on suffering: Philippians 1

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In Lucy Warner’s short story, And Not as a Stranger, the main character finds herself having an affair at work with a fat, balding, married man. (And Not As a Stranger, by Lucy Warner, Image Magazine). She doesn’t understand why. She’s appalled at herself. We know from the beginning of the story that she was raped as a teenager by a friend of her parents, and that she told nobody. It’s too easy to find a causality between the two events. A more nuanced view of the story might see the rape as symbolic of all woundedness. It’s our wounds that cause us to act out. Our wounds cause us to sabotage ourselves. Our wounds cause us to do bad things that we never imagined ourselves capable of. So the story, among other things, raises the question: what is a healthier way to handled bad things?

When bad things happen to us or people we love, we go dark. We know we should trust God and stay calm, but we can’t. We lose hope. We try harder to have a positive attitude and discover instead what a negative attitude we have. We make our situation worse by complaining and getting bitter. We lose interest in things that once delighted us. We stop picking up the phone. We don’t answer texts. Our feeling that no one can understand causes us to drive away even the few kind-hearted, well-intentioned people who try. The suffering isolates us, wears us down, makes us feel like we’re brittle objects of dried clay about to crack.

If we’re Christians, we know there is such hope for us in Christ. If you’re reading this and not a Christian, the same is true: there is such hope for you in Christ. We are not clay jars but children of God, growing and loved. Paul here encourages his Christian friends at Philippi that he is “confident” that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil. 1:6. Paul says he thanks God every time he remembers his friends and prays with joy because of them. We read those words, believe them, and for a moment rest in Paul’s confidence. But then the words fade from our brains, and we go dark again.

If we keep reading, we find that instead of hating on ourselves for feeling so weak in our sadness, God asks us to love more. We are to pray that “our love may abound more and more”. Phil. 1:9. Paul writes this letter from prison, but instead of praying for his release, he prays for love. He focuses on his heart, not his circumstances. He wants an abundance of love, flowing out of his heart, flowing out of the hearts of all he knows. He even notes how God has brought good out of his imprisonment; it’s served to advance and give a renewed impetus to the spreading of the good news. Phil. 1:12. With hearts of love, Paul says we will learn to sense what is vital and prize what is excellent. Phil. 1:10. Paul also prays we may abound in and be filled with the fruits of having right standing with God. We will become people who long for God to have the glory and praise.

That all sounds good; we can read that and agree. We know, deep down, that no matter how bad things get, we can keep loving; keeping giving God the glory; trust God to bring good out of bad; be more humble. But how? Because again, the moment we close our Bibles, the dark closes in. It’s waiting for us. It seems to be inside us.

The answer lies not in easy reassurances but rather by entering into the darkest part of this chapter. Paul moves from discussing love to saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” He admits he is yearning to be free of this world and be with Christ. Phil. 1:23. That sounds almost like depression. Paul is ready to die. We sense his suffering is terrible. But Paul says he knows it’s more essential that he help other people by staying alive. So he asks that his readers live a life worthy of the good news. He urges us not to be afraid.

Yet right after telling us not to be afraid, he invokes more darkness. Paul says we have been granted the privilege for Christ’s sake not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer in His behalf. Phil. 1:29.

To suffer? To die? To be in such pain that death seems preferable? We shun these things. When bad things happen to us, we tend to go into denial. We shift uncomfortably in our seats when the bad things are mentioned. We crack our necks. We change the subject. Or we obsess over some other, smaller, thing that has nothing to do with our real problem. Yet denying doesn’t work. Deep down, we feel like we’re shriveling up, losing all the vitality and warmth that make us who we are.

Instead of avoiding our pain, however, God urges us go there,  But He doesn’t want us to go alone. He knows that would kill us. God is whispering to us: “Don’t be afraid. I will go with you. I walk with you wherever you go, even in suffering. I walk with you in death. I walk with you into the heart of darkness. I will grow you through suffering. I always bring good out of bad. I began a good work in you when you asked Me into your life, and I won’t abandon you just because things are hard. I know you feel afraid; I know your heart. I made it.”

That sounds good, but how can we be as “confident” of this as Paul sounds, writing from prison? How can we trust God?

How does God know anything about suffering?

Lucy Warner’s short story ends with the main character’s roommate dying. She’s been prostituting herself–more selb-sabotage–and comes to an untimely demise. The main character’s mother, who has no idea that her own daughter has been raped, says this about the mother of the prostitute:

“I can’t imagine what she’s been through. How painful a thing, to think your own child could suffer so.”

How painful a thing, to think your own child could suffer so.

by Caroline Coleman, in A Chapter a Day, posted on Feb. 1, 2016.

Note: this flower photo is courtesy of my cousin and godson, Arthur Leigh-Wood, who makes beautiful, original photo cards from his home in the hills around Bath, England, that you, too, can buy and own. This one is from the “Mum” collection. Somerset Cards.

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