Lent and the Gospel of Suffering
by Deacon Lyn Baker
In the popular mind, Lent is associated with penitence. There is a tradition of “giving up” something we enjoy. In my case, this is definitely food. On Ash Wednesday this year, I decided that I would fast for the noon meal. This is not heroic, I know. By dinnertime I was ravenous. As I ate the chicken noodle soup, my whole body relaxed in gratitude. I was more grateful than ever for the gift of food. My slight suffering produced a good: more gratitude for and awareness of a simple, everyday gift.
My small distress produced a slight good, gratitude, but how do we talk about a gospel of suffering? “Gospel” means “good news.” How is suffering ever good news?? Here’s how I define suffering: Suffering is not getting what you want and getting what you don’t want. Every single human being has both experiences. It’s part of the human story from the very beginning. Affliction of one kind or another comes to us early or late, and in a variety of ways.
The universal human response to pain is “Why?”
“Why did my child die? Why am I in a wheelchair? Why did my father get cancer? Why am I unmarried? Childless? Divorced?” The “why” echoes down the centuries and through the generations of human grief. We look for reasons for our misery. Part of the torment is the apparent meaninglessness of the pain.
Scripture examines the range of human wretchedness unflinchingly and realistically. It chronicles losses of all kinds: loss of country, children, health, wealth, family, freedom, life itself. Every kind of harm is addressed in these pages.
Through the agony of the cross, once and for all, Jesus linked suffering to love. “For God so loved …” This is shocking. St. Paul talks about our union with Jesus in the book of Colossians. If Christ is in us, our anguish is joined to his anguish. Our pain is part of his pain. Suffering in itself is always an experience of evil, but Jesus took evil and made it the basis for eternal good. He flipped evil on its head. He is the Lord of the upside-down kingdom.
Our grief and pain invite us to follow Jesus. His immense and immeasurable suffering created the good of the redemption of the whole world. In a similar way, our suffering, through our union with him, also brings good into the world. We don’t see this. Heaven sees it. The book of Hebrews tells us that this is the essence of faith.
Jesus does not explain the meaning of suffering; he says, “Follow me.” He is clear that pain will be involved, but it is no longer pointless. In some mysterious way, we complete the suffering of Christ (Colossians 1:24).
The Holy Spirit works within our suffering to transform it, to bring us to maturity, to develop perseverance and finally brings us to hope and the experience of the love of God poured out in our hearts. This does not mean the normal grieving process stops and we suddenly feel OK, but we find the strength to keep on.
It is a mysterious progression. We believe that because Jesus suffered and brought hope and redemption to a broken world. God will also bring good out of the evil that is the anguish in our own lives.
The giving up of a single meal, resulting in deeper appreciation for the gift of food, is a tiny illustration of how our deprivations may result in a deeper appreciation of what Jesus went through for us. The scale of his sorrow is beyond us, but we are invited to meditate on the truth of the gospel of suffering as it manifests in our individual lives during Lent.
And always our heartache is redeemed by the hope the Lord has given us in the resurrection.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4
Drawing from a varied and far-ranging life that includes 25 years as a private school administrator working with parents and children in the U.S. and Africa, Lyn’s vocation is to help adults and children come to know God in a deeper way.
Her certificate in spiritual direction, from Perkins School of Theology, caps a Master of Arts from the State University of New York and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Wisconsin. Lyn is an ordained deacon in the Anglican Mission in America.
You can reach Lyn at LynBakerAuthor.com.