Meaning of Suffering

Nancy Hitt at Preaching Peace offers a thoughtful essay about suffering and whether and how it might have meaning. It’s based on an immediately-after-worship conversation with a parishioner. The sermon for the day was from Matthew 14, about “the feeding the multitudes which occurs directly after Jesus is informed of John the Baptist’s death by beheading.” Nancy and her interlocutor touch on causes of suffering (not God trying to teach us something) and on people who use their suffering as justification for not helping anyone else, or who become super martyrs, but the real question they face is about how to understand suffering:

“The short answer to the question (that we arrived at together) was that there CAN be meaning in suffering, but there isn’t always.” What intrigued the parishioner was “the idea that suffering joins us to one another — it’s pretty much a universal experience — and can either be used for good or evil.” Sometimes, though, “instead of uniting us, it appears that suffering separates us. One of the amazing things Jesus shows us is how much we’ve got that backwards.”

What I particularly like is Nancy’s take on the Matthew passage:

“I had suggested that Jesus was heartbroken — grieving — at [the news of his friend’s death], and intended to get away by himself when he set out in the boat. When he arrived at the ‘remote place’ he was confronted with thousands of needy people, upon whom he had compassion. I really like Eugene Peterson’s use of the phrase ‘His heart went out to them’ in the Message to describe this encounter. In my mind I can picture Jesus recognizing the feeling and need of the crowd as matching his own and responding to their need with healing. Since the end of the story results in the creation of a new community sharing a meal in a way that precludes any sort of social sorting into the hierarchy of the day, it seems to me that healing happens for everyone.”

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