Surprised By Suffering?
from the book
ACCESS TO HIGH HOPE
Second Lesson Sermons For Lent/Easter
Harry N. Huxhold
Belva Plain wrote about a battered housewife back when our national conscience was awaking to the serious problem of domestic violence. Plain's novel Whispers takes place in the comfortable affluent home of Robert Ferguson, a rising star in the corporate world. He and his wife Lynn are the parents of two daughters, Ann and Emily, and a son, Robert. An infant daughter had been lost in a swimming pool drowning.
The father is bright, handsome, winsome, thoughtful, and apparently very loving. On occasion, however, he is extremely physically violent with his wife Lynn. With his daughters he is harsh and cruel emotionally. It is obvious he can neither be contradicted nor challenged in making any major decision for his family. Each time Robert becomes violent with Lynn, he becomes exceedingly remorseful, but he always finds an excuse for his dreadful tantrums.
The periods between the horrible incidents are filled with warmth and devotion for Lynn and his family. Over and over again Lynn is completely surprised at how Robert can be so mean. She is equally surprised that she still loves him and does not want to believe him capable of more terror. Lynn's dilemma is a common one. Her confused state is common to the battered wives and children of our society who continue to be surprised by the evil their loved one is able to force on them. However, the whole society continues to be shocked by any form of suffering, evil, pain, or hardship individuals force on our homes, community, and society as a whole. Much of our evening news introduces new surprises, shocks, and puzzles of how perverse humanity can be. In the Second Reading appointed for today we hear the Apostle Peter say to us that we should not be shocked by any kind of suffering that comes along.
The Fiery Ordeal
The kind of suffering Peter had in mind was the persecutions which Christians were beginning to experience because of their faith. Fortunately, we in America do not have to contend with that problem for the moment. Yet there are those who predict that it will not always be so in America. The churches have lost favor in some communities. Also the development of severe shortages of clergy may make churches more vulnerable to attack in the future. Presently, however, there are good Christian people in other parts of the world who suffer the fiery ordeal because of the faith. We recognize that century--old tensions between Muslims and Christians in the Balkan states have not really subsided.
We are embarrassed by the long--standing feud between Irish Catholics and Protestants. The Middle East tensions between Christians and Jews are hidden in the open conflicts of national politics. The plight of many Christians suffering persecutions in Africa is part of the ongoing news flowing from that continent. We should not be surprised if the growing populations of Eastern religions within our own American borders do not create the kind of tensions that are difficult for some Christians to bear as the Christian faith continues to lose favor in the society. The point is that American Christians must get used to the idea that the faith can never live within this world without the threat of the fiery trial of persecution always lurking as a possibility. Peter would just want you to know that the gospel has many enemies. Persecution is always a threat.
However, we should not think of persecution as the only severe testing of the faith. Peter wrote, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you." We have to think of any testing of the faith as equally dangerous. In our society we do not have to think of the government as spoiling or destroying the faith of our youth. During the Hitler regime in Nazi Germany, the government did not forcibly take the children away from their churches. The government simply ran youth programs on Sundays mornings to compete with the churches. How different is that from our own communities that run program after program for the youth on Sunday mornings? The thought is never expressed that the youth programs are designed to take our children away from their churches. The leaders just do not think of the churches.
One has to recall how, under the worst conditions for the Christian churches in the Roman Empire, Christian believers lost their lives when they refused to offer a sacrifice to the Roman emperor or gods. How easy it would have been for the Christians to excuse themselves for making a little gesture to satisfy their persecutors. If one gives the problem some thought, one has to come to the conclusion that our loss to the youth programs which interfere with the faith of our children is equally blatant or more so than the sprinkling of incense on the altar of an alien god. Someone is going to say it is not fair to pick on the youth programs. To be sure, there are oodles of competing forces that create tests of faith for us. However, the Sunday morning youth programs are obvious competition and highly tempting for the faith. Who wants to jeopardize the child's starting position in the lineup by going to church instead of the practice or a game?
The fiery trials and testing of the faith also come in other disguises and wear other masks, such as illness in the family, economic problems, and vocational distress. Everyone in this congregation this morning could name a private testing that he/she has gone through. John Gould, a teacher at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, gives us an account of an ordeal that fell to his family. His story is The Withering Child, an account of how his five--year--old son became anorectic during John's welcome study sabbatical in England. The son, Gardner, became immobilized over a ten--week period, and Gould had to give up his study plans that would have been most helpful in his career as a teacher. The record Gould shares is a nightmarish account of the struggle to deal with this darling boy who was literally wasting away. Gardner retches and fidgets as the parents seek to find what is troubling their son.
What is especially difficult to handle is the guilt the parents feel in why this may have happened to their son, and how they have to find release from that guilt to be able to love again. That is an enormous testing of the faith that comes to parents, families, and friends of people who find illness and handicaps as their special trials. Peter's observation that we should not be shocked when trials come, in whatever form they do, should free us to take heart in the fact that we are sharing in Christ's sufferings. No matter how the testing runs over, through, or into our lives, we know our Lord Jesus Christ had to suffer through the same. We know God strengthened him to do so, and he gained the victory. So, says Peter, "You may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed." Peter's point is, even though we have to share in our Lord's suffering with our own form of suffering, we are also going to be there for the shouting to share in the glory when our Lord Jesus Christ shows up in glory.
Our reading moves ahead towards the close of Peter's letter to pick up some good advice for dealing with what we have to suffer and endure. The first piece of this counsel is, "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time." Peter most certainly was not suggesting we grovel before God and beat ourselves down. Here Peter is not talking about the kind of humility we must assume as we confess our sins and pray for God's forgiveness. Rather the emphasis here is on the humility necessary for us to recognize how helpless we are apart from the "mighty hand of God." We are to own up to our weakened state. We do need help. We are not God. God waits for us to call upon God for divine help. Peter says, "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you."
All good parents are eager to help their children in their times of need. Quite often parents are chagrined that their children did not call for help and got themselves into very deep trouble. Sometimes the call from the children comes too late. God urges us to call. God stands over us as a father or mother and waits. The Prophet Isaiah assures us we can call. "You shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am" (Isaiah 58:9). We all know people who make life too difficult for themselves because they do not know how to ask for help. They may feel asking for help is a weakness of character. This often happens to senior citizens who keep saying, "I do not want to become a bother or a burden for someone." Probably none of us want to let that happen to us in our time of need. Yet when we need help as the aged, the sick, or the immobilized individuals, we do our friends and family a better service by letting them help and cooperating with them. In our relationship with God, Luther would say, "Let God be God." Let God have God's way with us by helping us. God could not be more pleased.
You can be sure God is not going to do too much for us. God is not going to spoil us. If, on the one hand, God does not permit us to have to handle more than we can bear, it is also true God does not want to make our dependency upon God obsolete. That is why Peter can write, "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you." With the next scratch of the pen, he writes, "Discipline yourselves, keep alert." We introduced Peter's attitude toward suffering with the abusive treatment Lynn Ferguson suffered at the hands of her husband Robert in the novel Whispers. In one of his monthly columns (The Lutheran, May, 2000), Walter Wangerin, Jr., wrote about how he handled his adopted African--American daughter Talitha. Talitha had experienced trauma in the shock of adoption, leaving her familiar surroundings at the age of eight months. He referred to the trauma he himself had suffered as a child. Wangerin related how for both himself and his daughter there had to be a lot of confession and much prayer for help. However, there also had to be a good deal of help from his wife, Thanne, as well as the presence and help from God.
What is important to understand about the Wangerins is that neither father nor daughter had to resign themselves as victims for whom the pain was so deep there can be no help. With the spiritual disciplines of prayer, grace, and forgiveness, help is available to achieve a wholesome attitude towards oneself and others. Staying fit in the wake of disastrous experiences is also preparation for whatever else is to come in the future. Peter would impress upon us that there is always more to come. "Keep alert," he writes, like "a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour." One does not have to look far to realize how the demonic shows up in all kind of shapes, forms, and disguises. The roaring lion is also accompanied by wolves who come to us in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15). No matter what mask the demons wear, we can be sure that in one form or another, the basic temptation is somehow the same. In one way or another the tempting suggestion will be you cannot trust in a gracious God. We can recognize that suggestion behind its disguise and sniff out the presence of the lion who is stalking us.
In The Same Boat
Peter would not want his readers to think that he was singling them out as unique people who had to deal with suffering, or that suffering would be only in their culture or their era. Rather Peter urges the faithful to resist the devil, "Steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering." Temptations or suffering are common to all people. Peter may have had in mind how Christians all around the Roman Empire were suffering persecution, but we can be sure his words are appropriate for all people suffering temptation everywhere at any time. Peter suffered temptation right under the very nose of Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest. Peter could talk from experience.
Two years before his death, in 1962, General Douglas MacArthur addressed the student body of cadets at West Point. As a literary piece the speech has to rank among the finest of public addresses on record. In part, MacArthur said, "From your ranks come the great captains who hold the nation's destiny in their hands the moment the war tocsin sounds ... This does not mean that you are warmongers. On the contrary, the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: 'Only the dead have seen the end of war' " (quoted in Parade magazine, May 7, 2000). Tacking the General's comments on to the Apostle Peter, no one can escape the suffering and pain of war and death that plague our world. Peter's encouragement for us is to keep aware of how things really are and resist the evil as it comes to us.
The Final Word
The bottom line Peter draws under all his talk about suffering is, "And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you." What Peter says is far more profound than the little comfort people offer when they say, "This, too will pass." People can dig in the barrel for all kinds of sayings like that. "Suffering is better than the alternative." Or they can find comfort in the greater trials and sufferings they see someone else enduring, "I thought I had it bad until I saw what Joe has to bear." Or that easy one, "It's not the end of the world," or "Things could be worse." You can add the bromides you have heard. If you want to hear stuff like these stabs at bringing comfort, sit in the lobby of the doctor's office for an hour or so. You could also go to the surgery waiting room at the hospital. This kind of talk can be cruel if people are not able to understand or know the real reason why there is the suffering, how one can cope with the suffering, and what the ultimate outcome of the suffering will be.
Becker is a television situation comedy about John Becker, a medical doctor. In one episode the doctor gets into a hassle with a priest about treating a patient. The priest warms to Becker when he realizes how personally concerned Becker is about the welfare of his patient, who turns out to be the priest's brother. Becker becomes more uneasy about his attitude toward the priest because of Becker's personal feelings about the faith. Becker confesses to be an atheist. However, he is touched by the persistence of the priest who obviously has much to offer his brother because of the faith. That is what Peter offers us. The word Peter shares with us does not come from the bottom of the barrel of easy quips in the waiting room. What is offered is from the heart of God of all grace who made sure we could be strengthened, restored, and renewed in the face of all temptation and suffering through the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Peter tags on a final word to all of that, "To him be the power forever and ever. Amen." Oh, yes, and one more, "Peace to all of you who are in Christ."