There’s a lot of misery and hardship and suffering going on in the world. It’s not likely a new reality, just that we hear more about it reported in the news and on social media. Misery, hardship, and suffering have been around since our first parents were expelled from the garden. Some of it is close by, affecting us personally, or people we know and love. Some of it is far away, and news of it just compounds our helplessness to stop its advance. Some of it is related to the weather, as we have seen recently with extreme temperatures, hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, earthquakes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters. An assortment of misery, hardship, and suffering is related to poverty, and the far-reaching effects of poverty, such as homelessness, hunger, unemployment, drug abuse, human trafficking, petty crime, and violence.
Some of it is brought on by physical or mental illness, aggravated by easy access to lethal weapons and drugs. At times, there is added loss of life or property. In some places misery, hardship, and suffering spill over into political unrest, usually sparked by poverty, inflation, and the lack of affordable goods and services. Sometimes the turmoil disrupts political systems. And sometimes there are unintended casualties.
Lately we have witnessed misery, hardship, and suffering caused by powerful or influential people in church and other institutions who act with impunity disregarding the dignity of those in their care, and inflicting grave harm. We are not all journalists, economists, therapists, or political analysts, so we aren’t always able to tell who or what started what, and where it all went wrong. But we can connect the dots. We can see that there’s a lot of misery, hardship, and suffering around us. And the first casualties are always the most vulnerable and defenseless, the children, the elderly, the sick, the poor.
I apologize if I’m bumming you out, not my intent. But in the face of our own or other people’s misery, hardship, and suffering, after we get past the initial shock, after we attempt gestures and words of comfort, consolation, and encouragement, depending on our personal convictions, our level of comfort with the idea, and our perception of how other people might receive what we have to say, we find ourselves reevaluating our trust in God, and perhaps we invite others to reevaluate their own trust in God.
It is often difficult to imagine why we would ever trust someone again who has caused us intense and untold grief. Forgiveness is possible though, rare but possible, and often only after a great deal of soul-searching, praying, anguish, blaming, tears, cursing, name-calling, yelling, even physical violence. Restoring trust, however, is going to be so much harder.
Now in my line of work, I can tell that God often gets blamed for a great deal of human misery, hardship, and suffering. Most often it is undeserved, as when the cause of that grief is clearly ourselves or some other human agent. But in a few cases, people might not give God a pass so easily because they think God could have done something more but didn’t, as when they lose a loved one to a terminal illness, or when someone who represents God or any authority acts with malice and abuses that trust. And since extending or withdrawing trust is a personal act, no one can do it for us but ourselves.
“Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord,” we hear the prophet Jeremiah proclaim. Knowing what he had to endure throughout his ministry as a prophet, the many times he was denounced, arrested, unjustly imprisoned, and made to suffer, we know he speaks from personal experience and conviction. Most of us would have given up sooner. But not Jeremiah. Now we might not grasp why he held firm as he did in the face of suffering. But if we can even slightly acknowledge the truth of what he proclaimed, Jeremiah definitely spoke and acted with such confidence and conviction in God whom he knew was greater than any misery or hardship or suffering he had to face. He knew personally and intimately the God in whom he placed his trust.
Most of us probably know someone just like Jeremiah, stubborn, unflinching, confident, and trusting despite all the misery, hardships, and suffering they have faced and possibly still face. We do not grasp why they hold firm in their conviction that God is blameless and deserving of that trust. We do not grasp the depth and intensity of their intimacy with God. We might not even believe it is possible to trust God that deeply and that intensely. But that is between them and God. Just as with any human relationship, our relationship with God is for us and God to build, nurture, and prosper. And for it to fail, it takes only one or the other to withdraw that trust.
St. Paul speaks with such conviction about the resurrection of Jesus Christ that it is clearly the reason for his whole life and ministry. We know his conversion story, how the direction of his life changed drastically after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was already an intense individual before that meeting, firm in his belief that he was doing God’s work. And after encountering the risen Lord, although the direction of his life changed significantly, the intensity of his convictions and his trust in God did not. Instead, that encounter fueled his every word and action from thereon. He would face great misery, hardship, and suffering in the years ahead, but he would not flinch. If we must trust Jesus as Paul did, perhaps we must encounter Jesus as intensely as Paul did.
“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus tells us in the gospel today, “… you who are now hungry, … you who are now weeping, … you when people hate you, and … exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man …” It is quite a stretch to seriously believe that misery, hardship, and suffering would ever be considered a blessing or a cause for rejoicing. Perhaps we need to hear Jesus speak these words to us as though we have already encountered him, as though we already possess a deep and intense relationship with him. Why ever would anyone hate us who follow Jesus, exclude and insult us, or denounce us as evil on account of him unless they are threatened by our faith, our convictions, and our discipleship?
Jesus does not hesitate to remind us that we take great risks answering his call to discipleship, yes, even to the point of persecution. But it is our encounter with him that builds our trust, that sustains our faith, that strengthens our convictions. If we have not encountered the risen Jesus, if we do not know him personally and intensely, if we have not irrevocably surrendered our pride and self-reliance, placing our trust in him will not come easy.
We all know people who admire the saints, who will admit they could never endure the kind of suffering the saints endured. They will say nice things about the saints and celebrate their feasts. But all that admiration does them no good until they do as the saints did, and place their complete trust in Jesus. None of the saints brought about our salvation. That is something Jesus alone has done. Trust Jesus and him alone.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019
Jeremiah 17: 7
Luke 6: 20-22