Tuesday, December 15, 2020

In Our Trials, Do We Grumble Against God, or Cry Out To Him?

Christian preaching had always exhorted us to bear sufferings patiently. In particular, we must resist the temptation to grumble against God when sufferings come or grow deeper. 

Faith makes it possible to bear our suffering, and we must never forget about the superabundant resources for courage and endurance that are given to us through our relationship with Jesus Christ. What we are given, in this relationship, is not some "abstract" courage and capacity for endurance, but precisely what each of us needs, personally, to persevere on the path God opens up in front of us. Our Father loves us, and leads us according to His wisdom.

This is good news, indeed. But the knowledge of it doesn't make suffering go away. Even within a personal relationship with the Lord, we are tempted to grumble. We know in faith that God allows us to endure pain and suffering in order to purify us, lead us to Him, and participate in His redeeming love for others. But pain (in itself) remains mysteriously opaque, contrary to our human inclinations, frustrating, and very difficult to carry. We are tempted to reject God's will for us, or rather—at least—to resent His will for us. As we know from human experience, resentment poisons an interpersonal relationship. It will do violence to our relationship with God.

Still, suffering can throw our poor humanity into such perplexity. It cleaves our hearts. How do we speak to our God and Father at such times?

It is important to distinguish between “the grumble” (which is a loss of trust in God motivated by my own misery) and “the lament” (which is a cry of pain—the pain that a creature feels under the weight of the transforming “pressure” of the Divine Creator and Lover who carries out His mysterious plan in my life, which encompasses His permission of what may seem to be an incomprehensible suffering). Both “the grumble” and “the lament” can express themselves as “God, why are you doing this to me?” But they mean two different things. “The lament” is a prayer—read the Psalms or the prophet Jeremiah. “The grumble” gets you forty more years in the desert—read the book of Exodus.

The Israelites grumbled against the Lord in the desert, not just because they were hungry and thirsty, but because this suffering made them forget all the signs and wonders of the loving God who had delivered them from slavery and had proven His faithfulness over and over again. Instead of asking God to give them food and drink, they said, “why did we ever leave Egypt?” Still, what does God do in His enduring mercy for His people? He feeds them with manna from heaven. He quenches their thirst with water from the rock.

How often God tenderly takes care of us and provides for us in ways like this, even when we are grumbling and complaining and forgetful of our own faith. He is so good. How can we not love Him?

But it did not take long for the Israelites to start complaining that the manna was a monotonous diet and start grumbling that they wanted meat. “In Egypt we had meat!” Etcetera, etcetera. This is the path of grumbling—it leads away from God’s love and into selfishness and ingratitude.

On the other hand, let us listen to the prophet Jeremiah: “Cursed be the day on which I was born!” He had just been beaten and put in stocks in front of the gates of the temple for public humiliation, because he had been prophesying the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah constantly laments over the vocation that has been given to him, to be the prophet of disaster, and therefore the prophet that everyone wants to persecute. “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14, 18). Jeremiah, in his misery, seems to “wish he had never been born.” That sounds like grumbling, doesn’t it? But there is a difference. In the midst of this very lament, he also says, “O Lord of hosts, who tries the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind…to you have I committed my cause” (20:12). 

Jeremiah does not understand His own suffering. He does not understand why he even exists. Why, O Lord, should a man be born to such misery? — and yet he trusts in the Lord, and remains faithful to the very mission that brings upon him so much suffering. This fidelity—and even the lament of poor human flesh grappling with Divine mystery—leads into the very heart of God’s love.

Our relationship with God is mysterious, and its trials are part of the mystery. We are called to share in the infinite life and love of God; we flesh and blood human beings, who have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning even on a good day. We are called by God to a relationship that is destined to transform us into His likeness, to “divinize” us. This is going to take some stretching, to say the least. And on top of our basic fragility as human beings, we all have the effects of original sin and our own personal sins with which we must contend. Then there is the further mystery of the suffering that God calls on us to endure for the sake of others, to participate in His redemptive love.

So we must suffer. Jesus has suffered for all of us, and suffers in all of us. His Resurrection reveals that redemption and glory are destined to rise up out of our own suffering, if we adhere to Him in faith, hope, and love. 

The Resurrection encompasses the whole of God's promise for our destiny. But in the history of the life of the Church, God has given us other "signs" of this mystery, that suffering has indeed been transformed. Some saints have experienced the marvel of an ecstatic and wholly supernatural joy—a kind of anticipation of glory—that penetrates the heart of suffering itself. 

Such joy—the foretaste of glory—is a kind of miracle, a special gift of grace. It is given to a few saints, in order to be a source of encouragement for all of us. This does not mean, however, that we should expect to "feel" some kind of ecstatic triumph in the midst of the sufferings of our ordinary Christian life. We will be transformed, ultimately, by that victory (which is Jesus's victory of death), but each person has their unique vocation, and is given the sustenance they need to fulfill it. The Holy Spirit gives His gifts to every Christian, and through them we grow in the likeness to God. Yes, each one of us is called to become “godlike”—that is our destiny, to “participate” in the life of God. We know that it is here that our ultimate happiness lies, but God alone knows what our true destiny really “looks” like (“eye hath not seen…”). So we must let Him lead the way.

We shouldn't expect (or demand) from God extraordinary "illuminations" and "ecstasies" to compensate for the psychological and emotional perplexity that suffering brings upon us. Of course we can ask to understand more and be consoled, with confidence that the Lord will provide us with what we need to persevere and grow closer to Him. We should pray above all for the grace to allow God to accomplish His mysterious work in us. 

The grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit will sustain and empower us, not overwhelming our emotions with instant joy, but opening our hearts to the signs of God’s presence, with enough certainty, with enough courage to take the next step. We must not be discouraged, or even surprised, that we ourselves are not enraptured by unspeakable joys and the foretaste of glory in the midst of our trials. Peace, patience, and above all prayerful fidelity in suffering constitute the path that most of us are called to travel. 

Perhaps we can manage to be cheerful in the midst of suffering; this is a courageous virtue, and not easily attained. Mother Teresa counsels us to receive everything from God with a smile. She also acknowledges that sometimes it is hard to smile at Jesus. Hard is nevertheless good. Cheerfulness is a sign that we are growing in love, but growing takes time

Mother Teresa also tells a story about a person was in great pain from an illness, and Mother Teresa told her that the pain was Jesus kissing her. The woman replied, “can you ask Jesus not to kiss me so much?”

There is no sin in this response. There is no sin in saying, “I hurt. This hurts. Why, O Lord, why must I hurt like this?” This is a form of prayer called “the lament.” The Psalms are so eloquent in expressing this profound human experience. To accept God’s will in suffering, it is not necessary to pretend that it doesn’t hurt. Nor is it necessary to pretend that—because we embrace God’s will—the pain doesn’t bother us. Nor is it necessary to pretend that we understand why God is permitting us to be thus afflicted (we do not fully understand, and never will in this life). 

We should ask Christ to give us the grace to begin to see His Presence in our lives, and especially in our sufferings. With the eyes of faith and the Spirit’s grace and His gifts of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge we can recognize the Presence of Jesus. That Presence is enough, although God in His mercy will not deny us some consolation. He is the Consoler of the Afflicted, and He knows what we need. Indeed, He knows exactly what is good for each of us. The path He calls us to travel is set before us, step by step, as the gift of His infinite goodness and love.

Remember, what God wants for us is so much more, so much greater, so much more glorious and joyful, than what we think we want for ourselves. In eternity, we shall see all and rejoice in all. Here, we see through that dark glass called faith. Sometimes it is very dark, but we must trust God to give us what we need to sustain hope, and to grow in the capacity to respond to His mysterious Love with our own self-abandoning love.

Let us therefore not grumble. Let us cry out our pains to the Lord with trust in His goodness, and persevere in that trust, because the Lord has promised to hear our prayer and save us from all our distress. This is certainly a theme of this Advent season: waiting for the Lord with confidence, waiting for the fulfillment of His promises. Indeed, we "await" the answer that has already come, Jesus who is God-with-us, who accompanies us in our sufferings and transforms them from within.

He is already at work in us more deeply than we know. He is coming, in ever greater fullness, to complete the work of victorious love that He has already begun in us.

Let us make room for Him.