Perhaps one of the more confusing ideas that is repeated often in the Bible is the exhortation to “rejoice in one’s sufferings.” Both the Apostle Paul and James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Early Church in Jerusalem, say it: rejoice in suffering or in testing, because it produces perseverance, endurance, character. We are not born with a desire to suffer in any way, and we’re certainly not encouraged to rejoice in other people’s sufferings, so what does suffering, or challenge, or testing — pick your favorite term for it — what does this have to do with achieving joy?
Suffering is a part of life. We learn that from the first diaper change that we require and the first time our stomach gets empty, and it seems a cruel thing to us, indeed, and it just gets worse from there on. Many are the times that we wish for a world without suffering — no chores, no homework, no long commute to a dreary 9-to-5 job, no nagging spouse or complaining child, no taxes, no constricting rules, no earthquakes or fires or floods or droughts, no disease or hunger, no wars or politics. We want no suffering for ourselves, and (for the most part) we want no suffering for anyone else, either.
And speaking of other people, there’s another reality to contend with: the fact that human beings bump up against each other with dismaying frequency. Sometimes out of inattention or ignorance, sometimes out of a self-centered attempt to avoid their own suffering, sometimes out of meanness, sometimes out of fear or a desire for power or control, and sometimes just simply because everyone is imperfect, we hurt each other. So some of our suffering and trial comes at the hands of other people. And some of our “testing” comes in the form of an opportunity to practice forgiveness.
There are different ways that Romans 5:3 — a particularly challenging verse in our passages for today — is translated. “Boast in sufferings,” “take pride in our problems,” “gladly suffer” … and what is the point? It’s this concept that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, in The Book of Joy, call acceptance. It is “the opposite of resignation and defeat… It allows us to engage with life on its own terms rather than rail against the fact that life is not as we would wish” (pp 223, 225). It is embracing ALL opportunities to grow our character, to increase our capacity to weather difficulty, and particularly, perhaps, our ability to accept other people in all their messiness, to extend grace, not only to others’ imperfections, but to extend grace toward ourselves, accepting and forgiving ourselves and and taking life as it comes.
Comedienne Lily Tomlin has famously said: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
Much as I love that definition, and its humorous bent, the more serious definition I work with is this: give up the (legitimate!) right for revenge.
An ethics professor from Yale writes: “If anger is ever to be right and fitting, two things must be true: first, that people are sometimes blameworthy, and their blameworthiness makes them unattractive and makes them deserve to be hurt; second, that somebody is in a position to judge.” (“Tempering the Spirit of Wrath: Anger and the Christian Life,” Robert C. Roberts.The Christian Century, 1997. At Religion OnLine. My emphasis.)
But since we are never in a position to judge, anger and unforgiveness are never “right and fitting.” The great temptation is to put ourselves in the place of God, to want to be the judge, “to have our own private Eden” as one of my seminary theology professors (the late Dr. Robert Geiser) was fond of saying.
But when we let go of that desire to be the judge, the miraculous thing is, we can look upon our brother or sister and see in them the image of God.
In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama is discussing forgiveness with his friend and he says that, “nobody was born to be cruel.” In fact, in quite a remarkable turnaround of thinking, he says, “there are many reasons to feel a sense of real concern for [the] well-being” of those who harm us, since we believe that there are cosmic negative consequences for such behavior.
Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting the wrong, or not holding people accountable for their actions. In fact, it may mean remembering, very deliberately — but remembering in a different way.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned from the Landmark Forum retreat I went on last year was how much freedom I gain when I give up my “story.” By that I mean what I have told myself (often over and over, refining it with more and more detail) about difficult things that have happened to me. This includes all the self-righteous sense of injustice, the self-victimization, the “poor me” refrains. Letting go of the “story” makes it a whole lot easier to get to forgiveness.
A couple weeks ago I sat in on a dinner conversation during which the topic was the famous “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” on delayed gratification, carried out back in the 1960s and early 70s by Walter Mischel. (Show of hands: who has heard of this? If someone has, they can explain it.) The children who had figured out how to manage this, even a little bit, by the age of 4 or 5, were found, in the 40 year-long follow up study, to be the more successful in life by a number of measures. My conversation partners remarked that this ability is not easily taught; it is modeled and then somehow internally embraced, and everything changes as a result.
The ability to accept and forgive is like this, as well.
Many researchers have done follow-ups on The Marshmallow Experiment to demonstrate that there were other factors at play in the original scenario. They also posit that there are ways one can grow in the ability to delay gratification. An environment in which adults are reliable and honor their promises has been shown to increase the likelihood that kids will perform well in the marshmallow challenge — and from this it’s been inferred that people can also teach themselves to delay gratification — in areas of health and fitness, for example — by taking small, regular steps that reinforce two messages: 1) Yes, it’s worth the wait; and 2) Yes, I have the ability to do this. (In case you are interested in these matters, I’ll include a couple links when I post my sermon to our website — https://jamesclear.com/delayed-gratification; https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/what-the-marshmallow-test-really-teaches-about-self-control/380673/)
I think that acceptance and forgiveness are also skills or practices that are initially learned by watching other people do them — and that have a long-term impact on our “success” in life, although that may not look like the things measured by the Marshmallow Experiment follow-up. It may not add up to a higher SAT score, completing college or a higher income (although I would not rule that out); but it might add up to higher quality relationships, and perhaps even a longer life. Acceptance and forgiveness are also practices that can be learned in steps, starting with easier things and building up to the more challenging things. Perhaps you start with something like traffic, accepting the reality of a delay and forgiving the person who cut you off, because you stop and put yourself in someone’s shoes. Maybe you start with a practice like that before you tackle a matter like accepting a diagnosis or forgiving a person who hurt or abandoned you. Life provides ample opportunities for “small step practice,” if we look for them.
The letter to the Colossians’ command to “Clothe yourselves” with these qualities implies that acting this way is a choice. And there’s nothing too small to lift up to God. God is ready to help with every step, ready to listen, ready to invite us to move forward past our “stories” and into joy.
Some final words from the Dalai Lama — and as you listen, you might remember the injustices that he and his Tibetan people have suffered at the hands of the Chinese government, which make his words all the more powerful:
You cannot control your neighbor, but you do have some control over your thoughts and feelings. Instead of anger, instead of hatred, instead of fear, you can cultivate compassion for them, you can cultivate kindness toward them, you can cultivate warmheartedness toward them… In time, maybe they will become less difficult. Maybe not. This you cannot control, but you will have your peace of mind. You will be able to be joyful and happy whether your neighbor becomes less difficult or not.”
Because forgiveness is one of the most challenging skills to master, and it takes practice, I’d like to read a longer piece from the appendix of The Book of Joy, instructions by the Archbishop and his daughter Mpho Tutu called “The Fourfold Path of Forgiveness.”
The first step is telling your story — writing in a journal or telling a trusted friend about the hurtful thing that happened. As you do so, however, “imagine that you are watching the event happen in a movie” so as to “avoid retraumatizing yourself.”
Next, name your hurt — again, as if it were happening to someone else. (Read questions from p. 335)
The third step affirms that “inevitably, because we are human we hurt and are hurt by one another.” Ask yourself: “Can you accept the humanity of the person who hurt you and the fact that they likely hurt you out of their own suffering?”
Fourth, “Once you have forgiven someone, you must make the important decision of whether you want to renew the relationship or release it… When we release the relationship, we can move on, especially if we can truly wish the best for the person who has harmed us, and recognize that they, like us, simply want to avoid suffering and be happy in their life.”
If you want to talk more about this practice, feel free to make an appointment with me.
Acceptance of the difficult things that happen to us — whether they seem to have a cause, or not, whether they come at the hands of another, or not — is a key to living a full life. In his summary of the entire visit, Doug Abrams writes what he learned from the two great teachers:
There is no joy without sorrow, that in fact it is the pain, the suffering that allows us to experience and appreciate the hoy. Inseed, the more we turn toward the suffering, our own and other, the more we can turn toward the joy. We accept them both, turning the volume of life up, or we turn our backs on life itself, becoming deaf to its music.
It reminds me of the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians — and I’d like you to read them with me:
I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. Amen.
Creative Commons licensed photo by Designed4Art,