Suffering Grace

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, May 22, 2016

Romans 5:1-5

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

Can any good truly come out of suffering? In our reading from Romans, Paul says that he boasts in his suffering, explaining that it produces strength of character. This passage has been used inappropriately throughout the centuries to justify suffering, even glorify it.

One of these misappropriations has been to promote self-harm. This has been a common practice amongst the faithful, particularly of the Middle Ages. It has sought to curb the body’s desires through physical punishment or to seek spiritual enlightenment through physical pain. Self-harm is still being practiced by some today as a type of self-punishment or as a way to translate emotional pain into physical pain.

Self-harm is not what Paul was talking about, nor did Paul suggest that God willed suffering upon people to make them better Christians. This is another misappropriation of this passage. God is not the author of suffering. God does not inflict suffering upon us to punish us or to strengthen our character.

So what is Paul talking about in this passage? One biblical scholar points to a word that she considers key to understanding this passage.[1] In our New Revised Standard Version, from which our readings come, the word is translated as “disappoint”, but it is better translated as “shame”: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character hope and hope does not shame us. The word “shame” is a bit odd here until one realizes the context.  Although there was not yet wide-spread persecution against Christians, the church in Rome was probably feeling the effects of the Emperor Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome. Both the Jews and the early Christians were refusing to worship the Emperor or other gods besides their own.  This was considered treasonous and cause for public oppression and humiliation.  This was the type of suffering Paul was referring to in this passage. The wider public believed that this humiliation was evidence of God’s displeasure of both the Jews and Christians.

In response, Paul uttered a loud “no!”  Instead of submitting to the public shaming,

Paul urged the Romans to keep their heads high and be confident in the saving grace and peace of Christ Jesus. To assure them of God’s grace, Paul reminded them of God’s love that was poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit.  In other words, they were not to hide in shame from how they were being treated.  Instead, they were to be even more public in their demonstration of God’s love that was flowing through them.

It’s strange how we still associate some forms of suffering with shame. We are still hesitant to name our addictions or mental illnesses or mental deterioration because of their public stigma. We may also be ashamed of our physical suffering because of fear of other’s judgement: we weren’t careful enough or we didn’t look after ourselves properly. When we feel ashamed, we tend to hide our suffering—to deny it or minimize it.

There is another option.  If we could accept it, and perhaps even name it, our public refusal to be shamed by it will give hope to others who similarly suffer.

Naming our suffering also reduces its power. It is no longer a hidden cross to bear, but is only one of many of life’s challenges that, by itself, doesn’t define us.  We are so much more than our suffering.

We also might find a surprising gift of grace arising from within suffering itself.

One of the most powerful testimonies to God’s grace is when love can arise in the midst of suffering. When we’re able to allow the Spirit of love to flow through our wounds, miracles begin to happen.

Peter Steinke even goes so far as to say, “Don’t waste the pain!” He suggests that we “waste” suffering when we minimize or deny it. If we can learn from it, pain can be a source of life and health.[2] Even though God does not cause the suffering, God does help us through it—even to the point of bringing some good out of it. It is not easy, but through the grace of Christ, the love of God and the resilience of the indwelling Spirit, all things are possible.

One can find surprising gifts of grace even in the most devastating situations. Last week in Montreal I saw an incredible, virtual reality tour of 10 libraries around the world. One of them was the library at Sarajevo, which was burnt down along with most of its irreplaceable, ancient, original manuscripts during the war in 1992. There was a cellist by the name of Vedran Smailović, who refused to cower in the face of this unbelievable violence and suffering. Shortly after the library was destroyed, Smailović dressed in tails and took his cello to the library ruins. There, he perched on the fallen walls, risking sniper fire while his cello mourned the devastation and defied the silencing. (cello begins)… A mortar shell killed 22 people as they stood in line for bread and Smailović protested this senseless madness by playing Albinoni’s Adagio in Gm for 22 days…He also risked his life to play for free at funerals even though funerals were often targeted by the opposing forces…

Smailović’s courage inspires us not to let suffering lead us to shame and defeat, but to a spirit of endurance, a strength of character, and a hope flowing with the love of God… Amen.

[1] Margaret Aymer, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3 by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010): 39-43.

[2] Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A System Approach (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006): 52.