The Rev. Adam Hamilton, the prolific author and senior pastor of America’s largest United Methodist Church (The UM Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas), recently posted on his Facebook page a most incisive theological reflection on suffering–one that begs for sharing.
So here’s what Pastor Adam wrote:
“Many of you have asked for a copy of the quote on suffering Ray Firestone shared with me years ago. I have never been able to find the original source. I’ve quoted it in [my book] Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White and I think in my little book, Why?
Here’s the quote:
“Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”
That’s profound stuff. Especially to someone like me, whose call to ministry was largely to be a pastoral caregiver to those laid low by illness, impending death, and grief and suffering in all their manifestations.
That said, I was also called as one who, for whatever mysterious reason, always had a heart for the poor, and an abiding, theological interest in poverty and all its dynamics.
The bible makes it clear on almost every page that material poverty is not God’s desire for anybody–and in fact is an evil. But poverty “occurs in the process of life” as surely as suffering.
Suffering is in fact pretty much synonymous with being poor. Consider what happens with Adam Hamilton’s take on suffering if we substitute the word “suffering” with the word “poverty,” as in material poverty:
“Poverty is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Poverty is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Poverty is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Poverty does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human poverty to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through poverty his purposes are achieved. Poverty can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”
Just the other day I posted a blurb here at the blog about the death of my denomination’s much-respected and influential retired Bishop Rueben P. Job. In that posting I quoted him as saying this in his memoir (Life Stories) about his upbringing in North Dakota:
“My life on our family farm was good. We were incredibly poor (my italics for emphasis), but so was everyone else. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shoes, shirts, and pants as did everyone else who had an older brother. We had no nearby neighbors and seldom saw other children, so school was a wonderful experience. The school was two and a half miles away if we followed the best road, though a much shorter walk if we cut across the fields.”
The bishop went on describe quite an idyllic life in spite of poverty. It hardly sounds from his book as if he and “everyone else” suffered in poverty.
But I’ve also written here at the blog before about my mother’s upbringing in poverty after her father abandoned her, my grandmother and my aunt and uncle back in the Depression times. My grandmother married as a teen to escape farm life–a life that was anything but idyllic in a time when so many farmers wanted to have as many children as they could for child labor on the farms.
She in her girlhood farm life learned just enough in her schooling to read and write at a barely literate level, so that when my grandfather abandoned her, she was left to suffer with three children, no literacy or skills, no “job opportunities” (which were scarce enough)–not even anything to do on a farm since she had escaped one. She’d married to get off the farm and the back-breaking labor her own father imposed on her.
So it was quite a different experience from that of Bishop Job.
And I don’t say that by any means as a rap on Bishop Job, who–to frame it in Buddhist terms–rose up like a beautiful lotus flower out of the mud of poverty that he grew up in, as so many people do. (And, in fact, as my mother and her family did.)
I suppose that everyone’s experience of poverty is as different as everybody’s experience of being wealthy or whatever lies in-between. For sure, some people can grow up in poverty and find success and achievement in life with the character that poverty built up in them. Some can look back fondly on it–“everybody else was poor back on the farm” is a truism in so many lives.
But for the most part, I think, poverty creates a hell of suffering throughout the big world that no one wants–suffering that is an evil in that it cuts down health and well-being and causes premature death.
There is just too much suffering in poverty in this world that is unnecessary–and often imposed by the wealthy and powerful–not to fight and speak out at every turn for greater justice, equality and fairness for the poor among us.
And as my mother used to say–she who never forgot the hells of hunger pangs and indignities she felt in her time as a poor girl–“That’s all there is to it.”