked God for the many ways God’s presence is made known to us, even in suffering. Her gratitude and quiet faith were a sign post to me that God was here.
Evy may not know it, but her life is a witness to me of Love being stronger than fears and anxieties. I am sure she would rather not have to travel this road, and I am sure it is infinitely difficult, but she has reminded me to trust God in the seminary of suffering.
C.S. Lewis wrote about how to understand suffering. In his famous book The Problem of Pain, he writes about how a loving God can allow evil to occur. He stated that suffering is not good in itself. “What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his [or her] submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”
Submission to God in suffering does not mean we don’t do what we can to change things. It means to “accept the things we can not change”, as the famous Serenity prayer says, trusting that God can use everything, even suffering, to create goodness and a light in the darkness.
This teaching has helped me understand the role of suffering in our lives. Lewis writes that God can make complex good rise out of simple evil. It does not excuse those who create the evil or suffering, but it does point to God being greater than anything that comes our way.
Earlier I shared Paul Simon’s question, “Who’s gonna love me when my looks are gone?” He also answers the question in the amazing ending to the song. I pray for Evy, and for all of us, that we might trust this answer in the darkest times.
“God will, like he waters the flowers on your windowsill.”