“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts…”
Who in his right mind would say something like that? “We rejoice in our sufferings”? What in the world can Paul possibly mean in this verse? Isn’t the goal of most religion to remove, escape, avoid, alleviate all suffering? All week long, as I studied this passage of scripture I had a tune on my mind of an old hit song by Carly Simon about how she had given up an abusive relationship in exchange for a new true love, a boyfriend who will treat her right:
“I haven’t got time for the pain, I haven’t the room for the pain,
I haven’t the need for the pain…
Suffering was the only thing that made me feel I was alive.
Thought that’s just how much it cost to survive in this world.
But you showed me how, how to fill my life with lo-o-o-ve,
How to open up and let in all the bright light,
Shining down from the heavens!”
Now that’s the kind of verse that makes sense. That’s the kind of religion I would like to sign up for! Surely Paul is not suggesting that anyone anywhere should put up with any kind of abuse. Surely Paul is not suggesting that we should abandon our mission to help, to heal, to comfort, to alleviate suffering in this world, or to abandon our belief in a God whose ultimate will for the world is to “wipe every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither will there be crying nor pain any more.” Surely it is not that Paul doesn’t believe in comfort and peace. Doesn’t he, in the opening verses of this passage, speak of the peace of God, access to grace, glory, and hope? Why then does he say “we rejoice in our sufferings”?
I think what Paul is talking about is one of the most unique things about Christianity that sets it apart from many other religions. Most religions, and some pop versions of Christianity, offer escape from suffering, avoidance of pain, a comfortable cushion against adversity. Religion has been called a crutch. Religion has been called an opiate. When all religion does is pacify pain, then it has justly earned this criticism. But one of the things that makes Christianity unique it that it calls us to confront suffering, to confront the brutal reality that in this world, this side of eternity, for reasons we do not fully understand, life will not be a cushy bed of roses. As Harold Kushner once put it, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not charge because you are a vegetarian.” Nope. No one is exempt. No, as the wise Woody Allen once said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering–and it’s all over much too soon!”
Do we really think we can cushion ourselves against all problems and pain? No, “in spite of all our best efforts, the mortality rate of the human race is still a perfect 100%.” But the unique aspect of the Christian faith is the way in which it squarely confronts human suffering. At the center of our faith there is, not a cushion, not a rocking chair, but a cross, a rugged wooden cross. At the center of our faith is the One who calls us to follow him into those broken places of our world to give ourselves away for the sake of others. “This is the Way,” he says, as counter-intuitive as this may seem, not that wide, easy road, but rather this narrow, rocky path that leads to life, true life, eternal life. If the cross represents anything at all to us it is: there is Way through pain to the far side of deep, abiding peace.
But I think the remarkable thing that Paul is saying in this lesson is that not only is there a way through it, there is an actual use for it. Suffering can be used, suffering can be transformed into something better. Suffering can be, shall we say–recycled. For a community such as ours, where there is almost no recycling, where every day we throw away tons of plastic, paper, aluminum, glass to be hauled to landfills that threaten our fragile environment, when all these things could be transformed, what a monumental waste it is. Paul is saying, as bad as suffering may look and feel, as much as we may want to dispose of it, there is locked inside it the raw material that can be used to create something strong and solid, perhaps even good and beautiful. Paul is saying, “Don’t waste it…don’t waste the pain!”
My dad is trying his hand at having a website, being a blogger. I went to visit it one day to browse. I read with great interest his profile in which he states that he has 5 children ranging in ages 26 to 56. When I saw that, I was shocked. 56? Who is 56? Then I realized the awful truth: that would be me! I had been thinking that I was 54. No, I did the math, he was right, I am 56….and ½! What happened to the last two years? Oh yeah. Now I remember. How have these two years have slipped through my fingers so quickly? Have I somehow denied them, disposed of them in some emotional landfill? Wait a minute, Katrina—not so fast! I mean to wrestle out of you every possible lesson I can, squeeze out of that witch every little bit of good I can redeem. I want to learn from these past 2 years. I want to be a better person because of it. I don’t want to go through all this for nothing! I don’t want to waste the pain.
But how? How do you recycle it? How can we metabolize it? Paul has given us an equation, a very mysterious equation, one that may be of enormous help. He says that “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Hope is a beautiful thing. We cannot live without hope. Hope is so often the difference between life and death—in a prison camp, in an ICU, in the most unyielding dilemmas, in the aftermath of a storm, hope is what carries us through. But can it really be true that the raw material for hope comes from suffering? But how in the world do we get from A to Z? from suffering to hope?
Let’s go back: First he says suffering produces endurance. I got that part. That’s obvious. Everybody knows “no pain, no gain.” Everybody knows that it is not the soft occasions in life that make us strong. It is the hard occasions of life that call forth the best in us. Any athlete knows this. Anyone who undertakes an exercise program knows this. Anyone who runs knows this. Every morning when I go out for my morning run I am overriding the protest of every molecule of my being which would much prefer the softness of my bed, the solace of my study, quietness of a cup of coffee in my kitchen. So many mornings I simply force my creaking aching old bones do it, just do it. The hardest steps I take are the first ones, with every step I am “oh! ee! ow! ugh! ouch! ooch! ugh! gasp! pant!” But then, after the first excruciating block or so, I’m okay, and 3 miles later, flush with endorphins, cardiovascular system pumping, 300 calories burned, I am so very glad I did that. Never once, not even once, have I ever regretted my 3 mile run.
But what Paul was talking about is so much more than endurance, more than just patiently putting up with pain. The Greek word he uses means not only enduring but employing suffering, engaging it, actively seizing upon it. When I was at Juilliard week before last for Luke’s graduation, I heard the Juilliard Choir and Orchestra perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, his sublime masterpiece, one of the most difficult of all for musicians to perform, the one that ends with the triumphant “Ode to Joy” that appears in our hymnal as “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” I learned that it was the last symphony he wrote when he was completely deaf. What could possibly be worse for a musician than to lose his or hear hearing? Wouldn’t you tend to think that this meant the end of your career, the end of your life, the end of hope? But no, it was at the lowest point in time that he wrote his most sublime music. How? I read that when Beethoven first learned that he was going deaf, he said, “I will take life by the throat.” He resolved not only to endure the suffering, but to engage it, employ it, to seize it, to wrestle from it every bit of truth he could. Go home today and listen to Beethoven’s 9th and you will see that he did not waste one ounce of suffering.
Suffering produces endurance, says Paul, and endurance produces character. That makes sense too. The Greek word that Paul uses here refers to the firing of metal by which weak impurities are purged and the metal is made strong and solid. I cannot help but think of one of our nation’s great heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and all the suffering that he and his family endured. But it was the way he confronted suffering that made a revolutionary difference not only in him but countless lives. From a Birmingham jail, he wrote these remarkable words: “I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested 5 times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. Recognizing the necessity of suffering, I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these past few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.” That is character, 14 carat solid gold. Like the fire in which metal if forged, so does endurance produce character.
And character produces hope. How does that work? I have had to think about this last part of Paul’s equation more than any other. Maybe its because I have lived such a privileged and sheltered life. Character is what we use to face any situation. If our character has been forged by spending hours every day on a soft sofa with a Bud Lite and a Bowl of Popcorn watching Desperate Housewives, and then suddenly we are faced with some sort of crisis and we find ourselves with our backs pressed against the wall, we are not likely to be filled with hope. More likely we will be filled with anxiety and fear. But if our character has been forged by fire, beaten on anvil, tested by endurance, tried by experiences of suffering, then we can rise to the occasion with our hearts filled with unconquerable hope.
I have only to think of people like Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Corrie Ten Boom, Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, and it gives me hope. I think of so many of you who are my everyday heroes, some of the losses you have endured, the pain you have suffered, the obstacles you have overcome, the way you have seized the suffering by the throat, not only enduring it but employing it, squeezing every bit of good you can from it, wrestling it to the ground, transforming it into triumph, and it gives me hope.
I have only to think of Jesus, “scorned and covered with scars,” his life broken open, poured out, and yet out of that very brokenness there arose such a towering strength of character that 2000 years of brutal human history have not been able to stop his way of love. Even now, Paul says, this love is being “poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Love. That’s what we use to recycle suffering. Love. It wastes nothing. Love. It transforms everything. Love. It gives us hope. And “hope does not disappoint us.”