Sunday, February 26, 2012

Suffering and Grace

Ivan Kramskoi's Christ in the Desert, 1872
Genesis 9:8-15
Psalm 25:4-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:12-15

As I hear the story of what happened after the Great Flood and hear about Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the desert where He was tempted by the devil, I couldn’t help but recall those age-old questions: Why would God let this happen? How can a God who is supposed to be good and loving allow suffering?

In the summer of 2009, I spent eleven weeks working as a chaplain at Florida Hospital in Orlando. One of my fellow chaplains was known for his desire to ‘find where God is’ in the midst of things. I, too, reflected on that question, thinking about it as I was with my patients and reflecting upon it afterward. But I found that it was often difficult to see God’s hand in the moment.

When I sat with the father of a 7 year old boy who had drowned, I wondered where God was. As I sat for nine hours with a teenager whose mother was dying and the family refused to come to the hospital to be with him, I wondered where God was. As I sat with people in psychiatric units and suicide-watch rooms, I wondered where God was.

In those times I wish that I would have been able to see clearly where God was and what He was doing, but the reality is that sometimes I just had to trust that the Lord knew what was best and was bringing that to fruition. I couldn’t see what it was, but I knew that in the midst of that suffering God was doing something special.

We hear that from the utter destruction of the Earth in the Great Flood came a renewed covenant with the Lord and new life on the face of the Earth. From the Lord’s temptation in the desert, the knots of sin that Adam and Eve tied so many years ago begin to loosen. And from Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion we have been redeemed and, as St. Peter tells us, led to God. To our eyes, these sufferings often seem to be foolishness and yet it is through them that the Lord brings about great things in our midst. Who among us would think that the way to Heaven would be the nailing of the Lord to a tree? And yet in the wisdom of God it is so.

In the end, the answer to the question of how a loving God can permit suffering is, paradoxically, that it is because He loves us that He permits us to suffer. You see – salvation is wrought through the temptation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Father permitted all of those seemingly horrible things because He knew what good would come from it, and Christ endured it for that same reason. He knew what would come from it.

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania
As we endure sufferings in the midst of our lives and as we endure temptations and sufferings in the midst of this great season of grace, rather than lament these things, we are challenged to see them as signs of love for us. Christ died to save our souls. But the reality is that we too have a part in this great work of salvation. We, too, are entrusted with certain sufferings in order that we might unite them to the suffering of Christ and so gain grace for souls. The sufferings we endure, when united to Christ, could be the source of grace that brings about conversion in a wayward soul or lead a soul in purgatory into the Heavenly Banquet. The sufferings we endure, when united to Christ, can be given to us to help someone else in the future who suffers a similar cross. The sufferings we endure, when united to Christ, can be preparation for a larger cross later under which we would buckle if not first strengthened. To our eyes, especially in the midst of those sufferings, it often seems foolishness. And yet, with faith we know that God is with us in the midst doing something that we may never know but which will certainly be a source of much grace.

As we enter into this season of Lent, let us not endure temptations for the sake of enduring temptations. Rather, let us unite our temptations and sufferings to the Lord that He might make use of them and pour upon the Earth not a Great Flood of water but a Great Flood of Grace.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful,
and enkindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth Your Spirit, and they shall be created,
And You shall renew the face of the earth.