“Concerning Suffering”

Hebrews 5:5-10

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

“Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered.”  I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I never know quite what to do with those words from this morning’s epistle passage; probably because I grew up believing that Jesus was so perfect that he didn’t need to learn anything, because he already knew everything.  But, according to this morning’s epistle lesson, “Jesus learned through what he suffered.” 

Which is, perhaps, one way in which we, and Jesus, are most alike.  More often than not, we, too, do most of our growing and learning where today’s epistle lesson says that Jesus did most of his; in the school of suffering.

Like Jesus, we learn things, through suffering, we might never have known apart from the pain of our hardest, and worst, struggles. For us, as for Jesus, the path to depth most often goes through darkness.

All of which we must always say with only the greatest of care, lest we lapse over into the popular theology which teaches that, if we learn our deepest lessons from suffering, that must mean that God sends us our suffering to make us better.

I know many dear and good souls who believe that, but I do not.  I don’t believe God sends us trouble to make us better, or that God allows tragedy to come to us to accomplish some unseen purpose, or that human suffering is part of a divine plan.  Rather, I believe that we live in a world where beautiful things happen and terrible things happen, and, if any of them can happen to anyone, all of them can happen to everyone, including you and yours, and me and mine.

But, though God does not aim sorrow at us, God does use sorrow for us.  Like Jesus, in this morning’s epistle lesson, we learn things in pain that we would never know in comfort.  As surely as surgery is painful, pain is surgical; our deepest struggles and worst sorrows opening us up to God, and helping us become deeper, stronger, kinder, less arrogant, more empathetic people than ever we would have been without the pain.

But, even such hopeful words as those we must always say with more restraint than we might want to use, being careful to acknowledge the undeniable truth that, while many of us do emerge from pain and suffering with new insights and a deeper spirit, not everyone does.  As Barbara Brown Taylor once wisely observed, “I have seen pain twist people into exhausted rags with all the hope squeezed out of them, and, on the other hand, I have also seen people in whom pain seems to have burned away everything trivial and petty, until they have become see-through with light.”  (I would add the additional possibility that sometimes pain does both to the same person; leaving us squeezed out like exhausted rags, and so beautifully luminous that we become absolutely see-through with light.)

All of which calls to mind something a wise old rabbi is reported once to have said about today’s Old Testament passage from the book of Jeremiah.  When asked why the prophet Jeremiah said God will write God’s law on our hearts, instead of in our hearts, the rabbi replied, “God writes God’s words on our heart, but in order for God’s words to get down in our heart, our heart must first be broken open.”  Or, as Joanna Macy once wrote, “Only the heart which has been broken open can hold the universe.” Which is not unlike that unforgettable sentence from the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “Before we can know kindness as the deepest thing inside, we must first know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” 

Which does seem, so often, to be true; that the pain which comes into our lives, while it was not sent to us from God, is used for us by God, in an amazing alchemy of the Holy Spirit and human sorrow, which helps us become more thoughtful and mindful, understanding and welcoming, compassionate, patient, gentle and kind; through suffering.