Unwanted Suffering as Opportunity for Witness

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

The Gospel according to Luke records an important detail during the crucifixion of our Lord. As Jesus hung dying on the cross “darkness covered the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed….” One may imagine a gathering of foreboding, black storm clouds. Some speculate about a solar eclipse. In either case, I believe this detail is meant to take the hearer back to the beginning of time, to the creation story in the Book of Genesis: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the deep.” The Passion Narrative conveys that the cross of Jesus represents the beginning of a New Creation.

I took an astronomy course as a freshman at The University of North Carolina. I did so for three reasons. First, I needed to fulfill my university’s science requirement. Second, I was impressionable and believed a rumor that astronomy was quite easy, especially compared to biology, chemistry, and physics. And third, the lab section of the course involved a weekly trip to an impressive campus planetarium. This facility had comfortable, reclining seats, and I knew that the experience of the planetarium would involve a darkened room, ideal conditions for a nap.

I was wrong about this of course. Astronomy was not easy. My professor was a demanding teacher who expected much from his students. I also was wrong about the planetarium. It was fascinating. Certainly, there was no napping, at least not under my professor’s supervision.

To this day I remember my heart rate accelerating each time I leaned back under that expansive domed screen, and the lights went dark as the image of stars and planets slowly emerged out of the blackness. There was always the first pinpoint of bright light on the planetarium dome that I would have never noticed or seen unless the rest of that large room had become dark.

It is easier to see a pinpoint of light in a sea of darkness than it is to see a pinpoint of darkness in a sea of light. So, it is with the cross of Jesus. At the darkest moment in the history of the world – the day humanity killed the Son of God - the light of Christ lives on, albeit against a sea of utter blackness. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Entering again into Holy Week, the most solemn time of the year, we are not only encouraged to deep and prayerful contemplation of this central truth of the crucifixion. Holy Week is a sacred time to consider how, by virtue of faith in Jesus, our own lives shine as lights in the midst of darkness. The profound mystery of pain and suffering is just that, and it is not within the scope of this brief reflection to try either to explain or diminish its significance. But a prominent theme of the New Testament is that believers in Christ bear witness to his light most powerfully when the world seems darkest (see The Beatitudes in Matthew 5; Romans 5:3-5; 2nd Corinthians 11:24-29; James 5:7-11; 1st Peter 4:12; etc.). As I reflect on the most influential Christian witnesses in my life, both in my personal history and ordained ministry, I remember in thanksgiving those who showed me what trust in God looks like when their lives were darkest.

In these last few weeks of Lent, I have been reading the Book of Revelation. The vision received and recorded by our patron saint, St. John the Divine, reveals that the church overcomes the Devil in two ways: 1) by the blood of Jesus on his cross; 2) by the witness of suffering believers in his church which is called martyrdom (Revelation 12:11). Christians are people of hope in spite of suffering because we “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev.14:4). And where the Lamb goes is not only up to suffering and death. Victoriously, he conquers them to reign forever over heaven and earth. This truth is the basis for all hope in the midst of darkness.

There are times in life when it seems the central reality for us is that “darkness covers the whole land.” Though a difficult spiritual discipline, Holy Week in particular offers Christians a special opportunity to examine the landscape of our lives. It takes courage to confess places where we live under the cloud of a painful loss, ongoing grief, unforgiveness and anger, continual struggles with persistent sins, discontent, unhappiness, and anxiety. We may be tempted to ask “Why?” If so, you are experiencing what it is to be part of the human family.

Yet even if we cannot come up with the answers, we can know what the answer is not: whatever the world thinks, the cross of Jesus tells us that our struggles are not because God doesn’t care about what burdens we carry and doesn’t love us. For the cross is the event where God absorbs all of what we bear, all our brokenness and darkness, unto himself. Do others see this truth in us through the way we handle suffering and adversity?

It is easier to see a pinpoint of light in a sea of darkness than it is to see a pinpoint of darkness in a sea of light. As we finish our journey in Lent and come to stand before the cross of Christ, we watch to see what will unfold out of this darkest moment, out of the dark places in our lives too. We stand and watch with those others gathered there that day, with a Roman centurion who observes something new and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” With him, we stand and watch, and hope to see it for ourselves. And as we watch and hope to see, let us not overlook that there may be others watching us.

Wisdom for the Week

Weekly Widsom
“And how do we prepare ourselves for such sufferings as may befall us, to suffer when we are called to do so, not only willingly, but wisely, and to allow that suffering to be a teacher?”

— Marilyn McEntyre, Where the Eye Alights, page 70

stained glass photo by the Rev. Greg Buffone

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