Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. -- John 13:1b
There are two opposite themes that run through both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. One is that suffering can and ought to be avoided, and the other is that suffering cannot and should not be avoided. Actually, suffering is a key theme in many religions. Perhaps because it is so much a fact of life.
We see the first theme often expressed in the idea that God rewards those who follow his commandments and punishes those who do not. We have all heard this. We find it expressed by various writers in the Bible from the Books of Moses to the Revelation of John. It is often expressed as the Two Ways: this way leads to justified happiness, this way leads to justified destruction. The more successful we are, the more we believe God favors us; the more downtrodden and miserable we are, the more we believe God is punishing us. The main motivation for following God's will here is to avoid suffering.
And yet, there have always been problems with this understanding. People who attest to the classic black and white, Two-Way thinking must have blinders on, because life is, and has always been, a mixed bag. There are moments of great ecstasy, and moments of great despair, and much in between, in everyone's life. No one's life is free from trouble, nor is anyone's life a complete disaster.
And so we find the second theme expressed in Scripture, too. We see this in the idea that God shows no partiality, that God makes the sun shine and the rain pour on both the good and the bad. We find this theme in the life of Moses, the lives of the Prophets, the Book of Job, in Ecclesiastes, in the Psalms, in the life of Paul, and in the life of Jesus. Throughout the Bible, we find instances of people who followed God's way, and who still suffered. Some suffered because they were following God's will; they suffered for God's sake.
Earlier in the week, I was reading a section of "I Thirst," by Stephen Cottrell, and I came across some very thought-provoking insights into suffering. Cottrell, while working with African Christians as partners in the mission field, was struck by the fact that the African Christians saw only one way to interpret Jesus teachings. They, as disciples of and witnesses for Christ, understood that they would be the hungry ones, the thirsty ones, the one's needing to be shown compassion; they would be imprisoned, they would be naked, and they would be strangers in strange lands.(pg 150)
Cottrell writes, "This was both their experience of the Christian life and their expectation. And, of course, this was the experience of the first Christian communities. Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul says that 'To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands' (1 Corinthians 4:11-12a)" (ibid).
Why? Why suffer for God's sake?
Well, I see two motivations. One goes back to the idea of reward and punishment mentioned above. It is a new take on the avoidance of suffering. A little suffering now leads to eternal happiness later. Given that choice, which would you prefer? Eternal damnation? I see this in the earliest writings of Paul: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1st, 15:19). Paul at this point in his life counted on being rewarded in the next life. He saw no relief in this one.
But there is another motivation behind why people suffer for God's sake. And that is the motivation of love. I see this in Paul, too, later in his life. While in prison no less, he wrote, "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer." (Philippians 1:21-22). Here, he does not know what is better! It must be possible to find sustenance even within suffering. The key is our motivation. We find peace and joy when we love our neighbor as God loves us, even though this may also require us to make sacrifices.
When we look to Jesus, we cannot help but understand this truth. He was willing to take on any task, even the lowest task imaginable, to travel any distance, and to do without much comfort, in order to love the world as he found it, and to teach the world to love one another as God loved. He did everything for love: for love of God and for love of the world.
And that is what he asked his disciples to do, as well. After the passage in John quoted above, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, the most menial task of all. And he says, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord -- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are no greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." (John 13:12-17)
If you know this, you are blessed if you do this. There is peace and joy to be found in helping where help is needed, in loving one another as God loves us. And it doesn't even take going to another country. There is much in our everyday lives that requires our help: the homeless person who is hungry, the home-bound person who is lonely, the person who is being bullied (whether child or adult), the dog who is lost, the person who needs financial help, the garden that needs tending, etc. The list is endless. Our love is required all around us. We must help where we see that help is needed, even though it means giving up our own lives, as we know them, in order to do this.
Dear God, thank you, thank you, thank you, for Jesus, and for sending to us one who loved you and us enough to continue loving us to the end. Love always, Pam