Called to Good Trouble--September 29, 2023
"For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well--since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have." [Philippians 1:30]
Okay, let's get something REALLY clear here: we're not supposed to hope for suffering or try to get ourselves in trouble because of our faith. But we are taught to hope that when trouble or suffering come in our lives, that we can point to Jesus in the ways we face it. There's an important difference.
There's a line from Marilynne Robinson's gorgeous novel Gilead, in which the narrator (an old preacher) reflects, "I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it’s fair to say that.... I believe there is dignity in sorrow simply because it is God’s good pleasure that there should be. He is forever raising up those who are brought low. This does not mean that it is ever right to cause suffering or to seek it out when it can be avoided, and serves no good, practical purpose." That's the thing--we Christians aren't called to seek out the hairshirt or cast ourselves as being "persecuted" (especially if we are really just being inconvenienced or asked to let others have a seat at the tables we are used to controlling). But when there are times when suffering is a part of the path of following Jesus, the question is whether we will bear it in creative and loving ways that reflect Jesus' own self-giving love.
It reminds me a bit of the story that's told about Origen, the early church father of the second and third century. As a young man, he had seen his father arrested for being a Christian, and because he was convinced he needed to be a martyr for the faith like his dad, his mother went and hid all of his clothes so he wouldn't go and turn himself in to the authorities, because he didn't think it appropriate to leave the house naked. Young Origen had that lesson to learn: while we may find ourselves unavoidably in the situation of suffering for the sake of walking in the way of Jesus, we are not called to go on a suicide mission for no purpose. We aren't supposed to try to get ourselves killed for our faith; but rather, when suffering alongside Jesus is where we are led, we are called to face it with his own kind of self-giving love.
In other words, the Christian hope is NOT, "I hope I get to suffer because it will win me heavenly prizes or I'm supposed to be some kind of spiritual masochist," but rather, "When suffering is a part of my path, I hope I will use that situation, too, as a way of reflecting Christ." We don't have to wish for painful circumstances or somehow pretend it's fun and enjoyable to suffer. But we might take it as a compliment if we find ourselves harassed, made fun of, or ridiculed for the same kinds of things that Jesus was mocked or attacked for.
Maybe that's the rule of thumb for us to keep in mind. If I feel like I'm being attacked or criticized and I'm certain I'm being persecuted for my Christian faith, it's worth doing the honest introspection to see if I'm actually acting and speaking like Jesus... or if what's actually happening is that people are holding me accountable for NOT being very Christ-like. That's different, isn't it? Lots of Respectable Religious folks in 21st century America are quick to sound the alarm that they are being persecuted for their faith, when in actuality, they are just being called out for claiming to follow Jesus while not practicing the way of Jesus.
And see, that's important. To be sure, Jesus got in trouble regularly, suffered on account of his message and actions, and he was in the cross-hairs of plenty of powerful people. But nobody ever persecuted Jesus because he was acting like a jerk too much, or because he was punching down at people on the margins. Jesus didn't get into hot water because he was too exclusive or overly harsh with sinners, and nobody criticized Jesus for selling out for political influence or greater social status. If people are critical of us for being petty and cruel (ahem, social media...), or for being stingy with God's scandalously unconditional love, or selling out in pursuit of status or power, then we're not being persecuted for our faith--we're being called back to live our faith authentically. And in that case, we don't get to claim that we're suffering for Jesus; we're feeling the sting of facing how un-Christ-like we've been acting and speaking.
On the other hand, if we find ourselves left out, looked down on, or mistreated because we're always hanging out with the ones called "sinners", or being willing to call out religious hypocrisy, or crossing boundaries to associate with outcasts and "those people," or raising up the folks who have been left out, well, then maybe it's a sign that people see glimpses of Jesus in us. Like Jesus himself says in what we call the Beatitudes, "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man... for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets." The prophets were never persecuted for letting themselves be co-opted by kings or priests, and they weren't rejected because they were spiteful and cruel to vulnerable people. They got into trouble for afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, as the old saying goes, but not for being greedy snake-oil salesmen. If we find ourselves looked down on or left out because we are walking in their sandals, that might be a badge of honor. In that case, like John Lewis said, we're getting ourselves in "good trouble." The question is what others are calling us out for.
So today, instead of looking for ways to cast ourselves as martyrs or thinking that our suffering wins us heaven points with God (they do not), maybe the real question is, "How can I reflect Jesus' love in whatever circumstances I find myself?" Then, it becomes clear that we are neither hoping to avoid suffering nor striving to seek suffering, but just to use whatever situation we are in as an opportunity to make Jesus known. That's what we hope for, so that in sorrows or joys or in-between days, people will read the gospel in our lives and sense they have been in the presence of Christ because of us.
And if that means suffering love and getting into trouble, then so be it; after all, as Andrew Greeley put it, "Jesus and his troublemaking go merrily on."
Lord Jesus, help us to use each day to reflect your good news and embody your love, whether the day is easy or brings suffering for Jesus' sake.