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Don't be Offended by Suffering

My thinking has been directed to suffering recently as a result of reading a Facebook post and hearing a homily on the 3rd Sunday of advent.


My name is Joy, unlike happiness joy is a fruit of suffering.  I’ve cynically thought over the years, why would a parent call their child joy? To fully live the meaning of their name they will have to experience suffering.  That seems unfair.  But more recently I have been able to accept that suffering is a shared human experience, it is a necessary and unavoidable part of life.  All of the best people I know have been shaped through suffering.

I was once told “Life is hard, people are strange but God is good.” Somehow the concept that God is good can set up something of an expectation of what God’s goodness looks like.  It seems an easy mistake to make to think that God’s goodness means there’s no suffering in life.  But, this is not promised.  Scripture is full of suffering and encouragement that suffering is a normal experience of life and something which allows us to share in Christ’s life (1 Peter 4:12-13). In fact we’re encouraged by St Paul to rejoice in our sufferings.  That seems to take the very helpful practice gratitude to the next level.

Silent retreat 1 Nov- 5 Dec 2015 543.jpe

The Zen Buddhist tradition describes two types of suffering- what happens and our response to it.  This understanding captures the reality that we can’t change has happened. We experience powerlessness.  But we can choose our response.


Just imagine you’ve spend your life serving someone else, who you felt God invited you to promote and prepare others to meet.  You’ve done this faithful.  And now it seems that the very one you promoted has let you down.


Perhaps it’s a familiar story.


This is the story of John the baptiser. 

Before he was born he responded with joy at the existence of Christ.  He understood from the Scriptures that the Christ was a freedom bringer, transformer and healer.  He chose a path of abstinence, itchy clothes and simplicity to shout it out for change and letting go of all that gets in the way of God’s love.  He lived in the desert, spend a lot of time getting wet and washing people as a symbol of them leaving shame, selfishness, pride, destruction and hate behind.


He declared “this is He” when he met Jesus at the waters edge.  He encouraged his disciples to follow Christ.  He spend his whole life for this cause.


Then, he was imprisoned…. He knew that the Scripture foretold in the Psalms and the Prophets that Christ would set prisoners free.  His hope and expectation was that Jesus would free him from prison.  But nothing happened; there was no change to his imprisonment.  Finally he asked, disillusioned and confused.  “Are you the Christ? Or are we to expect someone else?” Jesus response was puzzling, “Tell him of the miraculous healings, the words I have preached and to whom. Tell him blessed is the person who takes no offense at me.”


How do you wait when answers don’t come? When there’s something you know God could do but he doesn’t?  What if God does come in the way it is promised in scripture, but to others?


Is there anyway to live with this kind of confusion and suffering?


Perhaps we can learn from Job.  A man who had everything and lost it all- A man who didn’t have anything to be punished for, what happened to him seemed so very unfair.  His children died, his property was stolen, his health declined into a painful condition.  He responded at first with a lot of silence.  When he began to talk he leaned into the Questions.  “Why is this happening to me? Where is God and why doesn’t he talk to me?  What is God like?”  His former theology was shaken and he was left with unanswered questions.  His friends weren’t much help.  They tried to find reasons for the pain, primarily in the tone of “Job, surely it must be your fault!”  After a lot of talking, ranting and questioning.  There again was silence.  And God spoke!


“Look at the complexity of creation!  The beauty and splendour of what I have made!  Do you know it’s incredible detail?  Who do you think you are?  How about you come and be me for a day.”


Job’s response was acceptance and surrender. “I don’t know, I don’t understand, you exceed my understanding, sorry for what I thought I knew about you.  You are God and I am not.”


God restored Job’s property and blessed him with more children.  John the Baptist was killed and his head offered on a platter.


Recalling these things leaves me with questions of my own: How am I with suffering?  How am I with what can’t be explained?  How can I remain without offence when promises are not fulfilled the way I thought they were promised?  How can I live with acceptance and trust in these circumstances?


{I acknowledge Fr Cirilo (Homily 3rd Sunday of Advent 2019) and Cindy Ruakere for their words (FB 16.12.19 the story of Ko Wai)}.

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