Run to Battle | Fatherly Suffering 2
The Universal Experience of Suffering
During our last session we discussed St. Paul’s proposal that it is our honor not only to know Christ, but also to suffer for Him. To know Christ we must suffer with Christ, and suffering for Christ enables us to know Christ—intimately. Today I would like to build upon this principle and attempt to accomplish the impossible: that is, to make suffering appear attractive. Most of today’s messengers refrain from discussing the mystery of suffering due to it being an uncomfortable, awkward subject that truly appears to be impossible to comprehend, let alone make appealing. We all experience suffering; but how many of us embrace suffering heroically? Before proceeding, it may be beneficial to mention four men, who I know personally, and esteem as being heroic, joy-filled valiant men. The first is a friend whose wife has literally lost her mind. She no longer knows who she is or who her husband is, and yet, day in and day out, he consistently spends hour upon hour visiting her, feeding her, caring for her. He has said that through his suffering with her he has grown to love Christ all the more and has discovered an inner strength that he previously did not believe existed. Another is a friend who has seven children, one of whom became demonically possessed at a very early age, and after undergoing several failed exorcisms, finally took her own life at the age of twenty. Today he says that this suffering has helped him overcome his own pride, become a more faithfully resolute Christian, and has helped him to learn to love compassionately. Another friend has lost the use of his legs and no longer has control of his lower body, and yet, he has said on many occasions that his sufferings have liberated him and given him a joy he never thought possible. The fourth man, another friend, consistently suffers from financial difficulties, coming out at least a thousand dollars behind every month. Yet God miraculously provides for him, his wife, and their four adopted children. He has mentioned that when the basket is passed around at church, he desires to contribute more; but for now he silently prays, “Lord, all I have is my two turtle doves.” He shared with me that the experience of adopting four children and becoming faithfully dependent upon God has strengthened his faith in God and has help make him the man he is today. Suffering makes us heroic, makes us real men, real leaders. However, most of us are afraid to suffer. Our reaction is something akin to: God, where are you? God, how could you allow this? God, why don’t you hear my cry for help? God, how long will you allow this? God, why have you left me? These are simply paraphrases of the prayers of the psalmist. For example, Psalm 22 says, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” Christ Himself uses these words while dying on the cross. As St. Teresa of Avila said, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.” We have all felt this way. We have all, at one time or another, felt that God is ignoring us, abandoning us, or neglecting us.
The Scandal of Suffering
Suffering is scandalous. Suffering is not only scandalous to the world but also to Christians. The world developed utilitarianism as a solution to the problem of suffering. Utilitarianism attempts to eradicate all forms of suffering. Hence we now have euthanasia for the purpose of not suffering while enduring death. We have abortion for the purpose of not suffering in giving life. We have contraception for the purpose of not suffering while indulging our lusts. The world despises suffering and therefore despises Christianity because Christians profess that by believing in the suffering One and His cross, human beings have salvation. Not only is the world scandalized by Christians, but Christians are often scandalized by Catholic Christians, because we not only believe in the suffering One but also believe that by suffering with Him our sufferings can become redemptive and help Christ in His mission to save mankind and draw people together in solidarity with one another. As Pope St. John Paul II says, “Suffering exists in order to unleash Love in the human person (Salvici Dolores). Compassion is comprised of the Latin prefix com, which means company or many, and the word “passion,” which means to be compelled to be merciful. Therefore being compassionate is to suffer with another and enter into another’s chaos. Suffering is a great paradox in that something apparently bad or evil has the power to bring about great good.
A different way to understand Suffering
Today, rather than focusing on how to use our sufferings for the sake of uniting them with Christ for the purpose of redeeming others and ourselves, I would like to discuss the benefits and value of suffering. While Anna Marie, my third daughter, was enduring her hospitalization and experiencing psychosis, she would yell at me, commanding me to “Get her out of here! Let me leave! I hate you!” Anna Marie understood the hospital as being her prison; the treatment that the doctors and nurses applied as punishment; and me, her father, as her enemy. We can be like my daughter, in that we often view our life of suffering as a prison, the discipline of the Lord as punishment, and God our Father as our enemy. However, just as it was my decision to hospitalize Anna Marie for the purpose of healing her, often suffering is God’s way of disciplining us for the purpose of healing us. God uses suffering as a way to discipline us—that is, to makes us His disciples—to makes us real sons of God, real men, heroic men, who being healed and by becoming sons of His can become true fathers who bestow sonship on their children. God our Father desires us to be great leaders, and that demands that He discipline us and train us in suffering.
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
I would like to quote several passages from Scripture and from saints to demonstrate the great benefits of suffering, and afterward discuss Hebrews chapter 12 for the purpose of unveiling the greatest benefit of receiving suffering from God as a form of discipline. To paraphrase St. John of the Cross, the narrow gate to heaven is the thicket of suffering. “Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.” In other words, the fruit of embracing suffering for Christ is salvation. Psalm 119 says, “Before I was afflicted I strayed. It was good for me to be afflicted to learn your will.” The fruit of suffering is knowledge of ourselves, God, and His will—the gift of Knowledge. “Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of Himself” (Wisdom 3). The fruit of embracing our sufferings is understanding our value to God—the gift of Understanding and Fortitude. “The Holy Spirit of discipline flees deceit” (Wisdom 1). The fruit of God’s discipline by means of suffering is the gift of Justice. “If the soul be not tempted, exercised and proved with trials, temptations, it cannot arrive at wisdom” ( St. John of the Cross). “He that has not been tempted, what does he know? And he that has not been proved, what are the things he understands? (Ecclesiastes). “You chastised me Lord, and I was instructed” (Jeremiah). Again, the fruit of suffering is the gift of Wisdom.
Test of Suffering—Proof of Sonship
God desires you and I to become great men, great fathers, but to become great fathers, we must first become great sons. We must be sons of the father to father our sons and daughters, and God accomplishes this by disciplining us, that is discipling us through suffering. Consider why you and I discipline our own children. Is it because we hate them and desire to make their lives miserable? No. We want nothing less than for them to become great, glorified, saints; we desire for them to receive salvation, to be full of knowledge, justice, piety, fortitude, wisdom. God wants us to be great men, therefore He disciplines us. God desires us to be His chosen sons in whom He delights; and if we do, we will raise up children who know that God their Father has chosen them, delights in them, and desires them. Hebrews chapter 12 states, “You have forgotten the exhortation—My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord, neither be weary when you are rebuked by Him. For who the Lord loves he chastises; and he scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5). To which we may tempted to say, “Please stop loving me, Lord.” But that should not be our response. We must see that if we are being disciplined by God it is because of His great love for us. God is trying to stretch us, to increase our capacity to be more, to love more. Human beings are a lot like balloons. A deflated balloon that lays on the table is still a balloon, although it is flat, lifeless, and not fulfilling its purpose. It is when the balloon is filled with air, and its skin is stretched, that it becomes capable of fulfilling its purpose and soaring aloft to the heavens. So it is with us. God wants to fill us with His Spirit, the holy breath of God, which stretches us, and that stretching, that suffering hurts. God’s desire is to make us His sons, so that we may have what He has. As St. Paul tells us: “We are coheirs with Christ provided that we suffer” (Romans 8). We inherit all that Christ inherits provided that we suffer with Christ. “If you are not suffering, it is a sure sign that you are on your way to Hell” (Origen). Therefore, “Continue under discipline. God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not correct? But if you are without discipline . . . then you are illegitimate children and not sons!” (Heb 12:7). Each person’s suffering is legitimate; and suffering, if embraced, legitimizes each person. While my wife and I trekked the halls of the University of Iowa hospital, we witnessed hosts of people enduring suffering. At one point, we decided to take Anna Marie for a stroll in her wheelchair to an outdoor, rooftop cafeteria on the 8th floor, hoping that the fresh air and sun would console her and reduce her agitation. When we arrived, I noticed a man in a patient’s gown who had an IV. The sun was casting an odd shadow on his bald head, which inclined me to look closer. The reason for the odd shadow was that he had a substantially large tumor on his head. I turned to my wife and asked rhetorically, “You think we have suffering?” Each person’s suffering is legitimate, and suffering, if embraced, legitimizes us as sons of God. We all desire to be the chosen, the sons of God, but this demands that we embrace suffering.
Running to Battle
Rather than avoiding suffering to seek comfort, we should avoid seeking comfort and embrace sufferings. In fact, Hebrews chapter 12, verse 1, says, “Let us run with patience to the fight set before us” (Heb. 12:1). God is summoning us to the battle to be real men, but let’s do it not with anger, not with haste or hostility, but with patience. The Greek word for patience, patio, means to suffer. A doctor operates on patients, and makes them suffer for the purpose of healing them. A good patient exercises patience while under the scalpel of God for the purpose of healing. We must exercise patience as God operates upon us for the purpose of making us His sons.
Why is this important? Because a father cannot give what he does not have. Do we desire for our children to have knowledge, self-worth, righteousness, piety, fortitude, wisdom, the assurance that they are loved and chosen by God? Then we as fathers must embody this teaching, by not rejecting, complaining, or grumbling about our sufferings, but embracing them, understanding that God is using them for the purpose of healing and forming us into great sons who can become great fathers. Why are so many grown men only children in men’s bodies? Because many of them never had a male role model who embraced his fair share of sufferings, embodied those sufferings, and transmitted the graces and gifts of those sufferings to their sons. “Those who are strong in suffering are strong in love” (Fr. Gabriel Mary Magdalene).
When considering these truths, I cannot help but consider St. Joseph, particularly the account of finding his lost, twelve-year-old Son in the temple. After the feast of the Passover, Mary and Joseph began the return trek to Nazareth, although they were unaware that the boy Jesus remained behind. Mary and Joseph made haste, returning to Jerusalem, searching anxiously for the child, and after three days found Him in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions, and all who heard Him were amazed. Upon finding Jesus, Mary asked Him, “Son, how could you have done this to your father [meaning Joseph] and me, did you not know that we were anxiously searching for you?” To which Jesus responded, “How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I was in my Father’s [meaning God’s] house?” The words of Jesus must have stung Joseph. He must have considered the years of toil, love, effort offered for his son Jesus, and interpreted Jesus as saying, “I no longer need this father, but only My heavenly Father.” But notice what Joseph does. Joseph embraced this suffering with silent patience and Jesus obediently “went down” in submission with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, whereupon the scriptures tell us that Jesus grew in wisdom and strength. Jesus’s humanity grows in wisdom and strength because Joseph (in union with Mary) embraced his sufferings, and in doing so obtained and embodied the virtues, the gifts of the Spirit, and was made capable of transmitting these to Jesus’s human nature. That is how it will be with each of us if we embrace the sufferings God is giving us. We will become capable of giving our children the virtues and gifts of the Spirit we receive.
So how do we accomplish this? To endure sufferings and embrace them properly, I believe that it is imperative that we keep in mind three things: first, we must continually consider the benefits that I have just listed above; second, we must believe and trust that these benefits and gifts will be passed on to our wives and children; third, we must “Look to the author and finisher of faith, Jesus, who for the joy set before Him, endured a cross, despising shame. . . . Consider then Him who endured such opposition from sinners Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:2-3). We won’t grow weary, we won’t lose heart, if we look to Jesus— not only to learn from Him—but also to receive the redemptive grace necessary to follow Him.
Why do so many men fail to become great men, great fathers? Because they often avoid suffering for the purpose of seeking comfort, rather than avoiding seeking comfort for the purpose of embracing suffering. It cannot be so with us. “My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations; knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience, and patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing” (James 1:1-3). By accepting our trials with patience and perseverance, we will be prefect, lacking nothing.