Suffering Is Not for Its Own Sake

Photo by Tammy Perlmutter. Guatemala City.

Photo by Tammy Perlmutter. Guatemala City.

I know I’m supposed to write a brilliant, moving post about the amazing people of Guatemala and how God is doing incredible things and how deeply I was touched and changed by the experience. I don’t know if I can write that post. I have been changed by the experience but I know I will be processing this for a long time. But for now, here are my first thoughts. 

I went on this trip as an act of faith. I suffer from chronic pain and I knew a trip of this kind would trigger all the symptoms for me. And it did. The walking, the standing, the sitting, even the sleeping all caused intense discomfort and fatigue.

It was worth the pain. It was worth the triggering of memories from my own impoverished early years. It reminded me that we are called to suffer with Christ and with one another. It’s not an option. In A Beautiful Disaster, Marlena Graves writes about the necessity of spiritual formation and the unlikely source:

“Growing up, I begged God to take the cup of suffering from me, but mostly he didn’t. Instead, he used my pain and difficulties, my desert experiences, to transform me—which in turn alleviated my suffering. He redeems what we may deem our living hells, if we allow him. The hard truth, then, is this: everyone who follows Jesus is eventually called to the desert. God uses the desert of the soul—our suffering and difficulties—to form us, to make us beautiful souls” (italics mine).

While in Guatemala, I would fall into bed the moment we returned to our hostel at night. I prayed for healing, for relief, blinking back tears of discouragement from another difficult day. I considered staying at the hostel on Wednesday, not knowing if I could make it through the whole day. The next day we visited Life Unlimited in CaserÍo Las Flores. We walked 3.5 miles and, due to the inclines in the mountainous area, climbed the equivalent of 32 flights of stairs. I wondered how the local residents who also suffered chronic pain coped in this rural, mostly walking life.

Henri Nouwen came to Chicago over 20 years ago and a bunch of us went to see him. We were a motley crowd, and we were late entering the beautiful, solemn Catholic church. There was no room. We weren’t allowed to sit in the aisles due to fire codes. When Nouwen saw the problem, he invited us to sit on the stage with him. I literally sat at Henri Nouwen’s feet. His message was the catalyst for his last published book, Can You Drink the Cup? 

The cup Jesus is referring to is the cup of suffering. James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, were jockeying for position, and their mother was too. She asks Jesus to promise that her sons may sit at his right and his left when they enter the kingdom. “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 

The men were quick to answer because they did not know what Jesus was asking. He was asking them to share the cup of his suffering, his brutal beating, his grisly crucifixion. He asks us the same question, can we drink the cup? The cup is heavy and bitter and it is full of pain. Paul got this, he comprehended what suffering with Christ truly meant. In most translations Philippians 3:10-11 proposes sharing in his sufferings, or participating with them. But there are a few translations that offer us a different angle. The NASB, KJV, and HCSB all say it like this: 

“. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” 

The fellowship of His sufferings. Fellowship doesn’t imply a one-time occurrence. It implies the cultivation of relationship, the maintaining of closeness, the commitment of stability and presence. Like The Fellowship of the Ring. It is a continuous connection, a shared suffering, a communal experience of pain.

This is what missions means to me, short-term or long-term. Drinking the cup. Sharing in all our suffering. Even if it’s for a few hours. Even with language barriers and cross-cultural lives. Being present to those who suffer, looking them in the eye, sitting in their homes, listening to them, praying over them, seeing them, is what it means to drink the cup, to know the fellowship of his suffering. We may not bring miracles, but we bring ourselves. And we bring the suffering Savior who promises to make all things new, to wipe tears from eyes, to turn mourning into dancing. My physical self may have been struggling but my heart and my spirit surged with new-found energy.

We are not just called to drink the cup. We are called to drinking the cup, not just once, but over and over, together, in communion. We are reminded of his suffering and his invitation to share in his sufferings so we may know him more deeply, more intimately. But the suffering is not for its own sake, or even just for Christ’s sake, It’s for all our sakes, local and national and global. But God is a God of redemption and rescue. His own suffering was transformed into resurrection. Nouwen writes in his last book:

“In the midst of the sorrows is consolation, in the midst of the darkness is light, in the midst of the despair is hope, in the midst of Babylon is a glimpse of Jerusalem, and in the midst of an army of demons is the consoling angel. The cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy. Only when we discover this in our own life can we consider drinking it.”

In an impoverished Guatemalan village, with a woman who could have wallowed in darkness, I drank from the most thirst-quenching cup of joy ever . . .

We ask to pray for her, she says only if she can pray for us too. I raise my head and catch her eye and she doesn’t look away. She tells me the Holy Spirit has given her something to say. She takes my hands looks in my eyes and tears well up. She raises her voice and every statement is spoken with authority. “Your feet were chosen by God since your mother’s womb, Wherever you go the Lord is in front of you. Wherever your feet touch, the Lord has been there before for you. The earth is yours. Whatever your feet touch, the Lord has given it to you. Walk in holiness.

My eyes are wide open in surprise as this beautiful woman with a gold cross is clutching me and praying blessing over me. It is being prayed twice over me, in emphatic Spanish and then beautifully-accented English. Doubly blessed. She embraces me and holds me tight, crooning over me in Spanish and swaying back and forth like she is sending me off to sleep. I hug her again as we left and she prayed over me again, “Don’t be afraid, whatever God has called you to do he will train you for.

I am renewed.

P.S. A Beautiful Disaster for Kindle is only $2.99 right now. Go get it!

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Tammy Perlmutter

Writer at Raggle-Taggle
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess at her blog Raggle-Taggle. She founded The Mudroom to make room in the mess and create a space for people to be heard. Tammy guest posts a bit, writes flash memoir, personal essay, and poetry, leads writing groups, and preaches on occasion. She is also an advocate for women and mental health, an alum of the Voices and Faces Project testimonial writing workshop, The Stories We Tell, for survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and trafficking, as well as the Social Media Director for Threads of Compassion, an organization offering comfort to recent victims of sexual trauma. She will have an essay included in the book Soul Bare: Raw Reflections on Human Redemption, being published by InterVarsity Press in 2016.
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