Resolve to Suffer
I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. At least, I never have in the past. Literally, not ever. As a youngster I remember Lent being a big deal in the Roman Catholic church our family attended and my catechism teacher either forced or encouraged (don’t remember) us to come up with something important to us that we would voluntarily deny ourselves for the 40 days leading up to Easter. I’m fairly certain I committed to (and quickly forgot about) giving up either M&Ms or Pepsi. I don’t believe the tradition of Lent is biblically-based and I’m comfortable with letting it pass as a non-event in my life. However, I don’t have a problem with the idea of Lent; self-denial can be a very effective means of refocusing our priorities and creating a very present and real reminder of what it means to suffer (though I’m not sure giving up M&Ms qualifies as real suffering.) What about that, then? Why do I need to know what it means to suffer? Let’s start by asking a rich guy.
Years ago I read an interview with Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, where he said that he believed very few people achieve great success that haven’t come out of a difficult childhood. I can’t cite the source but a quick search will confirm that Mr Ellison is very forthcoming about his own impoverished early years and the impact he believes it had on his success. It seems to me that his statement isn’t historically accurate, but then again the information available about the childhoods of some of the world’s most accomplished people is sparse at best. Nonetheless, I think I can get behind the idea from a different perspective – that is, very few people accomplish great things that aren’t willing to suffer for it.
I don’t like to suffer. Intellectually I’m aware of suffering. Certainly I’ve witnessed the suffering of others both from afar and first hand. But me personally, I don’t like to suffer. My childhood wasn’t difficult. We weren’t a wealthy family but always had plenty of food (and M&Ms) to eat and never went without at Christmas or Birthdays. My parents have been married longer than I’ve been alive and we’ve always had access to loving extended family. School was easy enough that for the most part I received good marks with minimal effort and since we never moved, I never had to deal with the stress of losing or making whole new sets of friends. It was about as far from a difficult childhood as one can probably imagine. I didn’t complain much, either. I loved my comfortable life and I never wanted to grow up.
Crystal recently became (very) upset with me because I suggested that it was possible she wasn’t losing weight as fast she thought she ought to be losing it because she wasn’t committed enough to the cause. That was the closest I think I’ve ever been to sleeping on the couch involuntarily. She told her trainer about the conversation and he said, “Isn’t this the husband who loses weight without dieting or working out? He doesn’t understand.” I can’t deny it. He’s right. Intellectually I think I understand, but the sad truth is I’ve rarely had to sacrifice much to get what I want.
How can I possibly know what it means to suffer for a cause … to suffer at all … if I’ve never personally truly suffered?
But wouldn’t a person have to be crazy to wish suffering upon himself? To voluntarily submit their mind, body, and/or spirit to torment and torture? Subconsciously I’m fairly certain that’s how I think. And I’m now convinced it is wrong thinking. It’s selfish. It’s cowardly. It’s a direct result of my fallen nature.
Jesus suffered. Oh how he suffered. You don’t even have to believe he is God or that he rose from the dead to know that he lived a tortured life and died one of the most gruesome, horrific deaths imaginable. His death was dealt by professionals who used crucifixion as a warning to others about what could be their fate should they choose to stand up against Roman authority. Ironically, Jesus never broke any Roman laws, at least none that I know of. Nonetheless, there is no doubt even from purely historical record that Jesus of Nazareth suffered greatly for his cause.
The New Testament is filled with stories of how Jesus’ followers suffered as well. Run out of town. Imprisoned. Stoned to death. All manner of cruelty inflicted on those who claimed Jesus to be God. They suffered for their cause.
Admittedly, that could also be said for any martyr, so I need to be careful to point out that martyrdom is not my point. I don’t think one has to die in order to be committed. If God called me to physically die for him then I hope with all my heart that I would choose to willingly do so, but that call is statistically unlikely – and it’s not the point. The point is that Jesus, and his apostles, they accomplished something great. And they only accomplished it because they were willing to suffer.
Where my viewpoint differs from that attributed to Mr. Ellison earlier is in the need to actually suffer in order to achieve. I believe all that is really necessary is a willingness to suffer. Although the metaphor brakes down quickly, I see it like the risk/reward proposition of casino gambling. Take Blackjack for example. I know that on any given deal I have something approaching 50% odds to win or lose. As a result, I also know that in order to beat the house over time I have to bet small when I lose and bet big when I win. The larger the bet I make, the higher the risk of losing a lot of money but at the same time, the higher the reward if I win. If I’m preparing my bet before a deal and I feel very confident (for whatever crazy reason) that I’m going to win, I have to weigh my desire for the big reward against my willingness to accept the consequences – to suffer – if I lose. So far I’ve never bet more than my hourly pay rate on a single hand. I already said why… I don’t like to suffer.
Last Sunday I was half listening and half lost in thought during a wonderful sermon by our senior pastor. It wasn’t online when I last checked, but when it is it will be here and it is titled “The Light of the World.” If I remember correctly it had almost nothing to do with suffering. I think God was speaking to me during that sermon. Otherwise, I have no explanation for why I went into that room the same as I do every week yet came out feeling utterly convicted about something that wasn’t the subject of the sermon and had hardly received a second thought from me before that day.
During that sermon I resolved to ask God to make me willing to suffer. Actually if I remember accurately I simply resolved to suffer, but in hindsight I know that’s something I need to leave in God’s hands. Suffering intentionally just to prove that I’m willing would be for my benefit, not for God’s, and that’s not the point. I wrote it down, on the Communication Card they insert into the bulletin each week. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget. Then I committed to writing it down in a public place where my friends and family (and perfect strangers) could see it and hold me accountable for it – and pray for me. This is important to me. God made this important to me.
So this year I am going to have a New Year’s Resolution. The first one ever in my life. This year, I will resolve to be willing to suffer. I don’t think I can do it on my own, though. I think Mr. Ellison knew that only people who have truly suffered in the past can willingly accept suffering in the future – at least on their own power. That’s why I’m asking God to make me willing. I can’t do it alone, but with God all things are possible.