‘The cross is little understood today,’ a spiritual person remarked sadly. Has it ever been understood? In the past you got a stress on suffering which perverted Christianity into ‘crosstianity’, the idea that you are only pleasing to God when you are suffering, and the more suffering the better.
All sorts of errors lie behind this attitude and what a blasphemous caricature of God! Fear and hatred of matter—one becomes spiritual the more one is removed from matter and this means the body and the emotions-which is utterly unchristian because inhuman; together with the notion that we are redeemed by suffering, that since Christ suffered we must suffer too… [But] it was love that redeemed us, love that did the Father’s will no matter what the cost, love that was total surrender.
It was through suffering but it was not the suffering itself that brought us to the Father. It is because suffering is a fact in human life from which there is no escape that Christ suffered. He suffered because we must suffer. He accepted our human lot and transformed it into the path to glory.
Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, 21-22
Reflection – It is quite possible that one of the most urgent and pressing needs for clarification and correction today in our culture is our attitude towards and understanding of suffering. Today and tomorrow on this blog I have some good simple teaching from Burrows on the matter which give at least the beginnings of insight into it.
The reason, of course, that this is so urgent today is that the world (in my estimation) is heading into a period of intense tribulation and turmoil. This is not apocalyptic speculation on my part. Economists and political analysts have sounded the warnings here, not wild eyed prophets.
Essentially, the prosperous nations of the world are going bankrupt, and there is no sustainable way forward. Demographic winter is coming, with an rapidly aging population of Baby Boomers facing a crisis in both health care and social security that is simply unresolvable, and far too few young people faced with shouldering the financial and human burden of this unsustainable system.
The reason euthanasia is being pushed so hard in so many jurisdictions is that those who have crunched the hard numbers are well aware that our health care system cannot possibly cope with the number of sick elderly people there will be in the next twenty years. ‘Kill ‘em all’ is, for some at least, a viable course of action. I won’t even touch here upon the global political-military scene which is alarming at best.
All of which to say that our attitude towards suffering is a relevant, nay urgent, matter in the year 2013. Hard times are coming. So Christ’s choice to redeem us through, not suffering, but love, is something we need to contemplate.
It is true that we can focus on the sufferings of Christ to an unhealthy degree. As Chesterton put it, “He died on a cross; he did not live on one.” A morbid focus on suffering and death makes for a gloomy, weird religion. But… he did suffer. And it was his love for us that brought him to that, and it was indeed the depth of love expressing itself in his embrace of suffering and death that redeemed us all.
Suffering is indeed an inevitable feature of human life. No one gets through this world unscathed by it. We need to go deeply into the fact—the sheer fact—that God has done something to suffering by His entering of it to change what it is, what it means, what it does to us, where it can take us.
Suffering and death without God are simply defeat, futility, tragedy. Suffering and death with God are transformed into a way of love in the world, and so become the path to glory.
We don’t really know what the next decades are going to bring us, although the one thing we do know is that there will be a great number of elderly people who will lack adequate medical care. But once we get that Christ has entered our human lot with its joys and its pains, that God’s love and God’s life has penetrated to the very heart of the human tragedy, and that suffering is not simply suffering, but is a sharing in God’s redeeming love, then we are equipped to face whatever the world will throw at us, and move with confidence and faith into the glorious future God opens up for us in his gracious merciful love.