Suffering and beyond

May 24, 2010

In my Living By the Word
column on this week’s readings, I comment on Paul’s readiness to boast
of suffering, because it “produces endurance, and endurance produces
character, and character produces hope. . . .” Suffering is a signal
doorway through which the Holy Spirit enters our lives. As an
Anabaptist, I also see suffering as integrally connected with the
decision to take up our cross. As we emulate Jesus’ confrontations with
the principalities and powers, they will often lash back and cause us
suffering.

My Anabaptism is rooted in generations of Mennonite predecessors. In The Merging,
my aunt Evelyn King Mumaw traces my grandfather’s ancestry back to
Melchior Brönniman in 17th-century Switzerland. When asked to renounce
his faith at pain of torture and death, Brönniman instead affirmed it
and so was imprisoned in a castle in Thun. After some years he was
released, but Switzerland remained inhospitable. Brönniman and family
emigrated to America, where eventually my grandfather was born. All this
helps me understand my “but of course” reaction to a view such as
Paul’s that suffering is to be boasted of, even courted.

But let
me also look now at the shadows of such a perspective. While some might
benefit these days from a dose of Anabaptist-Mennonite familiarity with
and commitment to suffering, those of us who were almost born on a cross
might also benefit from counter-emphases. Sometimes we wrestle with the
sense that we are not being true Christian if at times we feel joy in
our lives, fulfillment in our callings, satisfaction in accomplishments
for which we are not killed or tortured but possibly even (get thee
behind me Satan!) feted.

As one mentor told me a decade or two
ago, at a suffering-ridden juncture in my own life, my Anabaptism
sometimes tempted me to take up my cross even when I didn't need to, to
embrace suffering even when courting joy might be more appropriate.
(This individual was a mainline Protestant, so perhaps, as I was once
taught, not as true a follower of Jesus.) My mentor thought—as befitted,
perhaps, one whose own ancestors had likely tortured mine—that
Mennonites were perhaps a tad too eager to be sacrificial lambs. Did we
ourselves always need to be the lambs? Hadn’t Christ already filled that
job description?

I still think about those comments. Faithfully
following Jesus can embroil us in suffering. We then will often
experience the comforter, the supporter, the spirit of Jesus who joins
us in such suffering for his sake. Yet it is also wise to ponder that,
in traveling toward offering ourselves up as living sacrifices, we need
not replicate all that Christ has already done for us even as we
faithfully follow on.

Additional lectionary columns by King appear
in the May 18 issue of the
Century—click here to subscribe.