Knowing God Through Suffering

Today we started a new sermon series on getting to know Jesus. James read from Philippians 3: 7-11. Philippians is a letter written by Paul. In this passage, he clarifies that nothing matters more than knowing Jesus, that suffering can be part of the journey, and that salvation doesn’t come from following the rules but from following Jesus. For me, this passage really puts into perspective what knowing Jesus is all about. If you have not read it, or the letter, I highly recommend it. They are both short, but pack a punch!

I’d like to focus on the notion of suffering as part of the Christian journey. For much of my life, human suffering has been an obstacle to my belief in God. Therefore, it is challenging for me to think of it as a conduit to the Divine as opposed to a roadblock. When bad things happen, I tend to blame God or to deny God’s existence. I often find it hard to reconcile a benevolent, omnipotent God with things like the school shooting in Florida. To be a believer, I have had to manage this tension with various theological interpretations of suffering. But I have NEVER considered the possibility that such suffering might be beneficial or even necessary. Even now, the idea seems anathema and I dread even considering it for fear that it will glorify pain or excuse it or enable someone to justify their own cruelty or paint God as cruel because it is “necessary.” But I am going to delve into the topic anyway with the faith that any reader will bring a mature understanding to my musings and that the Spirit will work to clarify my thoughts in ways that bring us all closer to God’s love and not into the hands of the devil. Please God.

Two parts of this passage hint that there might be some truth in the idea that suffering can serve a purpose. (I refuse to believe that God makes us suffer. I am only suggesting that God can use our suffering, and that without it, we are somehow handicapped.) First, Paul says: I have suffered the loss of all things…that I may gain Christ. Second, he says: I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. What light can these statementsdying  shed on the relationship between suffering and faith? In the sending out, Marge said her ex-husband John brought her closer to Christ by leaving her after 27 years of marriage. In Marge’s words, John threw her into the arms of Jesus. When we lose something, we suffer. And the greater the loss, the greater the suffering. But there is also a potential for greater gain. When everything else is gone, only God remains. Perhaps this is the meaning of Paul’s first statement. When hope is gone and the pain is overwhelming, when our prayers have gone unanswered and there is nothing left, there we find God. God is the source of the love and beauty we know exists. When can’t find it here, we begin to look to the divine. Without suffering, we tend to imagine the divine is us. Without suffering, we are self- sufficient. Without suffering, this life is heaven on earth.

In other words, suffering is the ultimate statement of truth about the human condition and our need for salvation. Without suffering, we are God. Jesus had to suffer and die because he was truly human. Renzo and I just finished a show on Netflix called Altered Carbon. The premise is that in the future the very rich can have whatever they want, do whatever they want, and that they live forever. They worship only themselves and their own wants and needs. They have no moral compass other than their own desire. They don’t need God. They are Gods. To participate in the suffering and death of Christ is to acknowledge our faults and weaknesses, to acknowledge our very humanity. And in so doing, we open ourselves up to the resurrection, to new life as obedient children of God on high. We take our rightful place in the Universe of God’s design rather than in a world of our own making, a world rampant with the cruelty that only humans who think they are gods are capable of. We suffer and die so that there can be something more.

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