At Easter, we celebrate the ultimate victory of Joy over suffering. Christ is Risen! Alleluia! Death, where is your sting?
All this hoopla must look a little silly from the outside. Its hard to understand the thrill of Easter if you have not experienced the agony of Good Friday. And our current culture is not high on Good Friday. Usually, we are trying to find ways to avoid suffering. The implicit message is often that happiness results when all suffering is eliminated or successfully avoided. As Christians, however, we believe that the joy of Easter is possible precisely because of suffering. This is our model: it is by dying that we can rise to new life.
At a time in my own journey when I particularly needed it, I read a book called Hinds Feet On High Places. It is an allegorical story of the spiritual life, and the main character, Much Afraid, attempts to journey to the high mountains where The Shepherd lives. One of the things that stuck with me most is that The Shepherd chose two companions for Much Afraid to help her make it through the journey: Sorrow and Suffering. Much like myself, she is quite skeptical and distant from these companions at first, but the Shepherd’s wisdom is ultimately proven.
If we want to rise from the fears of our current life to the joys of new life, we need the help of suffering.
This has also been said another way: The piper must be paid. Evil is only defeated at great cost. I heard this for the first time in a talk on the Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft. He made this point: “Evil is limited to using power, it cannot use weakness. Evil can only inflict suffering and death, it cannot use suffering and death.” To atone for our sin, Jesus offered up his suffering and laid down His life. To stop genocide in the 1940s, many families paid the price with the lives of their sons and fathers. Our sacrifices are usually more daily and less dramatic.
They might look like biting your tongue, even when you know you’re right. Reaching out in kindness when you have just been hurt. Rousing your weary body extra early to pray or attend Mass before work. Tending to a child who is livid because the cup is the wrong color. Accepting and allowing your distress over being late rather than yelling at a child who will not move with any urgency. Gracefully enduring the suffering of surgery and the pain of physical rehab. Tolerating the anxiety of not knowing what to do in order to be present to a spouse who is hurting. Risking the pain of rejection in order to forge a caring, human connection. Feeling the pain of loss that comes when you have deeply loved someone who is now gone. In a real way, we lean on this suffering to help us overcome the lacks, the hurts, the evil that is present in our lives. Evil attempts to inflict suffering, but we defeat it by exhibiting willingness to suffer for what we love.
And this willingness to suffer really does transform us, changes us for the good, helps us interact with the world in a new way. In this sense, even suffering is really a gift from God, a key to loose ourselves from the chains of original sin. Put another way, willingness to suffer frees us from the shackles of self-absorption. Maybe thats what Paul meant when he wrote in Romans 8:28 – “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.” Just as evil is the cause of our suffering, it is providing the means by which we can rise again.
Being an “Easter people” does not mean a people who celebrate joy and leave suffering in the past. It means that we are a people who understands that suffering has a purpose, that suffering is not the end, but is a path, indeed a royal road to Joy. The royal road, because it is the one that our King took when he became one of us and showed us the way.
Those who struggle with anxiety, depression or mental illness might have a slightly different perspective. Their pain may not feel like a sacrifice they chose to make, and sometimes it can feel like there is no purpose to this suffering. Who could it benefit? In that place of hopelessness, Easter brings this message:
They called Him weak.
Told him Him to save himself.
Taunted Him. Mocked Him.
Called Him a liar.
He felt fear. So much fear that He literally sweat blood.
He felt pain. Asked God to spare Him, if possible.
Then willingly let himself experience all our suffering, hopelessness, and abandonment.
“Father, why have you abandoned me?”
From a worldly perspective, it was all for naught. He died, His followers scattered. But His suffering had immense value. And He rose again, glorified by His willingness to suffer. Now, every suffering that we unite to His shares in that value. Every suffering we accept in love is a sharing in His passion, which leads to resurrection.
If you struggle with a mental illness, know that you have the opportunity to bear witness to the world. To show by your life that suffering can be accepted, can have meaning. That life does not have to be perfect and happy to be good. That there is value in the struggle. You never know when someone may see your life as a message that shatters the myth that happiness is the result of avoiding and eliminating suffering. You can know that He has suffered before you, but the story did not end there. At Easter, we reflect on the glory of the resurrection and we regain our perspective: suffering is not the end, but an invaluable companion on the journey.
What is your perspective on suffering as a way toward joy? Your story of pain and redemption? Feel free to share here. And if you want to receive our posts via email, subscribe here!