Suffering often comes from doing right

  • August 26, 2008

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 31 (Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)

It is easy to sympathize with the rather unwilling prophet Jeremiah. His proclamation of the “bad news” — violence and destruction — was not well received. Nothing had gone right, he was a laughingstock, his life had been threatened, and he wanted out in no uncertain terms. And he was angry with God — he accuses God of putting one over on him and even forcing him against his will.

But Jeremiah’s resolve not to speak of the Lord and His message does not last long, for it is a fire burning inside of him. This is no ordinary job, but a prophetic call — a call no one in their right mind would seek but one which no one can evade. Speaking the truth to power and to a culture and society out of harmony with God is not an easy or pleasant task in any age. Being publicly truthful is one of the greatest sacrifices one can make.

What does it mean to present one’s body as a holy and living sacrifice to God? The language and symbolism of sacrifice does not mean much in most modern religious cultures, but it was an essential element of all ancient religions. Taking his cue from the prophets of Israel, Paul gives a new spin to sacrifice. True sacrifice is the giving of self, best expressed in just and holy behaviour in all one’s activities and relationships. Most of all, it means doing the will of God rather than following one’s own desires, as our friend Jeremiah discovered. This means that “spirituality” cannot be compartmentalized or separated from any aspect of human activity.

Peter must have been on top of the world after his confession of Jesus as Messiah. He was praised by Jesus, who called him the “rock” and gave him the keys of the kingdom. But then Jesus began talking of arrest, suffering and death at the hands of the authorities. Deeply shaken and upset at the sudden change in tone, Peter exhibited the usual human response to danger or suffering: denial and flight. This can’t happen, get out of town, go into hiding — these were the thoughts and words pouring from a fearful and troubled man.

Peter’s protest earned him a furious rebuke from Jesus for it represented a very powerful temptation. Jesus did not want to suffer or die, He wanted to accomplish His mission and do the will of the Father. Peter’s pleas are in danger of injecting very human fear into the mind and heart of Jesus. In calling Peter “Satan” Jesus recognizes the challenge of the “adversary” that we all carry in our hearts: fear.

There are two extreme positions regarding suffering: suffering is all bad and to be avoided at all costs and suffering is good in itself and should be sought and embraced. The first robs us of courage and integrity. Physical life and comfort may be preserved but at the expense of the nobility and growth of our own soul. The second can easily degenerate into self-hatred and joylessness. Additionally, when we give an absolute positive value to suffering it can and has justified injustice, inequality and exploitation.

Usually we don’t have to seek or pray for suffering and struggle, for life has a way of dealing it out unbidden. Meeting it with grace and courage will turn it to our own spiritual advantage. But here Jesus is speaking of another type of suffering, and that is the suffering that results from taking a stand, doing what is right and challenging the injustice of the powers that rule human societies whether they be political, economic or religious.

For suffering to have positive value it must be undertaken consciously and with right intention. And suffering is not the goal — doing what is right and true is the goal while suffering is often the consequence. Fear and the threat of suffering and death are the tools of all forms of tyranny and they hinder true discipleship.

Throughout its history the church has sometimes failed to witness to the Gospel out of fear and self-preservation. It is often real persecution that brings us back to our calling. Only great love and trust in God can move us beyond this barrier, allowing us to do great things for God and humanity.