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Transformation: A Word on Suffering and Spiritual Practices

Transformation Blog

 

 

Transformation: A Word on Suffering and Spiritual Practices

Brandon Cook

It must be said that unfortunately, participative knowledge often only comes through suffering.  It’s the only thing that can move us out of mere factual knowledge or mental belief and into experience.  When we are at the end of our selves, we finally become open to new realities and especially the reality of God. 

Think about your life right now: is there some trial or struggle that is bringing you to the end of your resource?  Suffering is basically anything we want to control but can’t control.  If you aren’t suffering now, you soon will be.  And life can either be made miserable by suffering, or life can become life in God because of suffering. 

When I went to college, I fell into a deep depression that lasted, in varying intensity, for six years.  During that time, all my factual beliefs about God had to be transformed into experiences on which I could hang my hat.  I believed that “God was good,” but that had to become, for me, a deeper reality.  A lot of our Christianity may in fact be theory until we are actually in the cave of suffering and need to experience the presence of Jesus with us there in the low place.[1]  Most of us, honestly and myself included, would rather just have the theory!  But real faith means moving from theory to experience, and this transition is often painful.  The crucifixion, of course, preceded the resurrection. 

The blessing of spiritual practices is that, rather than being blind-sided by suffering, we can actually begin to practice discipleship and “the fellowship of Jesus’ sufferings” on a daily basis.[2]  For there is actually a suffering in practicing the presence of God and learning to see Him as He is.  It is precisely the suffering of letting go of what-we-have-known-up-‘til-now.  It is also the suffering of responding to the Spirit when he challenges us to do something uncomfortable for us, like forgiving when we want to stay angry, turning away from temptation when we want to numb out, or practicing hospitality when our house or life is not altogether clean and sorted!  Spirituality, in this sense, is all about unlearning, which means letting go.

For this reason, we might resist spiritual practices.  The journey into God—and into transformation—is always de-stabilizing because transformation never happens without tension.  Remember that Abram, not to mention the entire nation of Israel, encountered God in the uncertain places where they did not have all the answers.  To encounter God, Abram—and all the heroes of faith—have had to face deep times of unlearning.  Remember, it was in the desert that the people of Israel were transformed into a people who could inhabit the Promised Land.  It wasn’t the miracles they saw in Egypt or at the Red Sea that transformed them, it was the suffering in their long journey!

Transformation in Jesus is always old things passing away, all things becoming new.  Spiritual practices pre-emptively de-stabilize us, interrupting our love of certainty and inertia as we come into contact with the God whose presence can’t help but change us.  They prepare us to receive “all things becoming new.”  This is a far better path than simply waiting for life to hand you suffering!  In a way, though I hesitate to say this, we get to control our suffering by submitting our own selves before suffering is fully upon us.  Perhaps Jesus even intimates this when he tells us to “pick up your cross and follow me.”[3]  We make the decision to pick up the cross and to enter into his suffering with him.[4]  And this ends up, by God’s grace, transforming our souls and freeing us from the fear of suffering and death.  

 Spiritual practices, then, can open us to know God and to participate in His life and love.  There will be pain in the process!  But there will also be resurrection.

 

[1] Jesus alludes to this reality and the possibility of abandoning a non-participative faith in the midst of suffering in the ‘Parable of the Sowers’ in Matthew 13:1-23.

[2] Philippians 3:10

[3] Matthew 16:24

[4] Again, see Philippians 3:10, and also Acts 9:3-5