Suffering: a Gate to God
Suffering, a Gate to God
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you." He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct."
The other day, I met a family that was suffering greatly because their son had been diagnosed with leukemia. He was only fifteen years old. What do you do with that type of news? Thankfully, they all stayed together. This is important, as often in crisis situations, families can pull apart. They pulled together. They checked in on each other to make sure everybody was ok and processing the situation. Obviously, they were making sure that he was being taken care of by the best doctors. In moments of exasperation, they were turning to God, through the reading of Scripture, through family prayer, and through returning to the sacraments. They discovered a new goodness and kindness in humans they had not seen in ages when they realized how much effort there is in the world to help kids who are sick. For them, this illness was a way back to God and the Church.
“The Church is a house with a hundred gates: and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” (G.K. Chesterton) Each one of us is on a journey to God, through the Church. So many people leave the Church nowadays, perhaps through that same multitude of gates. None of us wants to accept suffering in our lives. And suffering is not a good thing – in itself, it is a physical evil. Nevertheless, my experience shows me that it can be a way back to God for many people. People leave the Church for many reasons. Some leave because of doctrine. They think that the Church is too demanding in her laws regarding marriage and relationships. They prefer to do things their own way. But we see how other people are drawn to the Church precisely because it is the only place that speaks truth about marriage and relationships. So many people have discovered the fallacy of the world’s doctrine that you can live and love like you are ordering fast food at a McDonald’s. So for some people, that hard doctrine on marriage and relationships is precisely what brings them back.
Others leave the Church because of the suffering they experience in their own lives. They feel that God has abandoned them. They think that a good God would never permit such a thing. But then we see others like this family with leukemia that find their way back to God and the Church precisely through suffering.
It is in this context that I think we can understand today’s Gospel a little better. Jesus chose a very hard way to save us. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” (Mt. 16:21) This is immediately a stumbling block for Peter. It seems unthinkable that the Master is going to be treated so cruelly. Jesus is dialed in on this suffering, since it is going to be the way of salvation for all of us. Peter protests, but Jesus insists. God’s ways are not our ways. He is willing to give everything, so that he can have us happy with him in eternity.
Just after he is named “the Rock” and given the keys to the Kingdom, Peter has to face this stark reality of the necessity of suffering. And Jesus takes it a step further. It is not just that he is going to suffer as the Savior of the world. No! He is asking all of us to suffer if we are going to be his disciples. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” In the same way, St. Paul reminds us that “affliction produces endurance, endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope.” (Rm. 5:3-4) So often, we think hope is the beginning. But here, it looks like hope is the fruit of all the other sufferings. So if you are going through a rough patch but are trying to place your trust in Christ, look forward to growing in hope.
Too often, we waste our time thinking of ways to avoid suffering at all cost. It leads to a lot of bad moral decisions. This Sunday, Christ is challenging us to accept suffering and use it as something salvific. When we embrace our cross and carry it with Christ, we are brought into a new happiness that we could never have imagined. Because we begin to follow Christ the way he desires to be followed. Let us have courage to look at our life and see where we are running from suffering. Maybe it is being disciplined enough to fulfill our responsibilities at work or at home. Maybe it is getting up on time so we can make it to morning mass before we jet off to work. Maybe it is being humble enough to repair a relationship that has been in trouble for too long. Whatever it is, we know that we are on a journey towards God and his Church, and we need to take the next step.