Scripture: Week 1
Transforming Our Pain
Friday, February 26, 2016
One of the enlightened themes that develops in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and reaches its fullness in the crucified Jesus is the recognition of the transformative significance of human pain and suffering. We see this most especially in the four “Servant Songs” of Isaiah (chapters 42-53), in the biographies of Jonah, Jeremiah, and Job, in Simeon’s prophecy to Mary (Luke 2:34-35), and in Jesus’ common warning to his followers. Jesus builds on what his Jewish tradition already recognized—how to hold, make use of, and transform our suffering into a new kind of life instead of an old kind of death. It is the movement from an initial self-created order, to a risky allowing of necessary disorder, to the “third force” reordering that we call the resurrected life. It is a long slog, which we all try to avoid as long as possible.
The story of Job is both the summit and also the dead end of the Hebrew Scriptures. Humanity has never known what to do with unjust suffering—which is our universal experience on this earth—until Jesus gives his seismic shift of an answer. One could say that the story of Jesus is the same story as Job, who says, “I know that I have a Living Defender, and he will raise me up at last, will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God” (Job 19:25-26). This is Jesus’ exact faith affirmation on the cross when he first says, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), followed by, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Jesus is the new Job, but with a way out and a way through.
Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing: we must go down before we even know what up is. In terms of the ego, most religions teach in some way that all must “die before they die.” Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to both destabilize and reveal our arrogance, our separateness, and our lack of compassion. I define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” Suffering is the most effective way whereby humans learn to trust, allow, and give up control to Another Source. I wish there were a different answer, but Jesus reveals on the cross both the path and the price of full transformation into the divine.
When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering, human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity. I am afraid there are bitter and blaming people everywhere, both inside and outside of the church. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, and the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know how to deal with all this negativity. This is what we need to be “saved” from.
If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. The natural movement of the small self or ego is to protect itself so as not to be hurt again. As I shared last week, neuroscience now shows us that we attach to negativity “like Velcro” unless we intentionally develop another neural path like forgiveness or letting go.
Mature religion is about transforming history and individuals so that we don’t keep handing the pain on to the next generation. For Christians, we learn to identify our own wounds with the wounding of Jesus and the sufferings of the universal Body of Christ (see Philippians 3:10-11), which is Deep Meaning that always feeds the soul. We can then see our own suffering as a voluntary participation in the one Great Sadness of God (Colossians 1:24). Within this meaningful worldview, we can build something new, good, and forever original, while neither playing the victim nor making victims of others. We can be free conduits of grace into the world.
Gateway to Silence:
Astonish me with your love.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 24-25.