The Lenten season often calls us to reflect on suffering. Our own suffering, the suffering of our neighbors, the suffering of a Savior on a cross. It's not a short season. Lent invites us to feel the weight of our mortality for 40 days. Like a tithe of our comfort, we relinquish some contentment for 10% of the days in the year.
One of the first scriptures I ever memorized was Romans 5:3-5, which says "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us"
But do these words ring hollow when we are once again confronted with the death of the innocent, the imprisonment of the oppressed, the abuse of the marginalized? How can we rejoice in such things? Do we really believe in a God that would bring about such destruction on His people? To believe so is to rejoice in the violence of the Cross, rather than in the grace of the crucified.
We must break free of the idea of the 'noble suffering' of the oppressed and marginalized (see: the myth of the 'strong black woman'). There is a dangerous desire to romanticize suffering, especially by those who suffer very little indeed.
If we believe that our redemption is bought by our suffering, we once again place our salvation in our own hands, rather than in the hands of our God. Instead, let us ask what has caused such suffering. And if we ourselves have been the cause or contributor let us repent, for we have been aids in the devils work.
When we see suffering as our salvation, we end up putting our hope in the violence that caused it. It may well be that we can learn from it, grow from it. We may even become more Christ-like because of it. But our suffering is not the end itself, nor is it the means to our salvation. Suffering is a reflection of the brokenness that should never have been there to begin with. As Deanna A. Thompson notes, its glorification "simply does not acknowledge the full scope of suffering that pervades many of our lives."
We worship a God who suffered. Suffered from His first moments on this earth. Womanist theologian Jacquelyn Grant identifies Jesus as our “divine co-sufferer.” He who knows our sorrows because he took them on Himself for our liberation. But His suffering is a consequence of our sin, for the sake of identifying Himself with us, not the deliverance from it.
Thompson continues, "faith involves a relationship with a God who suffers with us and refuses to leave it—or us—unredeemed." That is why James Cone and others intrinsically link the suffering of the Savior with that of the sufferers of this world. Ours is a God of the oppressed.
In the same way, the privileged cannot even begin to understand what it means to suffer unless they are willing to enter into that suffering right along side others. Can the privileged understand true suffering at all? There is surely and understanding of pain, of loss, of mourning, yes. But the suffering required to truly identify with a mocked and crucified King? I'm not so sure.
By it's very nature this level of identification is not always possible, and so suffering itself becomes a point of further estrangement between peoples. Yet, when it is in our power to do so, we must continually work to ease the suffering of others, and lament with one another in solidarity when there is nothing else to be done.
Let us not suffer alone. Let us shout together in righteous anger at a broken world. The suffering in this life may indeed compel us to live out our hope for justice on this earth, and bring us strength even as we stumble. But rather than patronizingly requiring a grateful heart for our suffering, let us rail together at the injustices that cause it, knowing that this is not how our world was meant to be.
1 Peter 3:17-18 states that "it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." In response, Wendell Griffen asks a recent sermon:
"For whom are we suffering in obedience to the example of Jesus Christ?
Are we suffering with Christ to deliver people from oppression from greed and the ravages of opportunistic business practices?...
Are we suffering with Jesus to deliver people of color from government-sponsored terrorism disguised as a “war on drugs” and “war on crime” designed, led, and carried out by fear-mongering politicians and a law enforcement culture that glorifies and condones brutality?
How can we suffer with Jesus Christ—who came preaching about setting captives free—and deliver victims of mass incarceration and their families from political, social, and economic bigotry and discrimination?...
How are we suffering with Christ to save the world? Or is the world suffering the wickedness of injustice because so many people lack the faithful courage to suffer in obedience to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?"
When when we suffer, and scripture assures us that we will, we remember that Christ is coming. He comes to restore all things to himself. All our brokenness. All our tears. All our oppression. He will restore our relationships, our sinfulness, our disparities. In the end of days, Christ will remove all of our suffering.
But what does He ask us to do in the meantime?