A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Suffering is the Ancient Law of Love
October 12, 2003
Ordinary Sunday 28 Amos 5:6-7,10-15 Hebrews 3:1-6 Mark 10:17-27, (28-31)
I want to say something this morning about suffering, in particular about emotional suffering. Not to say that there is no connection between physical and emotional suffering. There clearly is, and the biblical story of Job would testify to it. I want to focus however on the type of anxious struggle which we all know at some times in our life and led Job to despair, "God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!' "Can you hear the torment in the statement? Can you relate to the sentiment of vanishing in darkness, a little like the wish to be swallowed up by the earth? Those who relate, will know the desire to pass beyond such suffering. This is surely the aim.
We are part of a long tradition in the Protestant church of glorifying suffering. The whole emphasis on saints and martyrs worries me when it is their suffering in itself which we recall. We adhere often to the spiritual equivalent of the sports adage 'No pain, no gain.' You could be forgiven for reading today's gospel as no suffer, no salvation.
Listent to this from Augustine: "Suffering is a sign of godliness, and the suffering of Christians is intended to meet a quota to fulfill the sufferings of Christ."
And the Greek philsophers: "Wisdom comes alone through suffering."
If we need any evidence that not all suffering leads to wisdom, we need look no further than the infamous Darwin Awards. Named in honor of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it in really stupid ways. Of necessity, the honor is generally bestowed posthumously.
One example is the martial arts graduate who was told by his teacher that now the class were skilled enough to defeat a wild tiger with their bare hands. The man took his teacher literally and broke into the zoo that night. In the Tiger's cage, the man found himself up against not just one tiger but a whole pride. The next morning a hand and a few bones were found in the cage, with straggles of red hair clutched in the loose fingers. Sounds like urban myth to me, but you get the point.
First Place in 2003 was given to James Elliot. When his 38-caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a holdup in Long Beach, California, would be robber James Elliot did something that can only inspire wonder: He peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked. There is no virtue in dying, especially not in a Darwin style act of lunacy. There is no virtue in suffering, especially not in a false act of piety such as leaving family behind.
The Gospel for today raises the question of suffering, and seems to suggest that there is some virtue in suffering and loss. Or does it? If you replace the notion of Kingdom of God with a place of enlightenment, an ideal, an arrival at a state of nirvana, a complete happiness, it is surely the absence of suffering. This is it. This is about good news, not struggle. This is about fuller life, not harder life. Its about overcoming anxiety, not being locked into it.
The passage suggests that you can be filthy rich or desperately poor, and neither can get you to this state. You can be surrounded by people, or completely alone and it wont get you there. The journey to enlightenment begins inside. It's a journey inward first of all, not to the wounds on the surface, but to the deeper addictions and to the struggle with self. That's why a person can be riddled with cancer and radiate with the contentment of a child at play, because they have been deep within themselves and have grown to like what they see. That's also why a person can be in perfect health and have a cancerous inner world, conflicted and full of self loathing.
Eckhart Tolle wrote the book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Its been in and out of my to read list for several weeks which my wife finds quite ironic; procrastinating over the "power of now". I was however given recently the CD of the first chapter of the book, and have now taken a dip. Tolle begins by telling some of his journey inward. He describes his early 30's when he experienced a period of suicidal depression. He had a recurring thought. "I cant live with myself any longer." It was the thought which would change his life. Was he one or two people, the I and the self? Maybe only one of them was real. He speaks about the chatter of voices in our minds, which rule our lives. They tell us constantly of past mistakes and limitations and project our futures like a movie screen. These voices, they are not our true selves, they are our constructed egos. They lead to our suffering in many cases.
He wrote this about suffering which grows out of cravings: "All cravings are the mind seeking salvation or fulfilment in external things and in the future as a substitute for the joy of Being. As long as I am my mind, I am those cravings, those needs, wants, attachments and aversions and apart from them there is no 'I' except as a mere possibility, an unfulfilled potential, a seed that has not yet sprouted."
This is the type of journey which frees us from being locked into the patterns of the past, and yearnings for an idealised future. Bringing this back to the passage, the kingdom of God is not a past reality, nor is it a future hope. The kingdom of God is concerned with Being powerfully in the present. Rich or poor no matter, both will have their challenges. No matter what else is true, you have to leave family; parents, friends, and colleagues, even just for periods of time to engage in the journey within. If we really believe that this is one of the places where God resides, how could we not?
There is no glory in suffering. Suffering is a reality, for all of us. Suffering is a reality for our world. It's a reality, but not the last word. We believe in resurrection. We believe the aim is an end to suffering. Why don't we live like we believe it? People who suffer because they are insensitive or brainless, including some saints, martyrs and prophets, are insensitive and brainless and no closer to God because of it. People who suffer because they leave family and friends in search of a guru, including some fundamental religious groups, are no closer to God because of it.
People who take the journey within, so often a lonely journey, will see suffering face to face. These are the people who see God face to face. These are the people who learn of life and joy and meaning. These are the people who in the joy of Being know so much more than suffering.
"I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable." -- Joseph Addison (1672-1719)