I ran a 10km race on Saturday. My husband thought I should reconsider, my colleagues told me I was crazy. I had been sick all week with the flu, and I hadn’t slept for several nights because I had been too busy at 2am (and 3am and 4am…) coughing. But I guess that the running culture has rubbed off on me after all of these years of pretending to be part of it. “I bet that lots of people will just bail on the race today,” my brother mused as we drove to the start line at 6am through pouring rain. Wrong. Runners don’t bail on races. As much as I wanted to still be in bed, or at least to be drinking a hot tea in my pyjamas, I knew that a sniffle and a downpour did not constitute any sort of valid excuse for dropping out. So I ran it, through rain and mud, coughing and phlegm. I suffered and I claimed that medal at the end of the race with a pride that I didn’t even feel the need to conceal.
Suffering. It’s a word that is routinely considered negative. We do not want to suffer. We do not want the people we care about to suffer. We want to avoid, alleviate, end the suffering we experience. And hopefully we care about ending the suffering of our fellow human beings too.
Much of our suffering is the result of human brokenness. We inflict suffering on ourselves as we live by narratives that claim us as inadequate or unworthy, as we let fear and hurt trip us into patterns that are destructive and isolating. We inflict suffering on others, across families, friendships and nations, when fear and hurt, jagged histories, careless choices, suck us into patterns that pit people against one another. We experience suffering in the face of all that is fragile and fleeting about our lives, the changes and chances that can see us lose the things, the ones, that we hold most dear.
But suffering can also be positive. We sometimes forget this. My choice to run in the rain with a cold, that is admittedly a little silly. But the mental, physical and spiritual well-being that I receive from running is entirely worth the aches and pains that I sometimes suffer as a means toward that end. Tears and heartbreak, sweat and tears, so often lie behind great works of art, literature, and music. In relationships, families and communities, there will be times when hard and painful conversations or processes are called for in order for honesty, healing, or reconciliation to happen. Child birth. This is the ultimate example of suffering that leads somewhere, leads to new life. (“Don’t fight the contractions,” my midwife told me many hours into labour with my first child. “Let the pain do the work that needs to be done.” Maybe it’s no accident that I ended up visualising running up a hill through the rest of my contractions.)
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Jesus drops this bombshell on the disciples at the critical juncture of Mark’s Gospel Narrative. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus has asked his closest followers. It is Peter who, as usual, charges in: “You are the Messiah.” Peter has understood something essential about Jesus’ identity. But he hasn’t understood it completely. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah. And also, Jesus is One Who Suffers.
Peter does what any of us would do. He balks. He knows the misery of his people and their wild hopes. He knows his own sense of loss and powerlessness and the possibility that he had begun to see in Jesus. Why would anyone hope for a Messiah except to alleviate suffering? What kind of Messiah leads his followers into the thick of rejection, violence and pain?
Of course, the more meaningful part of Jesus’ identity turns out to be the part that is, on the surface, least appealing. If he had been the hoped-for Messiah, who had taught great things, healed many, gotten rich and comfortable and complacent and died in his sleep at a ripe old age, I suspect that we wouldn’t be still talking about Jesus today.
Jesus’ power for the countless who have claimed him as their Messiah, separated from him as we are by time and space, hinges on his suffering. Why? Because we have to see the face of God in Jesus in order to believe he matters to us. And the thing that we have to know is whether our God can speak to human suffering.
We have to know that the ways of carelessness and fear and hatred are not God’s ways and that we are created to be participants in God’s work of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. We have to know that there is a model for how we might lay down the weapons that we wield against one another, as well as the weapons that we wield against ourselves.
We have to know that God is bound to us in all of the instances that we choose to align ourselves with justice and truth, even when doing so brings difficulty, challenge, and even danger.
We have to know that love is costly. It is costly to love people and creatures that break and die and don’t last forever. And God creates us for the sole purpose of learning what it is to love anyway. Even at this great cost.
We have to know that God, too, has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and walks with us still, in all of our valleys and shadows.
We have to know that in every instance of heartbreak, God has also been there and is there again now. And not only that, God is inviting us to the possibility of how our hearts might now become opened into becoming agents of God’s compassion to a hurting world.
Suffering can be destructive. And ultimately, we hope that our suffering might mean something. The God who would choose to be revealed to us in a broken bloody body on a cross, who would not be silenced in the face of injustice, whose love and forgiveness would heal his friends’ fear and betrayal and re-make them as the New Creation, who would claim the greater story of dignity and beauty in the face of all of the ugliness and violence that was inflicted on one labelled as criminal and crucified, this God can speak to our deep hope. This God can bind up and raise up all of our suffering. This God can claim each broken heart as an Easter heart. This God can lead our suffering to bear the image of Love and Life.