Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Can There Be Joy in the Midst of Suffering?

The Christian life is supposed to be characterized by "patience, endurance, and joy" (see e.g. Colossians 1:11). This may lead some Christians to think that if they experience suffering as something obscure, disorienting, or overwhelming, they are somehow not "being Christian enough."

Is it necessary for Christians to try to churn up cheerful, sunny feelings and the appearance of psychological tranquility when they are in the grip of physical or mental sufferings? Are they somehow "doing it wrong" if suffering weighs on them, i.e. if they experience suffering as suffering even after they ask for the Lord's help?

Certainly not. It is true that emotional states are often related to a person's attitudes and priorities, and that they should not be ignored in any character assessment. They contribute to human experience and expressiveness, and they flourish in connection with natural human development, with a reasonable and properly human engagement of life. But emotions themselves can often be the locus of suffering for a variety of reasons that are not related to a person's decisions or actions or to anything else under their control. Moreover, there is a mysterious depth in the relationship between joy and suffering in anyone who adheres sincerely to the crucified and risen Jesus. Unfortunately, too often Christians feel pressured to conform to a rather superficial psycho-emotional profile even while enduring relentless and disorienting afflictions. And when they cannot hold up this artificial conformity they feel like they have failed to trust God enough, and are even tempted to discouragement.

Thus, it is important to clarify what we mean when we speak about Christian joy and patient endurance in the context of bearing sufferings. Of course, these things are real; they are capacities founded on the new life that we receive in the Holy Spirit when we are baptized into Christ. If the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we have the radical potential to endure our trials "joyfully" and patiently, to live them within the redeeming death and resurrection of Christ.

The grace of the Holy Spirit enables us to bear up "under" our difficulties with an awareness, a determination to keep going forward toward the goal that gives meaning to all of it. Concretely speaking, this is a "supernatural" goal, eternal life, the fullness of maturity in Christ, which means that patient endurance is the fruit of the working of supernatural grace. It cannot, therefore, be reduced to any merely natural psychological or emotional state.

This grace, this life in the Spirit, is a gift. Certainly it calls for the cooperation of our freedom, but it first of all elevates, empowers, and attracts our freedom. And if we allow grace to work, to engender the cooperation that is both a further gift of grace and the most profound realization of our own personal freedom in action, we are made more and more like God, living in His love.

It is the light of the Holy Spirit that enables us to recognize the destiny to which we are called. We grasp the reason why we must "never give up," why we must keep going forward. But this is a grasp in faith and love, which may not manifest itself clearly in our regular ways of understanding. Hence there can be "dark nights" and all sorts of strange and secret paths on which people are patiently bearing their burdens, especially when those burdens involve the cognitive and emotional incoherence that so often accompanies suffering on the natural human level. 

It is important to emphasize this supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit by which we are enabled to bear willingly and faithfully any kind of crazy problem with patient endurance. Of course the grace that gives us a participation in God's own eternal life is working also (in its own time and its own ways) to heal and perfect our human nature. The whole personality of the Christian is being mysteriously transformed in Christ, and aspects of this mystery can sometimes "break through" on the mundane human level in striking and beautiful ways. Thus it is not surprising that we meet people in the world who possess Christian joy and patient endurance in suffering in a way that is obvious, that is visible and "tangible" to pretty much everyone.

How great and significant such Christian witness is in this world! It always strikes us with the freshness of a reminder of the fulfillment we seek, of the promise that is the root of our hope. It reminds us that in this present age, life in the Spirit (the life of grace) is "already" the beginning of eternal life, which is destined ultimately to heal and transform everything.

The presence of profound Christian joy in a suffering person's life, however, is usually not so "externally" obvious. It is the secret daily sustenance of so many humble people in their apparently unremarkable human struggles and pains. It cannot be simply reduced to any set of human emotions or personality traits. The joy engendered through a living relationship with Jesus and a firm hope in His mercy has strength and vitality beyond what we can perceive in others or even in ourselves.

But if we look with sufficient faith and attention, we may glimpse signs of this joy and loving endurance even in exceptionally hard and unusual places. We may find it mixed with the symptoms of the burdens it bears. We may be distracted from it by the rawness of the wounds that are borne, the physical or mental ugliness of the affliction, or the peculiar, confusing, and unconventional modes of love that have characterized the holy fools throughout history.

All God looks for is an open heart. He'll work with anything that doesn't oppose Him. If He could make children of Abraham from stones, He certainly can take badly broken human beings, failures, oddballs, beggars, crazies, and raise up exotic masterpieces of holiness.

Never look down on any human being. God loves each and every one of them with a persistence and an intensity beyond anything we can imagine.

The life of grace is a "process," and it takes a unique shape in each person's life, and in accordance with their concrete vocation, the burdens they bear, and the sufferings they must endure. It is a process of maturing, and it takes time. For most of us, it takes a long time to work through all the obscurities and ambivalence of our weak humanity.

But the Holy Spirit is at work in us, and is the source of our strength and our growth.

Let us therefore not be discouraged by our own weakness. Rather let us turn and return to our loving Father every day, place our trust in Jesus, and keep moving forward.