Suffering, Anger and New Life
Proper 6 (A)
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. Johns Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL 36116
14 June 2020
The following verse from Romans has been on my mind this week.
“We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And, not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
When we hear these verses, we might cringe at the word “boast”, which is the translation of the Greek word “kauxaomai” (kow-khah-oh-my). This might cause us to cringe for a couple of reasons. First we associate boasting with the sins of pride and arrogance, thinking that Paul is saying that we have to proud of our sufferings in some twisted sort of way by drawing others’ attention to them.
Another reason we might cringe is having experienced people using this verse to encourage people to seek out suffering unnecessarily so they can boast about it. Or, we might have heard this verse used to be dismissive of suffering. “Oh, you’re suffering?” one might say, “Well, chin up, it produces character.” And walks away. While that might be true in the long run, it is not helpful to the person who is suffering and experiencing pain at the time.
If we look into the root and origin of the, “kauxaomai”, we will see that it refers to living with one’s “head held high”; and, figuratively it means living with God-given confidence.
This is why other translations, translate “kauxaomai” as glory. And others translate it as “rejoice.” My own preference of those three options is probably “rejoice.” But how is it that we can rejoice in our sufferings? How is it that God gives us confidence through our sufferings?
We can rejoice in our sufferings when enduring them leads to a deepening of our faith, which usually emerges from an experience of personal transformation and spiritual growth. Those are things to be grateful for and rejoice in, indeed. And, when these things happens we tend to have more and more confidence in God.
Suffering, as we all know, is a reality of human life. Suffering is a reality of our bodily life because our bodies are always in a state of growth and change and decay. Our bodies are both incredibly resilient, but also very vulnerable, susceptible to be wounded externally from different kinds of trauma, and also internally from things such as cancer, strokes, viruses, bacteria and a whole host of other diseases. Suffering is also a reality of living in community. We are dependent on one another for a whole variety of things, and in that inter-dependency we are bound to hurt each other in the process. Sometimes we purposely hurt each other out of pure malevolence, caring little for the well-being of another. Sometimes we hurt each other through indifference, not really caring one way or the other about how our actions might hurt someone at all. But, I think most of the time we hurt each other unwittingly, usually out of ignorance or sometimes out of a lack of sensitivity and self-awareness of how our actions impact others.
When we suffer a temporary physical ailment, especially something acute that will heal in a particular period of time, like a sports injury or poison ivy or a broken bone that will heal, we can usually endure that pretty well, because there are pretty reliable treatments developed for those things. With those types of injury’s we are usually confident that we will return to “normal” after a specified period of time.
Enduring a physical injury that will radically change our life is harder to deal with because there is no returning back to what was normal for us. For example suffering 3rd degree burns that will disfigure us, loss of limbs, injuries or disease that are terminal or debilitating, like suffering a spinal injury that leads to permanent paralysis, or diseases like Lou Gehrig’s disease, which have no treatment.
But, I think emotional and spiritual injuries can be just as hard to deal with as physical injuries, and in some case they can be harder, because they are internal to us. They are “invisible” wounds if you will. People can see if we have a broken leg, or bruises, or are using crutches or confined to a wheel chair. But people can’t see how broken we might be inside, the old wounds that never healed, or new wounds that are fresh. And, so we might be walking around with a lot of internal emotional hemorrhaging and spiritual broken bones, looking for the emotional equivalent of a bandage to stop the bleeding or the spiritual equivalent of a cast to help the broken bones knit together. But one of the challenges of those invisible wounds is that someone might encounter us and think we are perfectly fine.
Seeing people with physical injuries almost instantly generates in us compassion for them. Perhaps we suffered those same physical injuries and we can relate, but even if we haven’t we can try to imagine what that might be like. The other thing, too, in seeing people with physical injuries is there may be something we can do for them to show them our compassion. We might hold the door for them, carry their bags for them, make them dinner, bring them food. The body itself is doing the healing, but our fellows can help us with a sense of companionship as we navigate the pain, inconvenience, the increased dependence on others, and/or change in lifestyle that it might bring.
But when we are dealing with emotional or spiritual injuries, injuries we might have done to ourselves or have had inflicted upon us by others, the landscape is a little more challenging. We almost always feel alone. Part of this is because, unless we are visibly distressed, people usually don’t know that we are in pain. And, if someone does know we are in pain, it is often unclear how they can actually help us. Further, if we are not visibly distressed, the only way to let people know that we are hurting is to tell them about it. But, even then, it is sometimes hard to explain to people how we are feeling because we are not sure how we are feeling ourselves. Unlike taking an X-ray machine to see that our leg is broken, we don’t have the same kind of x-ray machine to diagnose a broken heart or a broken soul. Emotional and spiritual injuries are often much harder to diagnose and figure out what the real underlying issues are. And, this is why I think, we can carry emotional and spiritual injuries around with us for a lifetime without them ever being properly diagnosed or treated. And, one of the consequences of allowing our emotional and spiritual wounds to go undiagnosed and untreated is that we can carry the anger around with us for a long period of time, which is often associated with suffering.
And here I want to take a few minutes to think about the nature of anger:
When we experience suffering, we might be angry at a specific person or group of people for hurting us, or angry at God for not protecting us, or angry at ourselves for the mistakes we have made and the harms we have inflicted. But anger, the field of psychology tells us, is actually a secondary emotion. Anger is a response to other emotions that have been triggered and, more significantly, it is part of that fight or flight response system that is built in as a protective force which we deploy when dealing with a real or perceived threat.
But while the expression of anger tends to be primarily behavioral, the source of anger tends to be primarily emotional. And, as you all have no doubt experienced, anger can be expressed in both overt and covert ways. Not all who struggle with anger will act out in a visible manner. Not all will have a “quick temper” or be “hot headed” as we have come to label those who display anger. Some may be passive-aggressive. Some may bottle it up and let it build and then explode visibly. Others may turn their anger inward and become withdrawn, isolated, and/or depressed. Some call this the anger iceberg. Anger can be outwardly visible in this way, but underneath that anger are the primary emotions that we are feeling that we might not even be able to identify. (Note 1)
And, why do we get angry? We get angry about what is happening in the environment around us. Anger is our internal response to external stressors. Common emotions known to trigger anger are anxiety, shame, sadness, fear, frustration, guilt, disappointment, worry, embarrassment, jealousy, and hurt. All of these emotions are experienced as negative and are perceived as threatening to our well-being.
Difficultly, too, anger can also be a substituted emotion: For example, sometimes we choose to be angry so we don’t have to feel the pain. In other words, sometimes we may choose to change the feelings of pain into anger because it feels better to feel the anger than it does to feel the pain.
When I was living in Washington DC about 25 years ago, a friend of mine, a former private detective turned Episcopal priest, had a bumper sticker on her car that said, “If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.” I never liked that bumper sticker. While I understood the sentiment behind it, that is, she was asking people to pay better attention to the injustices and things that are wrong in the world, I didn’t like that it encouraged people to be angry. I wasn’t convinced that encouraging people to be angry would be ultimately very productive.
We don’t act well when we are angry. We don’t think well when they are angry. We can act out in terrible ways when we are angry, often causing more hurt and pain. We can say things we will later regret when we are angry. The point is not to deny that anger it exists. The real challenge is to figure out what lies underneath that iceberg of anger and name the pain that the emotion of anger is really masking so that we can be healed from it.
If I were to offer an alternative bumper sticker to my friend I might suggest this ”If you are angry, stop and pay attention.” If you are angry, stop and pay attention to why you are angry. What are those underlying emotions that are triggering that anger? Is it hurt, is it anxiety, is it fear, is it shame, is it embarrassment, is it guilt, is it jealousy, is it disappointment? What is it?
If someone is angry at having been diagnosed with cancer, what are they really angry about? Are they afraid that their spouse will leave them because caring for them might be too hard? Do they have anxiety about what chemotherapy would be like? Are they disappointed in God, thinking God should have protected them from such a disease since they lived a good life? If someone is angry about being confined to a wheelchair, what are they really angry about? Is it feeling humiliated that people will have to bathe them and help them use the toilet? Is it the fear of losing sexual intimacy? If someone is angry at their boss, what are they really angry about? Are they hurt because their boss lied to them, or are they embarrassed that they lost their temper in front of other colleagues in a meeting with him? Such emotional discernment may take practice and time, but such discernment is indispensable to real healing. We have to identify and name the wounds and the pain for what they really are.
And, in my experience the most effective way to do this, is in unsparing self-reflection that is accompanied by persistent and honest prayer. Yes, therapy can help in some situations, and may even be a necessary part of one’s healing process, but prayer is indispensable to the healing process, because it is only through the love and healing power of God’s grace we can be made spiritually and emotionally whole again. It is only when we are bolstered by the knowledge and experience of God’s steadfast and infinite love for us, no matter what we have done or what we have left undone, that we can find the courage to confront the pain that underlies our suffering.
My advice that we should turn our pain over to God in prayer is not some sort of pie-in-the sky, naïve advice. Turning our pain over to God is actually pretty hard to do. It’s not some quick, “Hey God, I’m hurting down here. Hurry up your late!” sort of impatient prayer. No, the prayer has to be a persistent one, and a patient one, one that requires endurance. Something more like: “God, I am here. I am broken. I am in pain. Please restore me to wholeness, grant me your peace.”
Confronting our pain in prayer can sometimes feel overwhelming because in the space of honest and sincere prayer we make ourselves completely vulnerable to God. And, in that vulnerable space we might feel like we don’t have the emotional and spiritual resources to deal with the encounter. But, if we turn our pain and suffering over to God, God will teach us how to deal with it. It may sometimes feel like it is taking God a long time to respond, but in my experience that is usually because God is waiting until we are actually prepared to hear what he is going to say and able to integrate God’s wisdom into our lives so that we may be transformed by his grace.
God can teach us how to deal with anger and pain and suffering because God himself, in the person of Christ, knows what it means to suffer. God himself endured suffering on the cross. And, God endured it for a reason. And, that reason was because it was only through the suffering and death of Christ on the cross that the transformation of death into new life could take place. On that third day, when Jesus rose again, could he not rejoice in his sufferings, knowing that the pain and the cost were not in vain? It is important for us to remember that Jesus never denied the truth of what happened to him. And, God, I think was very intentional in making sure that Jesus’ resurrected body still had the marks on his body from where he was crucified. There was no denying what happened to Jesus. Nobody could make up a different story. Jesus faced the pain of crucifixion to secure our reconciliation and forgiveness. There are no shortcuts to transformation and new life. The only way out is through. Avoiding pain and denying pain or not being honest about what the real pain is and will never result in healing. And, in fact, it will probably make it worse.
There is a lot of anger flying around right now in our country. Some people are angry that they have to wear masks, some people are angry that people won’t wear masks. Some people are angry that the lockdown measures are too strict, others are angry that the lockdown measures aren’t strict enough. Some people are angry at the #BlackLivesMatter movement, some people are angry at the #AllLivesMatter counter-movement. Some people are angry at protesters, some people are angry that people aren’t protesting. Some people are angry at the President, some people are angry at the people who are angry at the President. And, almost everyone seems angry at the media, because, well, most people aren’t sure if the news or the experts or the statistics we come across are actually truthful. It’s a pretty grim situation, regardless of what side of any political or ideological divide you sit on.
My friend’s bumper sticker from 25 years ago, I guess, has come to fruition. A whole lot of people seem to be angry, both overtly or covertly. Some are overtly acting out with rage, some are keeping it bottled up, ready to explode at any time, and still others internally experiencing anger in the form of depression. So, I guess that means a whole lot of people are paying attention. Now, the question is, what are the emotions that underlie the anger? And how will those real emotions be named and dealt with that can lead to new life and transformation? Before we can ask ourselves to do that constructively as a nation, we have to individually subject ourselves first to some unsparing self-reflection and ask ourselves these questions carefully first.
I hope that as Christians, we can never forget that we do not proceed into the future without hope. There have been better times in history, surely, but there have certainly been worse one’s as well. God is still God through it all. And, we know that suffering is not in vain. Transformation and new life can be born of suffering, but only if one does the work, and one honestly confronts the pain. We can do that individually, we can do that as families, we can do that as local communities, businesses, schools, and organizations, and we can do that as a country as well.
As Paul reminds us, ““We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And, not only that, but we also have God-filled confidence in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Note 1: https://perspectivesoftroy.com/whats-hiding-behind-anger/