As Christians we are called to live like Christ and he has given us a beautiful example not only in his willingness to bear the cross but in his resoluteness as he knowingly approached it. In John 12, after his entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus spoke about his death which was to come. He spoke not only of the significance of the event but also to the attitude he had towards it. He said:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains only a single seed.
But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
Anyone who loves their life will lose it,
while anyone who hates their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.
Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say?
‘Father, save me from this hour’?
No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name!”
Jesus had a resolute sureness as he prepared himself to be lead to the cross and he refused to pray for his own liberation from death. What sort of message do we learn from this? At what point is it wise to accept fate in a humble submission to God and at what point are we better to pray to the Lord for relief? We seem to receive both these instructions. What attitude is most beneficial to our condition and leads to goodness and grace?
I don’t know if you are familiar with the parable of the persistent widow. It is one that tells us to pray for the relief of suffering and never cease. It is a parable directly quoted to Jesus. Jesus tells us that even when our prayers are not answered immediately we must continue on. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Never stop praying for what you need. Yet in our reading from today he tells us that we must hate our lives. He tells us that we must die like the seed in order to be born. And he himself refuses to pray for release as he is carried to the cross – as he is tortured and killed he does not cry out for help.
But he does ask, “Why have you forsaken me?” It’s almost like he wants to ask for release, but knows that he never can. Jesus is continually tempted throughout his life and his death but he never gives into it. Surely it would have been tempting to simply pray for it all to end, but he never did.
So do we accept all the events of life as God’s will? Or do we turn to God to change the events of our lives? And what are the greater implications of these questions? Does anything happen which is outside of God’s will? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then it is easy to think that everything is part of his plan. But if everything happens exactly as it’s meant to then why would we ever need to ask God for help? Why would we ever pray for things to be different, if in every moment God’s will is being done?
How can we reconcile an all knowing, all powerful creator god with a world that has suffering? Why would God create us in such a way that suffering was necessary? And why should the pleas of the people God has created affect the way in which God governs this world which he has made exactly how he wants it to be? I think that these sorts of questions are ones we can no longer answer now that we have left the Garden of Eden and begun to see the world according to the notions of good and evil. It is our knowledge which brings us further from understanding and I believe it is our love which can bring us closer again. There was a French mystic by the name of Madame Guyon who lived in the 17th century. She had lots of wonderful things to say about prayer, suffering, and the nature of love. She was a poet and even in translation her words are powerful and moving. The first of her works I would like to share with you is a poem called The Acquiescence of Pure Love:
Love! if thy destined sacrifice am I,
Come, slay thy victim, and prepare thy fires;
Plunged in thy depths of mercy, let me die
The death which every soul that lives desires!
I watch my hours, and see them fleet away;
The time is long that I have languished here
Yet all my thoughts thy purposes obey,
With no reluctance, cheerful and sincere.
To me ’tis equal, whether love ordain
My life or death, appoint me pain or ease;
My soul perceives no real ill in pain;
In ease or health no real good she sees.
One good she covets, and that good alone,
To choose thy will, from selfish bias free;
And to prefer a cottage to a throne,
And grief to comfort, if it pleases thee.
That we should bear the cross is thy command,
Die to the world and live to self no more;
Suffer, unmoved, beneath the rudest hand,
As pleased when shipwrecked as when safe on shore.
It is very possible to hear these words and feel that they are depressing. But when I hear them I am filled with joy, I do not see bearing the cross as something that should make us miserable. I do not believe that God calls us to suffer so that we become depressed and down trodden. I do not believe that dying to ourselves is something terrible. On the contrary, I believe that release from selfishness is the beginning of a spiritual life. I believe that overcoming our reluctance to pain and discomfort can give us the foundation we need to overcome anger and resentment. I believe that if we can be just as pleased when we are shipwrecked as when we are safe on shore that we have finally found a true and genuine faith. And I believe that this is what Jesus was trying to tell us when he talked about the kernel of wheat.
The seed cracking open and leaving behind everything that it was is not a loss but a victory. It is the completion of what a seed is meant for. It is the beginning of life its self! But a seed must undergo much hardship before it can become what God made it to be. It is flung around with no control over where it lands, it may be eaten, it may fall on poor soil, it may rot from too much water, or never sprout due to drought, it may be scorched by the sun or shadowed under a rock. The life of a seed is treacherous, but the potential is beautiful. The fact that the mightiest oak grows from a simple little nut is a beautiful metaphor for our own lives. We are all just seeds. And we will never grow into trees so long as we cling to our need for comfort. We must allow our shells to crack, we must take that plunge into the unknown and sprout.
I don’t know how many of you are gardeners but there is a process that many seeds must undergo in order to germinate. It is called scarification. There are many different ways this can happen. Some seeds just need their protective coating to be scratched up a little, some need to go through the digestion of a bird and have the acids wear away at their outer coating, some even need to go through the intense heat of a forest fire like the jack pine, but they all have one thing in common: they need to be put through some sort of abrasive process in order to be able to take root.
I think that we are just like that too. I think that we need adversity in order to be able to crack open that protective shield we have around us and open up ourselves to the light of the sun. And that is when the plant is the most vulnerable. When it first germinates it is small and weak and fragile and completely at the mercy of the elements. And that is how we are as well when we first open up and take that plunge. We have to trust completely that the sun will shine down upon us, only we are trusting in the son of God, in Jesus, to give us the power we need to grow. Madame Guyon has another great little poem, this one is very short. It is called The Benefits of Suffering and it speaks to this as well:
By sufferings only can we know
The nature of the life we live;
The temper of our souls they show,
How true, how pure, the love we give.
To leave my love in doubt would be
No less disgrace than misery!
I welcome, then, with heart sincere,
The cross my Saviour bids me take;
No load, no trial, is severe,
That’s borne or suffered for his sake:
And thus my sorrow shall proclaim
A love that’s worthy of the name.
Suffering tempers our souls. It shows us the true nature of our love. It is easy to love and be kind and compassionate when we are in comfort. But if we truly wish to test our love we must maintain it as we endure suffering. For Jesus never wavered from it. Even as he hung pierced on the cross his last words were “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do”. But how do we do this? How do we reach a place of pure love and maintain it through our darkest times as well as our joyous days? I’m going to give you one last quote from Madame Guyon which I am hoping will tie all this back into where we started:
Prayer is the key of perfection and of sovereign happiness; it is the efficacious means of getting rid of all vices and of acquiring all virtues; for the way to become perfect is to live in the presence of God. He tells us this Himself: “walk before me, and be thou perfect” Genesis 17:1. Prayer alone can bring you into His presence, and keep you there continually.”
Hanging on that cross in his most difficult hour Jesus does this very thing. He prays. And from this prayer to the Father in heaven he draws the strength he needs to endure the cross he knows he must bear. But we still haven’t answered that most difficult question. We still haven’t come to a conclusion about how to balance submission to the suffering God sends us and the advice he has given us to pray for the relief of the very same suffering. What a paradox this is and I think it is only fair to tell you now that I don’t have a grand answer to give you at the end of all this. I don’t know, it is something I struggle with all the time. It is a question that plagues my mind whenever times get rough. But I do believe, just as Madame Guyon said, that prayer is essential. Whether we are praying for things to change or praying for strength to endure the situation, whether we are praying for guidance about where to go next or simply offering prayers of gratitude, prayer is essential. We rarely know what is best and so while it can be beneficial to wonder about the nature of God and why he created a world full of suffering we must always be willing to turn back to that place of humble prayer. It is in generous submission to the difficulties life presents that we are able to find that deep eternal peace which resides within the very fabric of our souls. And it is in this peace that we are able to realize that what is good or bad is not what is painful or pleasant. That our own comfort is not the highest goal. That we are much better off to be close to God than to live a life that is soft and high.
I think that we should always give our prayers to God in complete honesty. When I pray I pour my heart out, I tell God what I am feeling, what I am experiencing, what I want, what I think I need, what makes me happy and what makes me sad. After I have told God all the things I think I need I acknowledge that I would rather have what God thinks is best for me, as he surely knows better than I do. And I pray that I learn from the hardships I am experiencing, so that the adversity may serve to break down my hard exterior and open my heart to the spirit of God that I may be like the kernel of wheat and die to myself so that I may live the more beautiful life which is to come.
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