Suffering & The Cross

Fr. James Chelich, 1992

Jesus told his disciples quite plainly to expect that the Cross and suffering would be as much a part of their lives as it was a part of his own: “If a man or woman wishes to comes after me, they must deny their very self, take up their cross, and follow in my steps.” Mark 8:24 This is not because God enjoys human suffering. He abhors it and is constantly seeking to bring it to an end. As a Divine Physician He seeks in every way to both relieve the symptoms and heal the cause: “Though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.” Hosea 11:1-4 We see this so clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus: “People…came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured; indeed, the whole crowd was trying to touch him because power went out from him which cured all.” Luke 6:17-19 Nor does God “send” us crosses to bear. Suffering entered the world when sin was born in the human heart. When we rebelled and broke away from God, we headed full steam down the path of getting what we wanted, when we wanted it and the way we wanted it. In the process, we turned the whole universal order of things upside-down. Everything that had been in a life-giving order was thrown into chaos, only to settled into new patterns — patterns of suffering and pain. Things that once worked together to create life and preserve health now worked at odds with one another to deal death — within us, between us, and in the world around us. You could say, and quite literally, “All hell broke loose!” This is the terrible truth of the consequences of sin. The only way back to life and sanity is to re-connect with God. The only place this can take happen is in the human heart, where it all first went wrong. The way this is done is by surrendering our rebellious will to God: “My God, I offer myself to You — to build with me and do with me as You will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Your Power, Your Love, and Your way of life May I do Your will always!” AA, The Big Book In his death and resurrection, Jesus won for us the power to defeat our worst enemy — our Self-will! Jesus invites us to open our hearts to him and claim this power. “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me…” Matthew 11:28-29 Jesus’ “yoke” was to do the will of his heavenly Father (John 6:37-40). We “take his yoke upon our shoulders” when we surrender our Self-will to God. Jesus unites us in a life-giving communion with God. The surrender of our Self-will establishes this relationship and God begins to act on our behalf. It is God who overcomes and defeats our self-absorbed, self-consuming willfulness that causes so much pain and suffering to ourselves and to others. When the human heart re-connects with God the suffering within us, between us and in the world around us begins to come to an end. When pain and suffering touches the life of a disciple of the Lord, we call it “the cross”. When it comes we do exactly what Jesus did: we call out to God to preserve us. We specifically ask God to rescue us and heal us. In the face of our cross we pray in the same way that Jesus prayed in the face of his cross: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but Yours be done.” Luke 22:42 We ask God to remove our suffering and we believe that He desires to do so. But we also trust that if our suffering continues, it will be for a purpose: for a redemptive purpose, for the same redemptive pur-pose that Jesus suffered. And so we invite Jesus to be present in our suffering and to endure it with us. We believe that the suffering we share with Jesus remains no longer just a mindless evil, but that it is laid hold of by the Holy Spirit and “ordered” to the redemption of human hearts. Perhaps the heart of someone as close to us as a member of our own family will be softened at the sight of our faith and opened to the presence of Jesus in our suffering. When we say that we “offer up” our suffering we mean that we offer our suffering to Jesus and join it to his suffering so that in us (his Body) he can continue his work of touching and redeeming human hearts. This is exactly what happened in Jesus’ suffering on Calvary. The heart of one of the criminals crucified with him softened at the sight of it and opened to the love God: “‘We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong… Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise.'” Luke 23:41-43 The suffering of Jesus was an invitation to Grace — the most eloquent of his entire life. It was his greatest “work”. Nothing so powerfully knocked on the door of the heart of humanity. The early Christians understood this and wished to share in this “work”. Saint Paul wrote: “Even now, I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of his body, the church.” Colossians 1:24 The early Christians did not want to suffer, nor did they seek to suffer! What they did want and actively seek was to share in Jesus’ work; and His “work” was to touch hearts and to invite those hearts to open to the love of God. In the face of suffering the early Christians asked God to take the “cup” from them. But they lived not by their own Self-will but by the life-giving will of a Father whose loving purpose they trusted in all things. What was God’s will? God’s will was not that they suffer. God’s will was that all hearts might be touched and saved (John 3:16-17). The first Christians were willing to risk and endure anything if it would advance that end. All they asked was that Jesus be in it: His love would endure where they knew their own would not; He would preserve them whole and entire through everything and anything. “You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 “Know that I am with you always…” Matthew 28:20 Saint Paul did not want to suffer any more than any of the rest of us, but he so much wanted to share in the life and work of Jesus, his Lord, that he wrote: “I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in his sufferings by being formed in the pattern of his death. Thus do I hope to arrive at resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11 One day when Jesus was still a baby in his mother’s arms, Simeon told Mary that she was to share in the “work” of her Son: “You yourself shall be pierced with a sword — so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare.” Luke 2:35 Mary, like every Christian after her, would be invited to join her suffering to those of Jesus, “so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” — so that the hardness of many hearts may be pierced, softened, and opened to the truth and the healing power of Jesus — a power that triumphs over suffering and death. Christians hate suffering and strive in every way to relieve it. When suffering comes to us or to others, we ask God in prayer to remove it and to heal. We pray with one another and over one another. We believe that God wants to heal and we believe in His power to defeat evil. But we understand that one day our “hour” may arrive — an “hour” in which we are asked to join Jesus at his cross in the greatest of all his redemptive works. If and when that “hour” should come for us, we ask the courage to stand before God and pray as Jesus’ prayed: “‘My soul is troubled now, yet what should I say — Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this that I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name!’ Then a voice came from the sky: ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.'” John 12:27-28 Many people today laugh at the notion of “offering” their suffering to Jesus. I wonder if they realize what they are laughing at? Remember, there were two criminals hanging with Jesus on Calvary. One heard and recognized the invitation in Jesus’ suffering, the other one laughed..