Freitag, 12. März 2010

Lenten Reflections: Suffering

Suffering – key to salvation


What is Justification? How is one saved? Eastern Christians speak of theosis, Westerners speak of deification. Both words describe the doctrine as laid out by St. Athanasius when he said the famous words: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God”.

What are me to make of this? What is obvious here is that the orthodox doctrine of justification involves identification with Christ. Now, it is not my intention to elaborate on the traditional understanding of justification, but rather to highlight an aspect often ignored by Christians: suffering. It is evident that suffering takes a central role in the plan of salvation. We are therefore not to avoid it, but rather to embrace it. Essentially, one can say that there is no salvation without suffering. This might sound strange to fundamentally protestant ears that are accustomed to the false belief of “justification by faith alone”. But what is the deeper mystery of faith if it is not “being Christ-like” in its fullest sense? Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6). Thus, we look to Him for the answers to the mystery of the plan of salvation. Christ came to die. He gave us life by His death. Therefore, we can say that justification is mortification. Mortification comes from the Latin: “mors” means death, thus mortification is the process or act of dying.

“For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live.” (Romans 8: 13)

“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is the service of idols.” (Colossians 3: 5)


It should be clear from these passages that one has to “die”, in order to live. The central message is summarized by Christ's life and words. His whole life lead to the passion, the bearing of the cross, and finally to the crucifixion. One who prays the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary is only all too familiar with this central aspect of Christ's life here on earth. When we contemplate on these mysteries, we actually are contemplating the very mystery of salvation.

Can we establish that we must suffer? Are we really expected to suffer? I would say yes, of course!

“For this is thankworthy, if for conscience towards God, a man endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if committing sin, and being buffeted for it, you endure? But if doing well you suffer patiently; this is thankworthy before God. For unto this are you called:
because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps.” (I Peter 2: 19-21)

It is explicitly said that we are to follow in His footsteps: especially those steps He took during His passion and walk to Mount Calvary.

“Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” (Matthew 16: 24-25)

These words are often read, but not without the proper understanding. At first Christ demands self-denial, then the taking up of one's cross, and finally that man shall lose his life for His sake. Why?
Self-denial is an expression of humility and obedience: without these two qualities, the sacrifice of the cross would have been impossible. Self-denial is then necessary for anyone to even think about carrying his own cross. Then one must carry his own cross – otherwise one cannot be deemed a follower of Christ. What does it mean to “take up his cross”? It means to do as Christ did. Christ Jesus took up His Cross and He had a destination: Mount Calvary. Thus, a Christian is expected to do the same thing: to suffer patiently carrying his own cross while approaching his own death on the cross.
His death on the cross then is the real goal of the painful journey: that one might gain life through death.

Some may argue that this is a very Catholic view of justification and thus does not necessarily apply to Non-Catholic Christians. But St. Paul teaches that those who are baptized are baptized unto death:

“Know you not that all we, who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in his death? ” (Romans 6: 3)

“Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer. For he that is dead is justified from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall live also together with Christ: Knowing that Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no more, death shall no more have dominion over him.“ (Romans 6: 6-9)

Still others may argue that this does not necessarily lead to a life of passion. But what life is that which is not one of passion? Passion is a very interesting word: it shows the deep connection between love and suffering. Did Christ not suffer and die out of love for us? Is not His Cross the symbol of the greatest love (John 15: 13) imaginable? Can we expect to be saved if we do not live in love (charity) too (I Corinthians 13)?

But why is suffering such an intrinsic part of the Christian life? Can we not have an “easy” life and still get saved “by faith alone”? This is not possible because of the discrepancy between the desires of the flesh and of the spirit.

“That the justification of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit.” (Romans 8: 4)

So the fulfillment of justification is found in those who – though in the world – walk not according to the flesh. Though in the world, Christians are not of the world. This necessarily leads to tension: especially when we consider that the god of this world is the enemy who blinds the infidels (II Corinthians 4: 4). The world must be seen as fallen: it is a world ruled by sin. The way to be freed from the bondage of sin is death unto sin:

“Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer.” (Romans 6: 6)

Suffering is also an expression of discipline. Discipline is the art of self-denial. And as we have noted earlier, self-denial is a sine non qua of mortification. Mortification is also discipline. Thus, all things are connected to the Cross of Christ, to His passion and death.

A parent often has to discipline disobedient children for their own good. We know that we suffer from a wounded nature: concupiscence is not blotted out by baptism: it is something that we are subject to for as long as we live, and only by discipline under the grace of God can our wounded nature be healed, restored, made “at one” (the verb “atone” originally meant to “make at one”) again with the Creator. Does God chastise His children? Out of love, He surely does!

“And you have forgotten the consolation, which speaketh to you, as unto children, saying: My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord; neither be thou wearied whilst thou art rebuked by him. For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct? But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons.” (Hebrews 12: 5-7)

“For the Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him. For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8: 16-18)

Those who are His, He disciplines. He purifies. And we should not be disheartened by the suffering we have to endure. We must suffer before we can enter into the Kingdom of God: there is no other way to life eternal than that of the cross, i.e. that of suffering and death.

“Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith: and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14: 21)

“That no man should be moved in these tribulations: for yourselves know, that we are appointed thereunto. For even when we were with you, we foretold you that we should suffer tribulations, as also it is come to pass, and you know.” (I Thessalonians 3: 3-4)

Let us never forget that the tribulations we are subjected to are there not to destroy us, but for our great gain:

“And not only so; but we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation worketh patience.” (Romans 5: 3)

“And now, brethren, as you are the ancients among the people of God, and their very soul resteth upon you: comfort their hearts by your speech, that they may be mindful how our fathers were tempted that they might be proved, whether they worshipped their God truly. They must
remember how our father Abraham was tempted, and being proved by many tribulations, was made the friend of God. So Isaac, so Jacob, so Moses, and all that have pleased God, passed through many tribulations, remaining faithful. But they that did not receive the trials with the fear of the Lord, but uttered their impatience and the reproach of their murmuring against the Lord, were destroyed by the destroyer, and perished by serpents. As for us therefore let us not revenge ourselves for these things which we suffer. But esteeming these very punishments to be less than our sins deserve, let us believe that these scourges of the Lord, with which like servants we are chastised, have happened for our amendment, and not for our destruction.” (Judith 8: 21-27)

“In all things we suffer tribulation, but are not distressed; we are straitened, but are not destitute; We suffer persecution, but are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we perish not: Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake; that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you. But having the same spirit of faith, as it is written: I believed, for which cause I have spoken; we also believe, for which cause we speak also: Knowing that he who raised up Jesus, will raise us up also with Jesus, and place us with you. For all things are for your sakes; that the grace abounding through many, may abound in thanksgiving unto the glory of God.“ (II Corinthians 4: 8-15)

Let us therefore deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and lose our lives for Christ's sake!

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