18/6/17 7:33 pm
Perhaps you’ve seen this famous optical illusion, drawn by cartoonist W.E.Hill in 1915. Most people who don’t know it will see either a young woman or an old lady (Hill titled it “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law”), but seeing both takes patience and an open mind. Even when the illusion is explained, it takes a while before the penny drops and the “aha moment” happens. Illusions like these are called “ambiguous images.” Google that phrase and you’ll find a ton more. They’re fun to ponder knowing that two incongruous realities can co-exist within the same picture. So often what we think we are perceiving isn’t the whole story. It’s human nature to see only half of what is right in front of us.
Some years back a friend went through a tough illness, and to this day he and his wife describe it as both the best and worst thing that ever happened to them. The worst for the pain and upheaval it brought, but the best for the deepened friendships and faith that continue to be its fruits. Like the words of an old hymn, they experienced how “sorrow and love flow mingled down.”
Paul the Apostle’s words in Philippians present the same seemingly impossible illusion. “Joy in suffering” is one such paradoxical word pairing. Anyone can experience and understand “joy” and “suffering” separately, but to hold the two together is like staring at W.E. Hill’s drawing, straining to see both the old hag and the young woman. It requires a certain concentration to stick with it and see both.
Paul wrote that he had learned to be content in every circumstance. Surely this is not possible in our 21st century lives, rife with personal and political trouble. Within and around us is anything but joy. Just how are we supposed to see the other side of the picture and experience contentment? Yet he was writing from prison after trials such as being flogged, stoned or shipwrecked. He was often weary and in pain. What was Paul seeing that we so easily miss?
Taking a Deeper Look
The key to the riddle of contentment is knowing what Paul was, and was not, focusing on. His contentment was rooted not in fleeting feelings of optimism and certainly not in his circumstances, but in an abiding hope, in what he called the hidden gospel (Ephesians 3:9). The word “gospel” in the Scriptures is shorthand for “good news,” and the good news for Paul was that God is eternally at work in every circumstance. What we normally label bad, like my friend’s illness, can end up being used for God’s purposes in ways we can’t imagine at first. Suffering is real and never good in and of itself, but something good can come out of it. It’s like a mystery hidden for ages in God.
This wasn’t just theory for Paul. Over and over, he had seen it happen in himself and in others. As counterintuitive as it seemed, he knew that evil was not the only horse in the race. Like a tiny bit of yeast in dough, God’s good has the power to transform any situation.
Knowing this helped Paul see adversity in a totally different way. No doubt his trials were real, but he trusted that God was at work, bringing something good out of them. His suffering was mitigated by a deep and abiding joy. Writing from prison, he had an amazing lack of self-pity, and even found himself rejoicing! He had the character to put aside his own preferences to think about the needs of his friends.
Hope was not the opposite of suffering but sprang out of it. Elsewhere he wrote that he could even boast in his sufferings, because he knew that after producing endurance and character, hope was its final fruit (Romans 5:3-4). Notice he doesn’t say that we boast about or celebrate our sufferings, but that we celebrate in our sufferings. No one gives thanks for the painful or grief-filled experiences of our lives. Rather, we can be thankful knowing that God stands with us in trying times, able to transform us in that very place into people with deeper character. Pain, though real, does not have the final word in life.
In the upside-down way that is characteristic of God’s kingdom, Paul knew that suffering was the necessary antecedent of hope. He trusted that an Artist God was creatively and subversively drawing another picture within the first one. The key to the secret of contentment, said Paul, was knowing that the hidden gospel exists. Taking a long and trusting second look in our circumstances can change everything.
Paul knew that if we stay centered only on our lives, the gospel will be squeezed to the periphery or choked out entirely.
Self-centered lives will not carry us through times of difficulty, nor offer genuine hope to a world fraught with uncertainty, suspicion and fear. Instead, we need lives re-centered on the gospel. This was the only thing that could help Paul perceive the movements of God’s larger drama. “It is Christ who lives in me,” he wrote. Living the life of Christ as our own personal narrative is key, and it means knowing that, like Christ, our life will have suffering and death but also resurrection. Even if something looks like a failure, it’s not the end of the story. We’ll begin to see in-breakings of God in whatever is going on.
But make no mistake. Embracing this mystery is the work of a lifetime. At first, suffering has the amazing ability to take up all the space in our brains, threatening to create nothing but bitterness, division and despair. Just look at the vitriol in the anti-Trump demonstrations, or the deep despair a persistent physical or emotional problem can stir in us. We usually see our own narratives quite clearly but lack the imagination to see the hidden gospel.
Paul’s imagination had been transformed by the Christ who met him on the road to Damascus. When do our imaginations receive such a baptism? Sometimes, seeing someone else go through a tough experience with improbable joy can help us begin to see in a new way.
In Mitch Album’s book Tuesdays With Morrie, the story is told of how Morrie developed severe asthma at age 60. It was the deep breathing he practiced that helped steady himself later in life as he coped with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Something learned in suffering became a gift later on.
In the same way, the Apostle Paul saw the hidden goodness even in jail, how this suffering was actually helping to bring the gospel forward. The guards and their families were being introduced to God because Paul’s very life was a living witness. Even 2000 years later, he has taught others to look at their situations with this mindset.
Trusting that God can transform the dross of suffering into gold helps mitigate the impatience and frustration we feel. Instead of strife, God can help us bear trials with equanimity and courage as we keep an eye out for the good. Sometimes we see glints of gold. More often we don’t, but it’s the hopeful search that causes joy. In The Message paraphrase of Romans 5, Eugene Peterson says that troubles turn into patience and virtue, “keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”
The preacher Peter Gomes asserts that such hope is not naively optimistic, but muscular. It has teeth. "Hope can seem a wimpy word…yet if we remember, as Paul reminds us, that genuine hope, a hope worth having, is forged upon the anvil of adversity, and that hope and suffering are related through the formation of character, then we will realize that hope is much more than mere optimism. Hope is the stuff that gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen happens."
The Gospel Hidden Even in the 21st Century
We have offered this blog as “tailor-made for these turbulent days.” When the political news is anything but what we want, joy seems an impossible goal for protest marches, but Paul would say without it, we may as well stay home. [When the political news is anything but what we want, it seems that anger, not joy, is what we need as we protest.] Without a counter-narrative, we’re just making noise. What the world needs now is not a response to evil poisoned by anger and despair. The world needs a better story, one which points to God’s unfolding new creation where all that is wrong will be set right. We need sharp minds and open hearts which see through the propaganda to a new way of being human.
An amazing story unfolded in our area this past January. As Trump’s threatened Muslim travel ban cast a shadow in the States, many refugees began to flee deportation and escape to Canada. In freezing temperatures, two men from Ghana crossed the border to Canada via a snowy field in Manitoba. Unprepared for the extreme cold, they were close to death when a truck driver found them and brought them to the hospital. Though they escaped with their lives, severe frostbite had set in and surgery awaited. In the ensuing days, both would suffer the loss of their fingers. While one would at least retain his thumbs, the other was to lose all 10 digits. One, an avid soccer player, was especially regretful at the loss of one of his toes as well.
These two men were understandably sober about their loss. But, watching them in TV interviews, one couldn’t help but notice their calm and even grateful demeanor at the greater miracle of being in a safe country. Their ill fortune seemed a small price to pay. Instead of bemoaning their fate, they couldn’t stop saying thank you. They considered themselves the lucky ones, having reached safety.
Their loss seemed unfathomable, and yet there they were, hands fully bandaged, speaking of their joy. Instead of the deportation or even death they’d feared, they were given life and welcome in a new country. Loss is real, and their protests would have been justified, yet the second chance they received mitigated their loss. "The journey was worth it,” one told the press. “I'm happy I'm here. To go back, I lose my life.”
Later, the Paralympian Rick Hansen met one on the mend (Seidu Mohammed) and became inspired by his story. "His attitude is powerful and strong, positive, seeing not disability but ability," Hansen said. "Anyone who is able to turn things from tragedy to triumph and show ability, that's the kind of person I want to encourage and I'm thrilled to be here and I'm honoured to meet you Seidu. Thank you so much."
What if instead of cursing opposition with growing hatred, protest became a lament against the politics of oppression and exploitation within empire? What if we prayed to be delivered, not from suffering but from the meaninglessness that can rob us of joy amid suffering? What if instead of protesting the evil in the world, we let a deeper story take root in our souls? We can live in the present as hope-filled people, staying alert for what God will do next.
Paul knew that it was all about cultivating a sense of the presence of God. Once we know the gospel is hidden in the picture, our eyes will become open to seeing that suffering is not the only reality. That was the secret Paul discovered as joy found a way, even in prison.
Story of Rick Hansen and Seidu Mohammed
Peter Gomes’ sermon on “Muscular Hope”
Sermon inspired by Gomes:
Question of the Week
Describe a bad situation which ended up being used for God's purposes. Where was the Gospel hidden and how did it get worked out?