In today’s second reading Paul appears to celebrate suffering: “we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character …” Working in the hospital, I come face to face with suffering on a daily basis; but I cannot recall ever meeting someone who was glad for the suffering. Occasionally, people talk about offering up the suffering; and sometimes I hear people quote today’s scripture passage and comment on the fact that they already have more than enough character. But that is as far as it goes.
Suffering is not something that our society values; we normally try to eliminate it as quickly as possible. Almost all of us have at least one form of painkiller in our medicine cabinets because we do not want to endure unnecessary pain and suffering. We have an opioid addiction crisis caused in part by prescription pain medicines. And the majority of Canadians supported the law allowing for medical assistance in dying precisely because they saw no value in suffering if things were not going to get better.
It is precisely because of this visceral aversion to suffering that Paul’s words offer us something that we desperately need; encouragement to turn toward suffering with compassion rather than running away from it in fear and anger. Suffering is part of the human condition. No matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid it and still be alive. All of us experience physical pain. All of us experience emotional pain; and all of us experience spiritual pain – questions of “why me?” “why this?” “why now?” or “what is the point?” If we run from the pain in fear and anger, we will find ourselves in a constant state of fight or flight, our threat response system on overdrive. If we can learn to work with this pain, rather than fighting against it, our experience of life can change completely and even what is unpleasant can be life giving. (This is the concept that underlies the Lamaze breathing that most couples learn when they are preparing for childbirth.)
Kristen Neff, who researches and writes about the power of self-compassion, teaches people to notice when they are suffering, pause for a moment and say gently to oneself: “this is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of being human. May I be kind to myself in this moment.” The research shows that people who practice this become more resilient. In other words, as Paul promises, they “endure.” They are not worn down or destroyed by their unpleasant experience, but instead they are transformed. Modern research shows they experience a greater sense of overall well-being with less anxiety and depression. Or, in the words of Saint Paul, they develop “character. “
“And character produces hope.” This is not the hope that is really just wishful thinking, like hope that we will win the lottery or hope that the Raptors will win the playoffs. This is not the kind of hope that is about everything turning out all right. This is a hope that, in the words of Rona Jevne, “is about life being all right no matter how everything turns out.” This is a hope that cannot fail because, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Boasting in suffering means embracing our own humanity. It means acknowledging and accepting that we are limited and recognizing that because of those limitations we will experience suffering. From the moment in the garden when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in an attempt to be less human and more like God, human beings have fought against being human; but it is only when in embracing our humanity that we truly open ourselves to receive the gift that God has given to humanity – the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.