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Personhood and the Value of Suffering (part two)

Jesus did not come to eliminate suffering. Rather, He transformed it. He endured His Cross so that we can endure ours. By the power of His Cross we have hope—that our suffering will lead us to salvation.

His Beatitude - Metropolitan JONAH

Jesus was tempted, but He did not fall and overcame the temptations, that He might strengthen us not to succumb to temptation. He showed that suffering does not mean abandonment by God, as even on the Cross He remained faithful to God, and was not left in the grave. He was faced with the temptation to reject his cross, and chose rather to suffer, that His own suffering might work salvation for the whole world.

Jesus transformed suffering into communion, and overcame the power of temptation, so that we might have the strength to accept our suffering as our cross, and overcome temptation.

Jesus came and suffered out of His love and compassion for us, so that we may learn to bear suffering as He bore it—as an act of compassion. This is what gives suffering meaning and value—it breaks the bonds of our selfishness and isolation from one another, so that we may truly love one another in compassion. We co-suffer with those who are suffering, that their suffering might not lead them into despair and death.

Suffering is inescapable in this fallen world. We suffer because of our sins and those of others. We suffer because of death and grief, pain and separation, as victims and as perpetrators. We suffer as a result of our sinfulness because of our selfishness and because we don’t get our own way. This latter kind, suffering as a result of our own selfishness, is the first thing of which we need to be purified. Temptation can be seen in terms of our willingness to suffer for the sake of the other, or to give in to our passions and selfishness and refuse to suffer with or for the other.

Do we accept to suffer for the sake of helping someone, or do we let them be hurt? Do we accept to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of the other, deny ourselves for the sake of the other?

Will we accept to be reviled and persecuted and slandered and abused, and turn the other cheek; or will we curse our abuser and give in to our anger, and thus fall into sin? Will we accept the pain that one who is suffering inflicts upon us in their frustration and distress, or will we cast them off to alleviate our own discomfort, or use drugs or alcohol to numb our conscience? Will we accept the burden of caring for the other who is suffering, or cast off the cross of love and compassion for the sake of an easy solution: drug them up, send them to a nursing home (and let someone else worry about him/her), or simply kill them (“euthanasia”). Will we accept the suffering of the shame of being an unwed mother, as did the Virgin Mary, or simply abort the life of the infant before it shows?

Temptation, on the deeper levels, is not about gratification of our passions. It is the temptation to cast off the cross, to refuse to suffer for the sake of the other, and to refuse the responsibility that love of neighbor demands. Jesus Himself was tempted in the desert by the devil (cf. Lk 4). He accepted to suffer hunger rather than turn stones to bread. He was tempted to settle for earthly glory and a temporal kingdom. Finally the devil tempted him to simply show His power as Messiah, and cast Himself from the pinnacle of the temple and be instantly declared king, and thus refuse the way of the Cross to the eternal Kingdom. In the garden He was also tempted, and asked if the cup of suffering could pass him by, but ultimately surrendered Himself to the will of God.

Jesus helps us in our temptations by showing us that, by accepting to suffer for the sake of doing the will of God, by accepting our cross, our suffering is unto salvation.

He stands by us and empowers us, energizes us by grace, to bear whatever cross we have been given.

Suffering voluntarily by refusing to give in to temptation thus becomes an act of communion, and we become like Him. Our secular materialist and hedonistic culture lives in denial of suffering. It sees it as essentially meaningless, as something to be alleviated as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and at all costs. Thus our medical establishment has not only found cures for innumerable disease and maladies, but has developed medications to anesthetize all kinds of psychic pain as well. On one hand, there is nothing wrong with this. But, and this is very important, what this has led to is an inability to cope with any kind of pain and suffering.

We look for a quick solution in a pill or bottle, and alleviate the symptoms while leaving the underlying causes in tact.

Hence the rampant substance abuse in our culture; hence the nursing homes and endless retirement facilities to which we banish our elders; hence abortion and euthanasia. This inability to bear suffering only leads to greater suffering in the long run. We look for political solutions to social ills and injustices, and fail to exercise any kind of personal compassion. We would rather send a check. We justify our selfishness by claiming that our elders would be better cared for “by professionals.” We refuse to deal with the sufferings—age, disease, disability—of even our closest family members by institutionalizing them and forgetting their existence, while ignoring that the most important thing that they need is our love. Even death itself is vainly hidden in a grotesque masquerade by the commercial funeral industry, and denied.

The calling of Christians is to learn authentic love and compassion, literally “co-suffering.” We have to learn how to bear suffering so that we can identify ourselves with those who are suffering, and accompany them and raise them up. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” By learning to co-suffer, to have compassion, to truly lay down our life for the other, we thus identify ourselves with Christ, and actualize the likeness to God that is the very fulfillment of our personhood. In other words, we learn to love unselfishly and unconditionally as He does.

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

Suffering has meaning. It is the means by which we grow, by which we become authentically ourselves, by attaining likeness to Christ—Who suffered and died for us. By enduring suffering ourselves, we attain to perseverance, and character. We begin to understand our sins and temptations. We learn to take responsibility for our lives and our sins, neither blaming God nor our neighbor. We purify ourselves by refusing to give in to temptation, and strengthen our will so that we remain in communion with God.

Suffering purifies us, if we let it, because it reveals our selfishness to us so that we can repent.

We can either accept to suffer in compassion and bear our cross, or give in to our own selfishness. To suffer for the sake of compassion lets the energy of God’s grace and love be poured into our heart so that we enter into synergy with that grace through our actions. This kind of compassion is not simply human, but divine as well. This is the very process of deification. We are thus given the strength to raise up those who are suffering, because by our perseverance in co-suffering, we attain to hope.

When we allow our suffering to lead us into despair and desolation, we become so turned-in on ourselves that we reject God and reject the compassion of others. The Fathers of the Church see this as a kind of foretaste of hell. We torment ourselves by our rejection of our true self, which can only be fulfilled by communion in love with God and the Other. God’s love is not diminished, but we vainly refuse to accept it by refusing to forgive our self and other. Thus, the fire of the love of God burns us. Our self-torment feels like punishment, the wrath of God.

But it is not God’s punishment, as we often think. Rather, it is the fruit of our own self-obsession, self-hatred, self-rejection. This kind of suffering is meaningless, leading nowhere. It is the essence of nihilism, of suicide.

Suffering takes on meaning when we accept to endure it and allow ourselves to be transformed by it. This seems an enormous task, especially for one in the grips of pain and depression. But the only way through it is to come out of ourselves and accept the compassion of others, who strengthen us by their co-suffering in love. First and foremost is the remembrance of Christ’s own co-suffering with us, by His enduring the Cross for us. He endured His Cross so that we can endure ours. By the power of His Cross we have hope—that our suffering will lead us to salvation.

+ Glory to God for All Things +

His Beatitude; Metropolitan JONAH - BIO

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