I gave this talk at the Revoice conference on October 8, 2021, in Dallas, Texas. Visit www.Revoice.us to learn more about Revoice and the conference.
Good morning! For those who may not know me, my name is Gregg Webb. Im the first of four Greg(g)’s speaking at Revoice this year so get excited! This is my fourth Revoice and I am overjoyed to be here with you all today. You likely will see me running around with my camera snapping photos throughout this weekend. Please don’t hesitate to say hey! I have been around Side-B spaces for close to a decade now and have been deeply honored to get to know so many of you over those years. During the time I’ve spent in various Side-B spaces I’ve often felt that I somehow wasn’t good enough to be Side-B, or that my convictions weren’t strong enough, especially when I compared myself to great Side-B thought leaders like Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau, Eve Tushnet, Nate Collins, and many others. There is a part of me that even feels that I don’t really belong here today speaking to you all, that I haven’t written enough, spoken enough, or been somehow good enough to stand up here as an example of what it means to be Side-B. The theme we were given for this first session was discipleship in the Church, which is not something I have felt I’ve been particularly good or faithful at. So today I want to talk to you not from some place of expertise, or especially great faithfulness, but from my own brokenness and messiness and offer you some of the same comfort and hope that has reassured me over the years.
Growing up in the Eastern Orthodox Church there is a service called Matins or Orthros that is called to be prayed in the morning, especially in preparation for the eucharist. At the beginning of this service there are six psalms that are called to be read aloud. Those of us who grew up going to Matins, and often reading them aloud ourselves are quite familiar with these six psalms and find ourselves drawn back to them regularly. As I have been preparing for this time together today, I was drawn back to one of these six psalms, Psalm 38.
This is the continuation, and final post, in the series Reflections on Suffering. The whole series is available here.
As Christians we must bring our suffering into the midst of community. “Suffering is wasted if we suffer entirely alone. Those who do not know Christ, suffer alone.” Our suffering “breaks the bonds of our selfishness and isolation from one another, so that we may truly love one another in compassion. We co-suffer with those who are suffering, that their suffering might not lead them into despair and death.” We must heed the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff when he says,
But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death [suffering] is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
Our participation in the sufferings of Christ is not passive nor is it stoic. As Thomas Merton imparts,
Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.
Suffering is consecrated to God by faith—not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. To accept suffering stoically, to receive the burden of fatal, unavoidable, and incomprehensible necessity and to bear it strongly, is no consecration.
Some men believe in the power and the value of suffering. But their belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own.
It is valuable only as a test of faith. What if our faith fails in the test? Is it good to suffer, then? What if we enter into suffering with a strong faith in suffering, and then discover that suffering destroys us?
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
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.
This is part one in a four part series on suffering. I will be posting the remaining parts on Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, and Holy Thursday. The whole series is published here.
My own very limited experience of suffering and grief is in part born from my unique and perpetual singleness as a celibate gay man. The loss of a future husband and the physical erotic expression of my love and affection have led me to find consolation in reflections on suffering and grief in general. Like me, a number of celibate gay Christians have found some outlet for their pain in the theology of suffering, Wes Hill being a good example. Other celibate gay Christians like Eve Tushnet have never resonated as deeply with a theology of suffering in the midst of their celibacy. In the pages that follow I will attempt to share some of my own experience and reflections on suffering, as well as the numerous contributions of other far greater thinkers who have wrestled with grief, suffering, and the goodness of God.
So what even is suffering? Where does it come from? Can we explain its existence with the existence of an all-loving, good God?