Receiving or Achieving?
Yes, my mind tends to think in cheesy billboard rhymes. But it was the sound bite that downloaded instantly into my head when someone asked me to speak on “Finding God in Suffering”.
Plain and simple: The Gospel message (that God will save those who profess they can’t do it themselves) is for receiving—not achieving. In fact it is a contradiction in terms to attempt to achieve the Gospel.
In my beginning, I approached religion just as I approached any other merit-based entity. I was good at earning things. Meritocracy promoted a world order that made sense to me, and put me towards the top of that order. I believed that God loved me here: in the light of my self-manifested goodness.
This logic was woven in my DNA. It had nothing to do with how I was raised—I know this because my parents went to opposite extremes to tell me that I was marvelous and wonderful just because I was theirs—because I existed, because I was me. I knew without a doubt that their love was unconditional, and had nothing to do with my achievements.
Boring. A love that anyone could have didn’t seem very special.
Free love didn’t seem very self-edifying, right? It had nothing to do with my awesomeness. It had more to do with their awesomeness. So I sought the other kind—the kind of love that values the things that young Me valued and possessed (good choices, self-discipline, abilities, high scores, etc. All very noble, yes?). A love based on this would reflect ME. Would edify ME. And I really liked myself. In fact, I still do :).
I was good in the arena of this religion—Eugene Peterson calls it the gospel of “Salvation by self-help” (see his fabulous translation of Hebrews).
Alright. Enter suffering.
Suffering removed the things of me that I valued–good and bad things. I lost my valued ability to control things, to be admirable, to achieve goodness and worthiness according to the gospel of achieving. With the loss of valuables comes the loss of perceived self-value. This is suffering. Or at least one form of it.
In that state of suffering I found God. Or as some people say, God found me. Or, I let myself be found… I suppose any version of that is right.
Here’s what suffering (finally) did for me:
- It gave me an opportunity to consider a different Gospel: God saves. Not me.
- It separated me unto a place where I felt God’s pursuit of me. It put me where, eventually, I knew His divine empathy (something I could never have accepted in my non-humbled state). It enabled me to experience these things that are relational qualities instead of merely doctrinal or religious ones.
- It produced a new hope in me: from personal success, to eternal rescue. I switched from hoping in me to hoping in Him.
Anyway, suffering is fertile ground. I hate to even make a bulleted list, because it comes off as exhaustive, yet the beneficial dividends of suffering are infinite. So let this only be an encouragement to patiently endure, with certain hope, toward your own list of the payouts of suffering.
As with everything in the Kingdom of God, the Gospel is wherever there is space for it. Think Sabbath, communion, Nativity… The things of salvation come to wherever space has been made for it, or to where a sacrifice has occurred. (And sometimes it just comes no matter what because God is that good).
But for me, suffering created (gouged, gored, gutted, and crushed) space in me to RECEIVE the good news. GOD saves! Not me! What a relief, because suffering also showed me my limitations, and proved that I cannot save myself. To hope in this is futile.
Where I was once full of myself, as is the inherent way of the flesh-organism, I now had space to want something grander. And that I could accept that there really even was anything grander, and want it, was the work of God alone, regardless of whatever evil-seeming means that realization came about.
It’s right there in the beatitudes. Blessed are you who suffer. Blessed are you who are unable. For that which you cannot do for your own self will be given to you by God, eternally and infinitely. If only you will RECEIVE it!
This is a perennial lesson. I have learned this, I am still learning this, I will be learning this again.