Paul writes from prison to the church in Philippi: “God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” Phil 1:29-30.
I don’t think of suffering as being a privilege. I would rather avoid it, thank you very much. I particularly don’t think of God as graciously granting the privilege of suffering. That’s not a gift I want. It is even worse when you know that the original Greek is saying that God has “graced” us with the privilege of suffering. That’s grace that I don’t get too excited about.
However, Paul doesn’t mean that God sends bad things that make us suffer. That’s not the issue here. I think Paul would agree with me when I say that God doesn’t punish us by making us suffer. So what in the world is Paul talking about?
I read an article in the most recent issue of the Christian Century that has shed some light on that passage for me. The article is entitled “From Survival to Love” by Bethany Sollereder. I’ll do my best to summarize:
Sollereder says that human beings have an evolutionary response to pain. When we are hurt, we are aggressive and defensive and retaliate. Evolution has taught us over the course of millennia that these reactions are necessary for our survival. Our primal, raw emotions of rage and hate are part of our instinctive reaction to being hurt.
These primal, passionate emotions are also very closely related to the passion of love. If you don’t believe me, think about how easy it is to be enraged with someone you love. It is the work of God whenever hate and rage are transformed into love; God at work to move us beyond our evolutionary, primitive response to pain.
The key to this transformation is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a decision to deal with our pain differently. It is the choice to accept the pain inflicted by another and to refuse to return that pain in-kind. It is a choice to end the cycle of violence. It comes at great cost. Our evolutionary impulses tell us to strike back, to fight or to flee.
It is much easier to react with anger or aggressiveness. To forgive can mean that we will suffer more because we do not have the relief of revenge. Love absorbs hurt and returns good. Jesus showed us on the cross what that sacrificial love looks like.
Sollereder writes, “From this evolutionary perspective, the ubiquity of pain in the world is not an argument against the love or goodness of God. Rather, it is the key to understanding our high calling of love. When we are in pain, more than any other moment, our passions are invoked and shaped. When our pain leads us to violence, hate, or revenge, our desires turn to evil. If instead, in the moment of pain, we choose to forgive, the power of pain is broken. It is not passed on in aggression or turned upon the self in shame. Forgiveness is the ultimate defeat of evil and freedom from it. While we may still be in pain, we may also find joy in the transformation of love. There is redemption in finding that without retaliation we can relinquish the role of victim and become the victor. The pain of the transformation is correlated with the joy that comes from the new power of love and possibility of healing, both for oneself and that broken relationship.”
Wow. Paul was right. We have been graced with the privilege of suffering: the suffering of forgiveness that transforms us – and the world.
On the journey with you,