The Paradox of Suffering
The Epistle text for Reformation Sunday is I Peter 4:12 —19 . Through this lesson the apostle re —introduces us to the difficult task of how to interpret the experience of suffering. This matter wiH be looked at through Luther's eyes in Phil Johnson's article later in this issue. By way of introducing this second issue of Pietisten, however, I want to begin our consideration of the text by sharing' in some devotional reflection on its word to us.
To facilitate this I'd like to briefly relate three events which I experienced over the course of two and a half years. Please be clear about this before I commence: I share these events not to draw attention to them but because they opened my eyes to the text and the word of the text enlightened my perspective on events. 'IIiese experiences also enabled me to speak an authentic word instead of a merely abstract one.
The first event occurred over six springs ago on a Confirmation Sunday morning; on that sabbath I woke up at six a.m., violently ill. What I shrugged off as having to do with "something I ate last night" was instead the onset of acute colitis — it mould incapacitate me for several weeks and take a full year to recover from. I had been enjoying my returned health for a fem months when I found myself on a late fall drive through a snowy Wisconsin evening when I narrowly escaped death during a multiple-car accident. At one point during that long hour I had to take a running dive over a guard rail and down an embankment to save myself from an oncoming car. The following October I was reflecting upon that fateful night when I was called in on a Friday morning to be informed that my job as a pastor was over and that my time at that church was through. This was not the first bad news I had ever received nor would it be the last, but it did help set the scene for my life for the next few years.
Each of these events seemed singular and extraordinary at the time, yet the larger truth to which they eventually introduced me was that occurrences like illness, auto accidents, and unemployment are actually rather ordinary and common — thousands, hundreds of thousands of people experience them. Most families have at least one such story to tell and countless individuals have encountered all three. For me though, as each event occurred, I was taken by surprise.
"Beloved, do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal which is upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you." As though something strange were happening. Some of the best counsel I received during my reflection over those three events was this word, "What is surprising is that you were so surprised." That was a very insightful observation and very helpful for me. Despite lemons to the contrary earlier in my life, I had somehow fallen into the assumption that hard times and suffering would somehow begin to avoid me as I grew older. I write this not to instruct — for I assume this is not big news to most readers who probably learn+I or relearned this lesson before I did — but rather to show my identification with those folks to whom the Apostle is writing. Apparently these people too had to be reminded that suffering is no surprise but is a rather expected, rather ordinary part of normal human existence
It has been felt by some that the Apostle's word is directed toward suffering due to a specific Christian witness. There are ominous sounding phrases, such as "fiery ordeal", which may speak of a particular persecution which was being or had been directed toward Christians. The tone of the letter as a whole, however, seems to be to be concerned with remarkably domestic concerns, community issues, and the trials of everyday living. Indeed, in this passage being "reproached" for being a Christian is as specific and serious a suffering as is mentioned. Peter's word to these churches of the diaspora appears to speak to the sufferings of the human situation, which may also be amplified by any intentional living that is devoted to the gospel.
To these people the apostle says that such suffering is not only not surprising and not strange but going one step further, that such suffering is to be a cause to rejoice. This is paradoxical language to say the least, reminding us of Jesus' response to certain leash criticism, well described in Phil's article later on. Peter does not seem uncomfortable with the paradox yet does offer us some aid in understanding it and living it when he: I) identifies our suffering as sharing in the suffering of Christ and then 2) claims that by doing so we are also able to share in Christ's glory that is to be revealed. This glory is not for the future only but, as it is written in verse 14, "If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of God rests upon you". Again I believe it is appropriate to assume that this blessing applies to people who are suffering as they are Christians not only because they are Christians, i.e., there is some blessing and some presence of the Spirit in the suffering we encounter just by living as human beings in the world.
This stance of sneering as interwoven with life made much sense to the pietists of the prior century. It is a perspective that is witnessed especially in their hymnody. Both Lina Sandell and Nils Frykman had more than their share of tragedy and hard times and neither of them forgot to include both gladness and sorrow in their verse. When we hear the lyrics, "Day by day and with each passing moment, Strength I find to meet my trials here", we recognize that experience and hear an echo of the apostle's words. The pietists' existence as a community of people who were sojourners, exiles, immigrants, and for some time outlaws in their homeland, paved the way for their continual acceptance of the precariousness of human life; essential progress may or may not be possible but certainly was not inevitable. This outlook distinguishes pietism from some other groups within the Reformation family.
Pervasive among Pietist devotional writings was this sense that while there may not be progress per se, that resulted from suffering, there was, however, a blessing that was received, similar to that of which the apostle writes in I Peter 4. I now share to a greater extent in that perspective on events. What has been for me the unexpected result of the events I described earlier is that I have received some siy66cant blessing from those three experiences, each of which at the time seemed to lack any redemptive quality. Further, these are blessings I would not have received had I not undergone those difficult times.
The truth is that I am much more healthy now than I ever was before I became ill. Colitis led me to make important changes in my lifestyle, among them my diet, my exercise, my work-habits, and the way I coped with stress; in short, I "changed my evil ways". I now also see life with different eyes after I walked back up that snow-covered embankment to a highway littered with wrecked cars and injured people only to find myself alive and unhurt. In the cold wind of that night I realized once and for all that my time was limited. Yet, I also experienced the insight and exhilaration of the poet e. e. cummings' words, "I who was dead am alive again today". Finally, the anxiety of unemployment, the financial hardships and low-paying work became a source for learning what it is that is really necessary, that is essential for the security and happiness of my family and home. It has been pro6table to discover the extent of the non-essential and it has been satisfying and sometimes a joy to plumb the depths of the necessary.
Each of these was a blessing and an experience of new life. The paradox however, is this: even if I had known that these blessings would be received, and that they could only be had through these experiences of pain and struggle, I stiH would never have chosen to take that path of suffering. That has not changed. I should not still consciously wish upon myself the experiences of illness, auto wrecks or unemployment. Though I didn't choose to, I found myself on that path anyway and have learned more about being a human being because of it: I have been blessed in spite of myself and here is the grace of God!