Monday, September 11, 2017

On Suffering for the Good of Others

My husband delivered the following remarks at his sister Cindy's memorial service on August 28, 2017. He has given his blessing to share them here. May the Lord bless these thoughts to your edification.

It’s been a hard few years for the Moore and Davis families. We have experienced a great deal of loss and suffering (although I do not think in the least that we are unique is this). I am surrounded by people who also have a great deal of their own burdens and difficulties to bear. I have seen others experience great and profound loss. The reality is that suffering and loss seem to be more the norm than the exception in this life, something that Christ affirmed when he told His disciples, “In this life you will have trouble…” (John 16:33).

I have reflected on this a lot in the last year: learning of Cindy’s cancer diagnosis early last year, watching the final days of my father’s life earlier this year, and now having watched Cindy slowly succumb to this disease. Often, when faced with such deep suffering, we struggle to make sense of it. This is especially true when it is someone like Cindy, someone with such a beautiful heart, someone who by our estimates does not in the least deserve such a lot in life.

We know the common platitudes about how difficulty and suffering make us better people, and that can be true. St. James says as much when he exhorts us, saying, “Consider it all joy when you face trials of many kinds, knowing that your suffering produces patience, and if you let it, patience will finish its work, making you complete and mature, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4). However, in cases like Cindy’s, I confess that, even though it is the Scripture, sometimes such a sentiment leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I am happy to apply that verse to myself, but not to her.

However, there is another side to this equation that is often missed, and that is what has helped me the most: that is, Cindy was not suffering so much for herself, for her own betterment; she was suffering for me. If that sounds strange, then bear with me.

Foundational to this, though, is how we understand the purpose of life at its most fundamental level. If you believe the constant message of our society, then you are setting yourself up for despair. If you believe the popular trope that the purpose of this life is to make a name for self, or to accomplish some dream, or to have a successful career and retire happy, you are going to be disappointed. Even if it is some nobler goal such as making the world a better place or serving in some great ministry, you will still find those leaving you in despair when you come face to face with suffering and loss.

No, the purpose of life is this: to become the friend of God. This is what we were created for, and this is the end to which all of our life is ordered. To put it another way, again quoting St. Paul, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). You see, I have been dancing around the heart of the issue, which is the problem of evil. Especially for those of us who believe in a good God, we have to answer the question of why does He allow such evil to exist, and that comes back to fundamental nature of creation.

God did not create humanity to be his subjects, but to be his friends. God is fundamentally love, and as such the creation was an outpouring and overflowing of His love, culminating in the creation of mankind, a creature who like Himself was free, created in the image and likeness of God; a creature who was to reciprocate freely the love which is inherent to God Himself.

Love can only exist in freedom. If there is any form of coercion or necessity in a relationship, then it is no longer love. We, at the prompting of the devil, have squandered that freedom and turned away from God. Thus, evil—death, the destruction of God’s good creation—was born out of disobedience as a parasite on the love of God.

Yet God has not abandoned us. He has rescued creation from its bondage to evil, the devil, and the consequence of death. He has reconciled us to himself through the incarnation, life, and death of Christ. And he has again extended to us the hand of friendship. When we take that hand, we begin a lifelong journey of deliverance from the power of evil over our lives and participation with God in His redeeming work in the world. All our circumstances, good, bad, and indifferent, when experienced through our relationship with Christ, become tools in his hand to transform us into His likeness, to become His friend. Through them, He is extricating from us the parasite of evil, which tarnishes and blackens our souls.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his famous work The Gulag Archipelago, says this about evil:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

(Actually, as Christians, we would say not just to constrict it but eventually, to overcome.)

But let me bring this back to Cindy, for we are here today to remember her. What does all this have to do with her?

Well, Christ suffered for us. He bore the full weight of humanity’s evil, and He has conquered it and established His eternal kingdom, where all things are set right and evil is crushed beneath the weight of His glory. Moreover, He has set about to bring the realization of His Kingdom, the deliverance from evil and perfection of love, into each of our hearts. When He finds a willing heart like Cindy’s, not only does He do something beautiful in their lives by transforming them into His image, but if they are found worthy, He allows them also to share in the suffering that He suffers for the sake of the world. He allows them to participate is a special way in the work of redemption that He is doing in the world and their suffering, her suffering, becomes a tool by which He works on those of us who had the privilege to care for her in her suffering.

Paul has this enigmatic, at least to me, little verse in Colossians where he says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Colossians 1:24). Within the context, it is obvious that he is talking about his suffering as a minister of Christ, and that is a common theme throughout Scripture. However, it is this idea of filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ that I never quite understood until recently. You see, Cindy’s suffering, and my father’s before her, have driven me to prayer more than any finely crafted sermon or book or exhortation. Some small thing, usually something of beauty, in the midst of my sometimes crazy life would remind me of her and in my grief for her, I would cry out to Christ for His mercy. In praying, I draw closer to God. In drawing closer to God, my faith in His goodness is strengthened as He answers my cry in small but significant ways that let me know He is not aloof to my pain but shares it with me.

Also, in the vacuum of service that Cindy has left—because, let’s face it, she served a lot—others of us have had to step up to fill the gap. That sacrifice is not without cost to our selfishness and a small death to our own wills and desires. We have had to give up some things that we would most assuredly rather be doing in order to serve Cindy and fill the gap she left behind. In those sacrifices, we become a little more like Christ who, although He was the very form of God, did not consider equality with God a right to be demanded or asserted but emptied Himself to become the very form of a servant, suffering even so far as death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). Love is fundamentally other-focused, self-emptying service. Because she bore the suffering of cancer, we all had to choose, to will, that we would love her through sacrifice and service. Actually, it wasn’t hard to love her.

I will point out one more thing. In the face of Cindy’s suffering, I have been forced to consider more deliberately all that I have to be thankful for, and thankfulness is one of the fundamental themes of Christian transformation. Recently one of my favorite pastors posted this comment to Facebook, or as Dad used to call it, “Faceplate”:

There is, however, a relationship that sets all things right and keeps us in our proper position: thanksgiving. Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, "Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of being saved." St. Paul said, "Give thanks everywhere and for all things." This is the description of a lifestyle - the only lifestyle proper to a disciple of Jesus.

Despite all the difficulties of the last year or so, there is still so much for which to be thankful. Life could always be worse than it is. When I start to get bent out of shape because of some small inconvenience, I remember what she has endured with such incredible patience and dignity and, yes, even thankfulness on occasion, and I am at once ashamed and forced to be thankful for my own circumstance. I realize, I have got it pretty good. No, I have got it really good. I have been so incredibly blessed in my life.

And so Cindy was found worthy to be a means of my sanctification: an opportunity for my transformation in love. Yes, I suppose she would tell you that her suffering benefitted her also in all the ways we talk about that suffering can be beneficial for the person who is suffering, but I think more importantly, her suffering has benefited me.

So it is with deep gratitude that I say thank you, Cindy, for being worthy to bear that cross for my benefit. It was not in vain that you suffered. Already it has borne fruit and will continue to bear fruit. Thank you for your patient endurance, always, up to the very end, thinking of others, apologizing to me for being bad company. Really? Are you kidding? You have nothing to be sorry for. You were found worthy to share in the sufferings of Christ for my sake. I am the one who is profoundly sorry. I can only hope I may some day, because of what I learned from you, be worthy also to suffer for others and not just for myself. May your memory be eternal.

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