Chapter 9: The Subversion of Suffering
When I agreed to contribute to the Hub series “This Too Shall Last” I asked a friend of mine to read the book with me and provide her insights. As we discussed the book she mentioned that Ramsey says early in the book not to place on ourselves the burden of finding a purpose for our suffering. However, my friend continued, Ramsey implies in chapter 9 that there is a purpose after all, which is that the church only “offers half her good news when she does not make space to share and honor stories of suffering that lingers” (p. 184). According to Ramsey, suffering is at least a part of our stories, even if it is not the whole story. The stories of those with whom suffering lingers offer the truth that “Grace is not just power to overcome. It is the power to endure” (p.187-8). My friend, who is herself experiencing intense, ongoing physical suffering, followed up with the question: if my suffering is meant as a witness to the church does that mean God wants me to suffer?
It is a difficult question, and one I have thought of a lot since our conversation. Since then, I remembered a view of suffering which J.R.R Tolkien (a devout believer) presents in The Silmarillion, his history of Middle Earth within which the Lord of the Rings takes place. Tolkien poetically describes the creation of the world by Ilúvatar (God) as a harmony of music echoing through the void, through which Melkor (Satan) begins to spread a discordant theme. Of this discordant music, Tolkien says, “it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other” (pp. 16-17).
My thought process is generally circuitous so bear with me as a I provide another analogy before tying things together. I have never tried a martial art, but if I did it would be Aikido. I am fascinated by it, because the basic premise is not to use force against force. Rather, the moves in Aikido are calculated solely to use your opponent’s own force of momentum and energy to disarm them.
So, what if God, while his ultimate purpose was not pain and suffering, is essentially subverting the very energy of suffering and using it against itself? What if God takes the very discordance of suffering, and uses it for the beauty of his melody? I recognize that I am philosophizing a bit here, and maybe I want too much to have answers that we don’t always get right now, because suffering is still here and that is a mystery.
There is something about the idea of the subversion of suffering that thrills me to my core when I go on to read that Christ “having disarmed the powers and authorities, made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15, NLT). I think Ramsey is correct that when we focus only on Christ’s triumph, we leave little room for the stories of those whose suffering lingers. We must also remember that it is by the cross that Christ turns the very power of suffering against itself. Suffering itself may be meaningless and purposeless, but God certainly seems to redeem the source of its power for his own purposes. In this upside-down Kingdom, God uses the weak and the poor and the overlooked and the hurting and broken and the suffering that lingers to make a public spectacle of suffering’s so-called power. I am reminded that as much as we need to remember that Christ triumphs by the cross, we also need to remember how he does it; because his own suffering is how he removed the potency of suffering’s power and is why we can sing “O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory?”, even in the midst of suffering.
This advent, remember the meekness of the God who came as a child in a manger.
Like the humility of the manger or the cruelty of the cross, what is one seemingly irredeemable thing you can bring to the God who subverts suffering for his good purposes?
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