We are pain-averse by nature. This causes us to panic or shutdown when disaster occurs, rather than to practice a plan ahead of time to deal with it.
Anthropologically speaking, of course, this is a good thing to be pain-averse. We would not live long or prosper if we little minded painful things. This is, I believe, part of God’s design in creating us. Still, the ancient Greek Stoics strove to elevate reason and rationality to such a level that they were indifferent to individual suffering. Let me be clear: What St. Paul is talking about to the Romans is not an appeal to stoicism. It is rather the secret to keeping the covenant between us and God. And it has nothing to do with being indifferent to suffering. But it has everything to do with understanding suffering’s crucial role in our lives as Christian disciples. You see, for us, “getting saved” or as St. Paul refers to it throughout his letter to the Romans “getting justified by grace” is only the starting point, not the destination. Once justified, we only become effective through our practice.
In a recent Christa Tippet interview, she comments on someone who described himself as being a “practicing Christian but not a believing Christian” and I completely understand that, and think St. Paul is speaking to that here. William Porcher Dubose has summarized it this way: “God in Christ is only one half of the Incarnation. Christ in us is the other half.” And this practice of prayer and worship come whatever may is the circle of discipleship here in today’s epistle reading:
“We boast in our hope. . .but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” Endurance is strengthened through repetition, through practice. I wonder whether George Lucas was meditating on this very passage when he wrote the scene from Episode One, the Phantom Menace, the Star Wars prequel, for the scene of Yoda questioning young Anakin about his fear of losing his mother.
“What’s fear got to do with anything?” the young child barks back at him. “Oh, it has to do with everything. Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. And suffering leads to the dark side.” If we stop here at the door to the “dark side” we remain in our skewed perspective of suffering as a destination, which would be as unjust as us stopping at the event of our initially committing our lives to Christ. Our perception disorder often blinds us to God’s presence that desires to use suffering as a fork in the road – it can lead to permanent and intractable depression and bitterness OR it can lead in another direction, through endurance and out the other side to a life whose richness is unbounded because it is supported by a holy hope that never disappoints no matter what the actual pain may be that we are enduring.
“Most of us” would not argue with a practice that leads to something positive. That same “most of us”, however, finds it very difficult to stick with such practices, whether we are talking about diet and exercise or giving thanks to God for the opportunity to grow up through whatever sufferings we are facing. We cannot sheer grit our way through these situations. It is only by the power of the Spirit of God that we can succeed. Luckily for us, the Spirit’s special gift is fluency in our own languages. We needn’t overcomplicate our prayers for the Spirit’s presence in our lives and strength in our souls during times of trouble. In some circumstances, God even promises that the Spirit will take over praying for us, communicating to God in language only God can understand, in “groans too deep for words (Rom 8:26).”
If practicing how to respond to suffering didn’t make any difference, we wouldn’t have taken so much time out of our worship on a Sunday morning to learn how to exit this building in the event of a fire. Every contingency cannot be rehearsed, however, and there is little doubt that should a fire ever happen it might take someone reminding us all of what we practiced to get us out of danger and into safety. Yet, one more reason we live in Christian fellowship. For all that St. Paul gives me to struggle against I praise God for this aspect of his commitment to the Church, and for his voice that can be heard above the tumult reminding us of what we have practiced. I refuse to let my fears take me to the dark side. I choose to take the other path through to endurance, because I believe that endurance leads to character and that character leads to hope and that hope never disappoints.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
May 22, 2016