“Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable. ”
Henri Nouwen offers us this hope in our brokenness:
“Here joy and sorrow are no longer each other’s opposites, but have become the two sides of the same desire to grow into the fullness of the Beloved.”
Our common sufferings are our common ground and the means by which we grow. We lean on each other in our suffering through art and poetry and music, and we unite together against the enemy of suffering when it becomes too much for anyone to bear.
It’s not that suffering is joy, or even something to be labeled as good, it’s simply the detritus out of which we grow. It’s the topsoil of our existence, laden with the decaying materials of our pain, from which we draw the nutrients to flourish.
There is something beautiful about the life of one who has been broken and made whole again, like a piece of kintsukuroi pottery. Shortly after recovering from cancer I read Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life, in which he compares the broken life to the alabaster box Mary breaks open to anoint Jesus’ feet (Mark 14:3-9). He writes:
“Whenever you meet someone who has really suffered — someone who has gone through experiences with the Lord that have brought limitation, and who, instead of trying to break free in order to be `used’, has been willing to be imprisoned by Him and has thus learned to find satisfaction in the Lord and nowhere else — then immediately you become aware of something. Immediately your spiritual senses detect a sweet savour of Christ. Something has been crushed, something has been broken in that life, and so you smell the odor.”
There is hope in the idea that suffering brings growth and that the Divine is with us through the pain, but it’s not an answer to why atrocity happens. It doesn’t explain the brutality of crimes against the innocent, or the arbitrariness of natural disasters. It doesn’t make the evil OK.
Even Jesus asked if there was some other way for an all powerful God to fulfill His purposes. My favorite version of this story is in Mark 14:35-36:
“And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.’”
This version is my favorite because Jesus acknowledges the all-powerful nature of God and still chooses to submit to His will. If Jesus were to focus on his own identity in the Godhead – his position, his power, his innocence, his lifestyle of obedience – he would have had plenty of reasons to call upon the host of angels ready to come to his aid. But as the story goes, “[He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” (Philippians 2:4-11)
Jesus is kintsukuroi, too, and he shows us the way.
As long as we are focused on ourselves, then growth and communion are only bandaids on the wound of suffering. But if we can look outward with Christ, then we will see that our brokenness is the anointing of the world. Or, as Trevor Hudson writes in his book Beyond Loneliness:
“Our pain and suffering…are the raw materials in and through which the Father works to make all things new.”
I wish being the light of the world, servants of the almighty God, meant vanquishing the darkness with mighty weapons of spiritual warfare that blazed with righteous glory, but that’s not the example that Christ gave us. He defeated the Enemy by dying on the cross, by suffering the evil of a fallen world so that He could bring that evil into the light and redeem it. Now, we are called to take up our crosses and follow Him.
In his book Evil and the Justice of God, N.T. Wright says that Jesus was victorious over evil, exhausting it on the cross, and we are called to carry that victory to the ends of the earth in the same way he did on the cross, redeeming evil with a suffering love. He writes:
“The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love. The cross is not just an example to be followed, it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example none the less, because it is the exemplar, the template, the model, for what God now wants to do, by his Spirit, in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won.”
Wright’s description of the Christus Victor theory of atonement gives me a cosmic view of suffering and evil, especially when read in tandem with Greg Boyd’s book, Is God to Blame? Wright introduces Israel to me as the wounded servant who becomes personified in Jesus as the representative of Israel and thereby all humanity. Their call to be a light to world was perhaps less about kingdom building and more about suffering redemption.
Israel was the seed bearer, carrying the weight of the atrocities of the world, although not always innocently and certainly not without their fair share of violence. Jesus was the seed, the personification of the wounded servant in Isaiah 53, who exhausted all that evil could muster on the cross, died, and was buried that he might be born again as the first fruits of a new creation.
Maybe you read this story as a myth, maybe you read it as history; either way it’s a story that we can find our own place in today. As I have written before, the Christ, the Cosmic Christ if you will, is the vine and we are its branches. In him, we are the Kingdom come, working out redemption through his example of suffering love.
I think this might be what Paul meant when he wrote in Colossians 1:24:
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church.”
There is hope that good things can come out of suffering, but this is not what gives suffering meaning. It is the working out of redemption, the renewal of all things, that gives suffering meaning. And forgiveness is the key, which is why Jesus says that if we do not forgive our neighbor, then we cannot be part of his kingdom (Matthew 6:15).
Forgiveness is the power to exhaust the worst that evil can do.
Jesus was our example for that, too, pleading for the Father to forgive his executioners while he hung on the cross. Forgiveness is recovery for the addict, the restoration of relationships, the healing of the wounded, rebuilding after war. Forgiveness is suffering love. It is the ongoing work of redemption, and we are the means by which the Divine is bringing reconciliation to the world. Not through our suffering, but through our forgiveness of suffering.
When the crowds followed Jesus to a deserted place, and the day grew late, the disciples wanted to send them away to get food. But Jesus said, “You feed them.”
“But all we have is a little bread a couple of fish!”
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled.” (Matthew 14:13-21)
This is the picture I hold in my mind when I imagine being chosen, blessed, broken, and given. It reminds me that there is a purpose to it all, that magnified blessing is the hope of being broken and given. It may not ease the pain of being broken, the scars are no less real, but it is an invitation to be part of the reconciling of all things to the Divine (Colossians 1:15-20).
In our next post we’ll look at what Henry Nouwen has to share about being Given, his fourth and final movement of the Spirit in this Life of the Beloved. I hope you’ll continue on this journey with us. Thank you for being here.
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Buen Camino, my friends.
To the end, to the truth.