Involuntary Suffering & Willing Justice

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you,      as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings,      that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” – 1 Peter 4:12-13

As a teenager I had the chance to travel to Spain on an educational trip. During this trip, we visited many churches and cathedrals, hearing the fascinating stories of their history and the saints whose lives intersected with them. One such saint was St. Michael de Sanctis, though I don’t remember which church I was in when I heard about him. I do remember two interesting facts about him: first, he entered monastic life at the age of twelve; and second, he was known for his deep devotion to prayer and mortification.

For those unfamiliar with Catholic theology, mortification (simply put) is pursuing holiness through self-denial. Most commonly known in its expressions of celibacy and fasting, in some cases it included the more rare practice of self-flagellation (i.e. whipping oneself on the back). Regardless of how we feel about specific practices, the commitment to radical self-denial has a long history in the Christian faith, often associated with people we deeply admire and emulate, such as St. Francis & St. Clare of Assisi, St. Patrick, and St. Michael de Sanctis.

However, it is critical to realize that such suffering and self-denial for the sake of faithfulness to Jesus is, necessarily, a voluntary act, one made freely by individual agency. It cannot be enforced or coerced onto others. And while that might seem obvious, the fact is that all too often we Christians justify systemic and pervasive injustices in the name mortification, even if we never use that word.

Over the years, as my coming out process continued to be more intentional and public, I began to face harsh judgment, explicit condemnation, and denials of the veracity of my faith & salvation. And I met other LGBTQ+ folks who suffered even worse treatment- abuse of all variety, rejection of family and expulsion from their homes, and criminally harmful attempts to “fix” their sexual orientation.

When I shared these concerns with fellow Christians, most would at least be passingly sympathetic. However, when I asked what could be done about it, I was surprised how often I received the same answer: “I’m not sure there is anything to be done. At least they can take comfort in knowing that their suffering can draw them closer to Jesus.”

While God can use tragic experiences and suffering for some greater good, that in no way diminishes the harm done nor God’s original hope & intention that such suffering never happen in the first place. We should never suggest to someone who is being subjected to injustice that they should look for Christ in the midst of it while doing little or nothing to address the causes of their suffering.

Most people do not make this mistake out of callous disregard or a lack of compassion. For many it is a learned response about how to cope with something beyond the simple answers we’ve been given or what our privilege has protected us from. So instead, when we hear the voices of the suffering, we first listen. Then, seeing the injustice for what it is, we must be willing to take upon ourselves some of their suffering in our commitment to see the injustice ended.

Reflection Questions:  1. Have you ever experienced someone dismissing or minimizing your own experience of suffering? How did it feel? 2. How might you be intentional about resisting that kind of response to the suffering of others?  3. How might you take on the suffering of others in your commitment to end injustice?

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