In the mid-2000s, one of the most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch played a dour woman who could turn any occasion into a chance to talk about something devastating. About to order a steak at a family reunion? Debbie will tell you all about Mad Cow Disease. Excited because Tigger hugged you at Disney? Debbie will remind you about how a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfied and Roy. After every one of these tidbits, the camera zoomed into Debbie’s face and a sad trombone noise played. “Wah, waaaah”.
Let me tell you, Debbie is on to something!
There is a lot of suffering in the world. We live in this in-between time. Jesus has come and lived among us and done the work of our salvation, but we are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to full fruition. We are still waiting, longing for a world without sin, a world without suffering.
The biggest questions we get as clergy are around questions of suffering. And so, before we get to Paul’s perspective in Romans 5, I want to talk a bit about suffering in general.
Today we’ll be talking about three broad categories of suffering, although I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with more! For today’s purposes we’ll talk about: Suffering because we are part of an imperfect creation, suffering because of human sin, and suffering because of institutional evil.
First, we suffer because we are part of a creation that is not perfect. Our bodies have millions of cells that all have to work perfectly together for us to be healthy. And even if we are healthy our entire life, eventually the mechanical parts of our body just wear out. We are finite. The website Humans of New York has been doing a series about childhood cancer at Sloane Kettering. One of the doctors interviewed said:
Twelve thousand kids per year get cancer in the United States. But the extraordinary thing isn’t that cancer happens. The extraordinary thing is that cancer doesn’t happen more often. Every human life begins with a single cell. Trillions of cells will form from that single cell. During this process, the DNA will rearrange itself hundreds of times to form all different types of cells: muscle, nerve, bone, blood, connective tissue. If you look at these cells under a microscope, each one has special properties. They all have codes that tell them exactly what to do and exactly when to stop doing it. The complexity of this is extraordinary. There are numerous fail-safes at every level to prevent mistakes. How is it possible that it ever works correctly? There are trillions of chances for something to go wrong. God, it’s unbelievable. The longer I study cancer, the more I’m in awe of the healthy child.
Each of us will end up suffering because we are physically or mentally ill, or because someone we love dies, just as a consequence of being a created human being in a creation that is imperfect. We don’t think a tree has disappointed God if it gets Dutch Elm Disease. In the same way, getting cancer or being depressed does not mean you have failed God somehow, it is just part of being a human being.
Second, we can suffer because of human sin. This one is pretty obvious. We suffer when our partner commits adultery. We suffer if we are hit by a drunk driver. We suffer when someone is unkind to us. But our own sin can make us suffer, too. St. Paul was deeply familiar with this phenomenon. In Romans 7 he writes,
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
We want to go to the gym, but sloth overtakes us. We want to eat well, but greed or anxiety entices us to eat too much. We mean to be kind, but we lash out defensively. We intend to be faithful, but the lure of the old high school flame is powerful. That kind of inner disconnect can cause enormous suffering. We find ourselves making choices that harm us and the people around us, but we cannot seem to stop. I’m telling you, Debbie Downer. Wah Waaaaah.
Finally, institutional evil, or oppression. Whether intentional or unintentional, societies can inflict suffering on communities, often the poor. Think of the effects of uranium mining on the townships of Johannesburg. Think of the legacy of housing discrimination in this country. Think of those factory workers in the third world who work in abominable conditions to make clothes for westerners.
In the June issue of The Atlantic, Paul Tough writes about what happens to children who are raised in systemic poverty. He writes,
Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.
These children suffer from the consequences of broken creation, and because of human sin, but also by this larger more complicated system that exists around them and makes it difficult for anyone in their community to affect change.
So, this is all fairly depressing. Why, then does the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in our suffering? Does he want people just to stay where they are and suck it up? Does he see suffering as God’s discipline for us? Is God an uptight nun, ready with the ruler to smack us when we get too out of hand?
No, Paul says we can rejoice in our suffering because of what God has already done for us and what God is doing for us.
Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed the human experience, including suffering. Rather than human suffering being something separate from God, Jesus makes human suffering into something that God experiences. Jesus experienced betrayal and pain and death. His father experienced the suffering of watching his Son die. Rather than protecting himself from suffering, God chooses to fully enter into our life experience and join us. When we suffer, God is alongside us.
God even forgives us for the suffering that we cause. While we may never be able to make good choices, never be able to live a perfectly healthy and holy life, God chooses to eliminate any distance between Godself and us. Through Jesus’ resurrection, God forgives us our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to pour love into our hearts.
It is this love of the Holy Spirit that transforms our suffering. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.
Paul is addressing a community likely experiencing persecution for being Christian, so he is speaking to a particular kind of suffering. In chapters 5-8 of Romans, Paul is explaining the cosmic power of God who has changed the course of history and of the human position in the universe. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has once and for all defeated the powers of death and in. In Chapter 8 we get the wonderful speech about how absolutely nothing can separate human beings from the love of God.
Paul is not lecturing the community in Rome about having a stiff upper lip. He is inviting them to live into their new identity as people who have absolutely nothing that separates them from God. Not even their worst sufferings can separate them from God. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, those sufferings can actually be transformed into experiences that can shape their character and perspective.
Suffering does not get transformed because we have a stiff upper lip or because we try really hard to have a good perspective. Just like our salvation, suffering gets transformed because God chooses to do it. The Holy Spirit is the actor here, not us. When you are suffering, it is not your job to try to grow your character from the experience. There is no pressure for you to make something good out of something terrible. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.
Many, many people at Sloane Kettering shared their stories of suffering with Humans of New York. We heard from parents and their children who survived cancer and parents of children who did not. Some entries were almost unreadable because the pain of their subjects was so palpable. But by sharing their stories, Humans of New York raised $3.4 million dollars from its readers to donate toward cancer research to help find cures for children’s cancer. Those who suffered helped create hope, just by sharing their stories, even if they were feeling hopeless. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and does not always show up in the ways we hope it will. The Holy Spirit’s job is not to protect us from pain, as much as we would like it to. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are constantly at work in our lives, shaping us into the people they have created us to be. They will not abandon us. Thanks be to God.