May 22, 2016
What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. That's an expression I hear often. I read a new twist on this saying on social media that said, "If what doesn't kill me makes me stronger, than I should be able to bench press a Buick right now" What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. In other words, I may be suffering, but my suffering has a point.
For as long as people have suffered, they have tried to express their suffering through art -- music, writing, painting, dance, etc. If suffering is an integral part of the human condition, then so is the creative expression it inspires. As an aspiring writer, I've worried that I haven't suffered enough. I mean, can you be a true writer, a true artist, if you had a happy childhood?
Listen to music of any genre and you'll eventually hear a song about love lost. Whether it's blues or rock or folk or country, a woman's man has left her for someone else, or a man is bemoaning that his woman has done him wrong, or no matter how hard the two people in love tried everything fell apart anyway, and now the singer is alone and lonely.
Brent's friend -- and my friend too -- Nashville singer and songwriter Les Kerr, took the phrase, "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger," and made it real and far more authentic in his song, "What Didn't Kill Me." He wrote it after the sudden death of his wife, Gail.
"What didn't kill me made me sadder. Made me ask, 'why does life matter?'"
We want to think that suffering makes us stronger, because again, we want it to have a point. Musicians and artists of every kind and caliber put their suffering into their art because it gives meaning to the suffering. Whether we are an artist or not, I think we all want that to be true. If being human includes suffering, then we want there to be a reason for our suffering. We want it to have a greater purpose, greater meaning. If suffering has meaning, then suffering is redeemed.
Paul seemed to be making this point in his letter to the church in Rome. If ever there were followers of The Way who needed encouragement to be hopeful, it was these Roman followers. As one commentator put it, the believers in Rome were living in the shadow of the empire that would methodically try to destroy them through persecution. They were trying to live and worship faithfully in a culture that was hostile to them and their faith. That hostility would get much worse before it got better.
The Roman believers were suffering believers. So Paul wrote these words of encouragement.
"Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us ..."
I'm never quite sure how to respond to these words. I know they are meant to encourage. There have certainly been times in my life when I have gone through trials and tribulations, and I have turned to them for help. I may be suffering and struggling now, but the promised outcome of this suffering is endurance, character and hope. I may be suffering, but my suffering will have a point. My suffering will be redeemed.
However, at other times I hear Paul's words, and I take issue with them. I wonder if they encourage people to seek suffering as a way to prove their faith or their piety. See, the more I suffer, the more faithful I am. I can boast in my suffering because I know it reveals how good of a believer I truly am.
One thing is for sure, I would never quote Paul's words to someone who is in the midst of suffering. I know you are suffering because you've lost a child or your home or you've been the victim of crime or war or terrible circumstances far beyond your control. But just you wait, because all of this suffering is going to build your character.
No, we would never tell that to someone who was suffering. At least, I hope we wouldn't. But that begs the question, does all suffering have meaning? Can all suffering be redeemed? Or is some suffering needless and pointless and without explanation, other than cruelty, hatred or just random chaos?
It seems to me that both is true. I don't believe that God's intention for God's children was suffering. Too often our suffering is a consequence of what we do or don't do -- to ourselves and others. Sometimes our suffering happens without any rhyme or reason. Why did that house get demolished by a tornado and not the one standing next to it? Why did that child get cancer, but not another child? I don't believe that God wants any of us to suffer -- even for God's sake. But I also believe that we are never without hope. Hope does not occur as a result of suffering. Hope thrives in spite of suffering.
An archaic definition of the word hope is trust. Perhaps that definition is archaic, but it seems to me that it perfectly defines the hope that God calls us to have. We trust God, therefore we hope. Hope in God is not a fingers-crossed kind of sentiment. Well, I believe in God, so I'm going to hope it will all be okay. It might not be okay, but here's hoping.
As I've said in other sermons, hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is about believing that everything is going to be okey dokey no matter what. Hope is recognizing that everything might not be okay, that suffering is real, but we trust in God and so we trust that all of it -- the good and the bad -- is in God's hands. And God's hands are good hands to be in. So we hope.
Along with the expression, "What doesn't kill me makes stronger," there's another aphorism that I often hear expressed in the face of suffering. "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." It seems to me that if this is true, then there are a whole lot of people who are given far more suffering and grief and trouble than anyone should be able to or have to handle. I don't believe that God gives us just the right amount of suffering, just what we can shoulder. I don't think God want or intends for us to suffer. But I do think that God puts people in our lives who can help us bear the suffering that we cannot bear alone.
God puts people in our lives who can help us bear the suffering that we cannot bear alone. Maybe that is really where our hope lies -- in our relationships, with God and with others. This is Trinity Sunday, the day that we supposedly ponder the mystery of our monotheistic faith that worships a God three-in-one. The fact that I could write that sentence without the grammar checker on the computer going nuts is a mystery.
I don't presume to fully understand the Trinity. Nor can I ever adequately explain it; yet Rebecca Weaver, my church history professor, told us that we should never write off a question about the Trinity by saying it is a mystery. She lectured us repeatedly that of course it is a mystery, but there are ways to discuss it intelligently. It is a mystery, but it is also a model of relationship; God in relationship, the three-in-one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If suffering is redeemed, then it is redeemed in the relationships we have with others who suffer with us, or who hold our hands while we walk through a particular fire. If we endure, it is because we have others who carry us when we cannot walk on our own. If our characters are strengthened, it is because there are others who remind us that we are more than the suffering we endure. We have hope, we trust in God, not because God gives us no more than we can handle but because God puts people in our lives who remain in relationship with us no matter what. People have walked through fire with me, so I feel called to walk through the fire with others. Our suffering is redeemed because God refuses to leave us alone. God refuses to give up on us, or on the relationship God wants to have with us. There have been times of suffering in my life when I haven't recognized that God was with me; but looking back, I know that God was there in the people who surrounded me with love and compassion. God is with us. God calls us into relationship -- with God and with others. We don't get through this life without suffering, but God does not leave us alone. Therefore, we trust in God, and in our trust we have hope. And hope does not disappoint us.
Let all of God's children, "Alleluia!"