The Spiritual Value of Suffering

(2 Corinthians 12.1-10)

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You’ll understand, I hope, if I take up the theme of the spiritual value of suffering. It is, after all a year and four days after cardiac arrest and all its subsequent complications struck me. I want to thank you again for your solicitude in both prayer and action during the times of hospitalization and convalescence.

But the theme of the spiritual value of suffering isn’t just my anniversary issue; it’s also St Paul’s issue. For in the twelfth chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians Paul takes up the theme.

 

Why does he do that?

St Paul’s relations with the Christians in Corinth were challenging. He probably wrote at least three letters to them, maybe more; there was a lot to deal with-- issues to unpick, contentions to resolve, etc. Some of those issues were practical and, as we would say, ethical; others were theological; some were personal to Paul himself, as we see in chapter twelve.

In this twelfth chapter Paul continues to react to criticisms from so-called ‘super-apostles’ who’ve intruded themselves into the congregation and presented a different and, in their own view, better version of the Christian faith than what St Paul had to offer.

So in the face of an assault on his apostleship by some Alpha-male boasters, St Paul responds.

The heart of his argument is this: I too have spiritual credentials, but they’re different. My credentials, he argues, are not the things that make me stand out as preeminent or better or holier or healthier. The strength and integrity of my apostleship arise from my incapacity, from my deficiency, from all about and in me that points up my lacks and points to God’s super-abundant gifts to me. That’s the heart of Paul’s response. For Paul the issue was God’s grace supplying and supplementing all that is lacking: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is make perfect in weakness” (v.9). A Christian calling based on mere human capacities and competences doesn’t work. God’s compassionate supervention is needed.

That insight was driven home, driven into Paul by some sharp physical problem that he suffered and subsequently endured. After the precipitating event he remained henceforth challenged, as we would say nowadays. On top of that ‘thorn’ in his flesh came the relentless succession of physical assaults and material deprivations to which he makes reference here and there in various letters.

What’s remarkable about Paul is how he became content[1] with his suffering and content in them. We should give that precision: he became content with and in his sufferings ‘for the sake of Christ’.

It’s important not to glamorize suffering. But nor should we evade, flee and fear it. Paul discovered that it has the power to unite us more deeply with Christ, and, in union with Christ, to deepen our sense of dependence on a life, a power, a perspective that lies outside and beyond us. Paul discovered that suffering has the power to put us in our place and to help us grow.

How so?

Well, if I dare speculate on the basis of my own experience, I would explain “How so?” like this.

Being handled by others, medical practitioners, say, can strip us of our privacy, our modesty, our sense of having a boundaried body. Just who are we when we’re shorn of our clothes, our personal habits, the conventions of respect and identity by which we normally engage with the world around us? Where does ‘the glory of man’ remain after the stripping, the prodding and probing, the needle punctures, the enemas and catheters, all those medically salutary ‘scourgings’? That sort of suffering compels us to find our identity in something deeper and more permanent than what we typically reply on to ‘be ourselves’.

Those kinds of experiences and the sheer trauma of body or mind that suffering forces upon us drill down to a far deep level of awareness that, I believe, is otherwise hard or impossible to access. The experience of suffering somehow shifts the deep ground of our being, and it does so in ways we cannot anticipate, cannot control, probably do not even want. But it happens, and our conscious self follows in the wake. We come out of the experience irrevocably changed. By grace we are opened up to sensitivities and insights about ourselves, God, and the world which were hitherto closed to us. I think that’s what a great French spiritual guide meant—and he knew mental suffering first-hand as a chronic depressive-- when he declared ‘Suffering makes us greater than we would ever wish to be ourselves’.[2] It can do, that is, by grace.

So, I for one can understand how there was a compelling might in Paul and in his preaching not despite the thorn in his flesh (12.7), which grace somehow negated, but because of it.

Paul opens this letter in a way that hints at this.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to console those who are in any way afflicted with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we also are suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.

St Paul sets his apostleship between the twin poles of suffering and consolation. Paul’s sufferings have opened him up so that he can stand with others in the weakness and need, and that is his consolation to them. The consolation he offers is no sudden or magic cure, no spiritual razzmatazz such as other ‘super-apostles’ might proffer. The apostolic consolation he offers to the Corinthians is the solidarity which one sufferer is able to share toward another ‘for the sake of Christ’. That is, the suffering reveals to the sufferer more of the surpassing knowledge of Christ. For we’re called to know the whole Christ—he holds nothing back from us, and so for that full knowledge of Christ we too must somehow drink the cup of Christ’s passion. We mustn’t look for it—that would be perverse, nor should we aim to inflict it on others; but when it comes, we must take it up as a cross and bear it, trusting that God’s grace will be sufficient for us and sustain us.

On the Newsletter cover this week is a quotation by our former Archbishop of Canterbury. It reminds us of the unavoidable presence of the cross—read: suffering—in life, the ‘night’, as St Augustine put it, when God’s voice is heard. Crux probat omnia—‘the cross tests and verifies everything’. By grace suffering distils human experience and knowledge so that they might become for and in us ‘the wisdom of God’.

To know God, in so far as we can know God at all, is first to be wounded in ways that few of us would ever want or control. That is a particular insight of the Good News and we mustn’t soft-peddle it by exchanging for it an easy-going, soft-focus religion of ‘well-being’.

‘Suffering makes us greater than we would ever wish to be ourselves’. I think that can be true.

Is this a Gospel that our pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding world wishes to hear? I doubt it. But when we look right between the eyes at the experience of believers through the centuries, the highest and deepest union with Christ, and the profoundest joy, has come to those who in humility have agreed to know ‘nothing except Jesus Christ crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2.2).

Such sufferers have been ‘the lights in their generation’. Perhaps that makes no sense; but Paul tells us that our faith mustn’t rest in the ‘wisdom of men’ but in ‘the power of God’.

I suppose that’s why Henri Matisse, trying to render all of this in images, described the Way of the Cross as humankind’s most profound drama.[3] And yet however hard, however threatening, the cauldron of suffering can give us a truer Christian joy, for ‘[I]n the middle of the fire we are healed and restored’.[4]

Amen.

~

The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

July 8th 2018 – The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

 

[1] Eudokeo; even, that is, to be pleased with, to take delight in.

[2] Quoted by A. Louth, The Wilderness of God (London, DLT:1991) p. 19.

[3] Notes on his studies for the Way of the Cross in his Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence.

[4] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, USA, 1980 ), p. 179.