Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Suffering and Wholeness

Some who claim to be Christian in our society identify themselves as followers of Christ while denigrating the poor, verbally attacking those who “different” and enthusiastically pursuing material success and excess. How do we justify such behavior since the centerpiece of our faith is Jesus, who owned nothing and was rejected and killed because he didn’t condone religion that put rules before people? Jesus revealed to us that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, that self-emptying love trumps religious rule-following, that the poor, the prisoner and the outcast are the image of Christ in our midst.

Rachel Remen, a physician who counsels those with chronic and terminal illness makes this observation in her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings: We are a culture that values mastery and control, that cultivates self-sufficiency, competence, independence. But in the shadow of these values lies a profound rejection of our human wholeness. As individuals and as a culture we have developed a sort of contempt for anything in ourselves and in others that has needs, and is capable of suffering.

One of the most obvious ways I’ve seen this contempt is in our unwillingness to acknowledge our wounds or the wounds of others. Sometimes it happens through company bereavement policies that offer minimal time off following the death of a close family member. It may happen through our own impatience, because if we are “just” listening to another’s story, we feel unproductive.

This contempt can manifest itself in denial of woundedness. We don’t share our hurts with others, often because doing so makes everyone uncomfortable. And we may use denial to avoid carrying the suffering of others, as when I’ve heard folks say they simply don’t believe that there are hungry children in the United States. If we don’t acknowledge suffering, we can absolve our indifference toward it.

Dr. Remen reminds us that when we deny our wounds and when we refuse to acknowledge the suffering of others we reject wholeness. This challenges our cultural notion of independence—to recognize that in failing to bear the suffering of others, we are diminished in our own humanity, we are less than what God created us to be. We simply are not independent of one another. When another suffers, I too suffer. I either suffer by my indifference, which keeps me from wholeness, or I can choose to suffer in a Christlike way by bearing their pain with them.

Our productivity oriented culture can’t deal with suffering because suffering cannot fit into a neat formula or a particular timetable. Choosing to suffer with others by coming alongside them in their woundedness means rejecting the efficient, productivity driven way of being in the world. Others will not understand if we choose to move more slowly, if we focus more on being with others than on checking off a to-do list. But that’s okay. The One who said “Follow me” shows us that even death can be overcome if we are willing to bear the suffering of others.

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