Reflections on Suffering, Pt. 2

This is the continuation of a previous post, Reflections on Suffering, Pt 1. The whole series is available here.

As a celibate gay man I will constantly wrestle with the intersection of my desires and my convictions. By following my desire to become like Christ through the life of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I must always be willing to give up anything that runs contrary to that life. For me, I’ve experienced this sacrifice most profoundly as I grieve the real cost of my celibacy: saying no to a romantic and sexual relationship with another man. Knowing this has forced me to come to terms with my own vocation as a celibate gay man. As I’ve worked through these feelings, particularly those of falling in love, I’ve been grappling with feelings of sadness, sadness that comes from slowly grieving all that I am called to give up for God’s call for my life.

Copyright Gregg Webb 2012

Copyright Gregg Webb 2012

It’s good to grieve, and as a future counselor I understand that grief and sadness have a real place in our lives. Grief gives us an appreciation for what we’ve lost as well as a renewed connection with our heart. It is easy to discount and discredit our emotions and to simply become numb, but grief and the process of grieving allow us to come to terms and acknowledge the depth of our real feeling. However, grief has its season and may eventually run its course. It is something we must go through, but we know that in time, the depth of pain and loss will slowly fade. My self-denial and pursuit of celibacy in accordance with my theological convictions will have its cost but I must remember that it is for a larger purpose.

My own suffering comes from living in a fallen and broken world. A world where having never chosen it, I find myself inexplicably and almost totally, physically and emotionally attracted to my own gender. Because I believe these desires are the result of the fall and not a God blessed path, I am called by my faith to never fulfill much of these desires. This grief over my vocation to celibacy, rather than grief over the mere existence of my gay orientation is now the main avenue of my suffering related to my homosexuality. Wesley Hill expresses this well when he writes in his book, Washed and Waiting, “The homosexual Christian who chooses celibacy continually, to one degree or another, it seems to me, finds himself or herself longing for something relationally that remains tragically, tantalizingly just out of reach.”[1]

One of my many sources of comfort has been the book of 1 Peter. In it the apostle writes, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”[2] And later, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”[3] 1 Peter tells me I must look to Christ’s suffering to understand my own suffering.

Somehow my own suffering allows me to enter into Christ’s suffering thus identifying me with Him. The Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen reflects further on this mystery of our co-suffering with Christ,

Jesus did not come to eliminate suffering. Rather, He transformed it. Jesus was tempted, but He did not fall. He overcame the temptations that He might strengthen us to not succumb to temptation. He showed that suffering does not mean abandonment by God: Even on the Cross He remained faithful to God, and God remained faithful to Him, He was not left in the grave.

Jesus was faced with the temptation to reject His Cross. He chose rather to suffer, that His own suffering might work salvation for the whole world. Jesus transformed suffering into communion and overcame the power of temptation, so that we might have the strength to accept our own suffering as our cross and to overcome temptation.[4]

By looking to Christ’s suffering I find an answer to the problem of how a good God allows suffering. The answer lies not in philosophical quandaries but in the very person of our incarnate God. It is astounding that the Apostle Paul in Colossians 1:24 could say, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”[5] Somehow there is something missing from the very sufferings of our incarnate God, and by some great mystery that missing piece is my own suffering. Our suffering, my suffering, invites us into the divine mystery of sanctification by becoming like Christ in the midst of my suffering by suffering with Him.

Christ became man that we could become like him and be united to him. Without him there could be no growth, no lesson learned from any trial, or suffering we encounter in this deeply broken world. In a world with Christ, suffering can become a means of maturity by bringing us closer to God and to one another. Our God suffers and knows our own travail in a way far more intimately than we can imagine. In our own weakness, enduring suffering rather than succumbing to it can seem an insurmountable task. In truth, without Christ it truly would be insurmountable. However, because of Christ we know that it has been endured to its very end and overcome. By following after him through enduring our own suffering we are claiming his victory over it. Instead of suffering being a tool of Satan pulling us away from God it can become a means of growing ever close to God.

[1] Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 106.
[2] 1 Peter 4:13, ESV.
[3] 1 Peter 4:19, ESV.
[4] Jonah Paffhausen, Reflections on a Spiritual Journey (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 132.
[5] Colossians 1:24, ESV.

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