Sharing His Suffering and Choosing His Way: Memorializing The Life Ethic of John Paul II

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Sharing His Suffering and Choosing His Way: Memorializing The Life Ethic of John Paul II

In mid-February I was deathly sick, or so it felt. I’d been ill for three weeks with this season’s flu bug—feverish, nauseous, vomiting for a 24-hour stretch, with an intense, continuous headache, and a flaring pain throughout my body. I hated it.  Sickness is so self-absorbing. I was always scanning my illness, hyperconscious of the ongoing flares of my pains and discomforts. I was in constant internal complaint about my inability to escape pain and suffering. I worried incessantly about my diseased heart, imagining that it was going to quit on me. I engaged in a stubborn self-pity because when I get sick on top of my chronic heart disease, I think I should receive special succor—I am due special care.

I fought a lot of depressive and intrusive “stinking thinking”—especially a hopeless/helpless/worthless cynicism that accuses me of suffering, not for God, but because of my own sins. I am plagued by the thought that even when I am well I am still badly diseased and battle with chronic pain. I was disconsolate, and seemed uniquely vulnerable to the devil. I was definitely not fun to be around, as my family could readily attest. I vacillated between succumbing to the despair of it all and praying to God to release me from it and make me well in body, mind, and spirit. Well is good, normal, desirable—sick is not.

Then again…  I was reading Peggy Noonan’s column (2-10-05, Wall Street Journal every Thursday)—one of the best and brightest storytellers of our age—who revealed her audience with the pope in July of 2003. She believes he was a modern-day saint. His love for and devotion to Christ was extraordinary—he who said that ‘Christ is the answer to the question that exists in the form of every human being.’ Though we evangelicals would raise numerous questions about his Mariology and insistence on Catholic authority, he was John Paul the Great—worthy of emulation by all godly people.  It was during this audience in Rome that she began to see him differently, to learn from him some deeper lessons about life and the meaning of suffering.  “… as I watched him I realized I did not see him as ill and frail [with Parkinson’s disease].

I thought: he is a victim soul. His suffering has meaning. He is teaching us something through his pain… God loves us, his love is all around us, he made us to love him and play with him and serve him and be happy… I know a woman who once worked with the retarded. The Down syndrome children would ask her to comb her long blond hair, and then they’d get lost in it, lost in the beauty of it. They touched it and patted it and walked through it like curtains. It takes a kind of spiritual genius to know a hunk of long blond hair is heaven. They knew. The pope knows they know… His suffering is his witness. It has a purpose. It is telling us something… He is telling us it is important in an age like ours to honor the suffering of the old and the infirm. He wants us to know they have a place in life and a purpose. He not only says this; he lives it. He was an actor as a youth; he teaches by doing and showing, by being. His suffering is a drama he is living out quite deliberately. John Paul stands for life, for all of life.


He wants to honor what the world does not honor.”  Oh, how timelessly true. The world only honors what we all want—what we all tend to worship and pursue and glorify, even in the Church—health, wellness, vitality, and abundance. No one wants to suffer, nor do we want to be confronted by those who do suffer. None of us are naturally attuned to learn from—to be quiet and comfortable in the presence of—the suffering, the infirm, the poor and the broken.  We readily embrace something akin to the prayer of Jabez—“O Lord, bless me, and fill up my life with joy and abundance.” We are naturally drawn to worship at the altar of comfort and success, even if outwardly we mouth platitudes toward God. Sadly, we just as readily eschew the cross, and turn away from the call to take it up daily. God himself must enable us to this level of maturity.

And He does so by blessing us with the gift of suffering—a gift that the priest from Krakow knew very well.  I often wonder if that is why so many in the modern church are so carnal, so spiritually immature. We want the Life of Christ, we are dedicated to His Truth, but we blanche at the challenge of His Way. His way is the way of suffering, the way of the Cross.  Who wants to die? I don’t. None of us do, naturally. But I am stunted in my walk of faith when I fail to see through the death that is inevitable—that death to the Kingdom of Self must happen to make room for the eternal alternative that God so desires to plant within. I ensure immaturity and reinforce carnality when I fixate on the pain and suffering of death and refuse to allow God to show me the wondrous life on the other side. And that life is Christ in all His resurrection glory.  He beckons me with His still, steady voice.

It is a voice full of love and grace—full of life. I will hear it audibly someday, as I stop to hear it now in the They say he asked that his heart be removed from his body and buried in Poland. That sounds right, and I hope it’s true. They’d better get a big box. Peggy Noonan ear of my heart. If I would just fixate on His loving voice—as all true saints have surely learned to do—I would embrace my suffering… I would see my infirmities as sharing in the fellowship of His suffering, a fellowship that also shares in the joy and wonder of His resurrection Life. This I am learning, albeit too slowly, too late…  _Oh God, help me to become hungry for that life above all else… and to be willing to die to everything else that gets in the way of You living completely in me._ The Psalmist understood this way, the way of spiritual refinement. Though God “laid affliction” on his back, though he went through “fire and water,” God also delivered him “out to rich fulfillment.” Though broken and in great trouble, the Psalmist “…cried to him with my mouth, and He was exalted with my tongue” (Ps. 66:10-12, 17). Paul revealed that he died daily (1 Cor. 15:31).

Therefore he was also able to confess that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).  The late pope—who astonished his attendants every day by the way he spent hours on his knees and on his face in groaning, sighing, intensive, rapturous prayer—also knew this way. Peggy Noonan also referred to her friend George Weigel’s description of the pope as a man with a Carmelite soul. (Weigel has written a wonderful biography of the late pope—Witness to Hope.) Catholic readers will understand this to refer to the mystical sense of universal connection that the pope felt with all suffering believers—and with Christ himself.  It is the same spirit that the late Henri Nouwen delighted in when he admitted how blessed he was to move from Harvard’s shallow arrogance (not his words, but mine, as he was so much more gracious in willingly resigning his world-renown academic post) to go and care for retarded and disabled men in a Catholic servant community in Canada.

It is a spirit that seems to infuse all true saints and disciples— the very Spirit of Christ Himself. It is the same Spirit that He delightfully gives to all who love Him above all else, who seek Him more than anything else.  _Oh God, fill me up with that same spirit— with Your Holy Spirit—for it is the spirit of love and life itself. I don’t deserve it, I cannot earn it, and it comes only because I ask and You want to give it._ Tim’s dad, Pastor James Clinton, also lives in this supernatural zone of redeemed suffering. His body is wracked with a consuming cancer, he has lost nearly 50 pounds, and his pain can hardly be touched with the strongest pain medicines. As he stated in The Soul Care Bible, “When the storms assault us, we may find it difficult to trust in what we cannot see, to believe in what God has promised. During those times it takes courage to lean on the invisible God… [but] God’s certain promises give us hope and comfort.”

This is the testimony of everyone who visits him in Pennsylvania. They return to Virginia blessed by his concern and care for them, by the hope and comfort of God that he still communicates to them in spite of his awful suffering. Though he lives in pain that would easily justify a deeply withdrawn self-absorption, Pastor Clinton delights in the presence of others, and continues to make others feel special and to pronounce blessings upon them.  It is not that suffering itself should be embraced or desired—I am not advocating for the absurd here—but that all should recognize and accept that it can’t be avoided in this life, on this side of heaven. Again, in The Soul Care Bible, Dan Allender sums up beautifully the redemptive power of suffering:  _“Despite its painfulness, suffering can be very valuable. Suffering clarifies what the heart truly worships, especially when the pain is unexplained and unabated. Do we worship the idea of deliverance, or the Deliverer? Suffering also purifies the heart by deepening the desire for the day when all tears will be wiped away.

Our growing discontent with the sin and evil in this world increases our hopefulness for heaven. Suffering not only clarifies and purifies, but it also motivates the heart to action. If we see a child cry, we offer tenderness. If we see the wounds of a victim, we offer solace. Human suffering arouses anger, invigorates action and, as a result, enables us to push back some of the darkness of the Fall. Suffering humanizes the heart and increase our hunger for God.”_ This is one of the great gifts of redeemed suffering—its ability to make us more caring and compassionate, less harsh and judgmental. It is the royal road to intimate identification with Christ, the surest experience that conforms to His suffering, transforming us into His very image. And I am convinced that one of the best cures to judgmentalism—to spiritual pride and hardness of heart— is to suffer the same infirmity that we were once so judgmental about.  Suffering—and the serene joy it brings—is His gift to all who love and obey Him. He gave it daily to the pope, who sought it constantly in prayer. He gives it daily to Pastor Clinton. He gives it freely to all who suffer.

Do you suffer, right now? Are you seeking—not just to be free of it—but also to know and be transformed by God’s redemptive gift in the midst of it? Learn from and follow the model of John Paul II and Pastor Clinton. They are showing us the way of Christ.  It is now April , and spring is revving up. The whole world recently watched in awe as the pope slipped peacefully into the arms of his Lord. As he showed the world how to live in his 26 years of a most amazing papacy, he also showed us all how to die—with dignity, with courage and without regrets. It was a wondrous spectacle to behold, especially since Terri Schiavo also died the same week.  What an incredible contrast, these two deaths intersecting at the same time, with both being displayed so prominently on the world stage. Though both were Catholic, one died rightly, while the other died grievously, involuntarily, suspiciously, murderously. One can sense God giving the entire world a deeply contrasting display of death—a papal death in Rome that was filled with honor, and a judge-ordered death in America that was filled with agony.  Let us be clear about the one death that reflected the disturbing values of the culture of death. These values are toxic and should be rejected and resisted in every way possible.

The other death revealed the joy and anticipation that comes from the culture of life. Let’s embrace and proclaim this way, and the values that John Paul II taught us and gave to us (as he also gave us the phrase, “the culture of life”).  So many of us personally judge it too costly and therefore refuse to reject the world and its way of death in order to fully embrace Christ and His way of life. No doubt, in much of the American church, this is another reason for its worldliness and spiritual immaturity. Yet this kind of cost/benefit analysis is surely corrupted, as are attempts to have it both ways, to live with feet firmly planted in both the Church and in the world. Eventually such attempts collapse and all are forced to choose, including recognizing that continued attempts to have it both ways is a choice against the way of Christ. God loves us so much and is so dedicated to see that we encounter His Truth that He will ‘spit in the soup’ of every lie and delusion we try to maintain.  Yes, there is a real cost to following Christ, and sometimes it is very steep. Sometimes it will cost us our very lives. More and more Christians are tortured and killed for the testimony of their faith in a world bristling with hostility toward the Lamb of God.  But does not God make it clear that we cannot hold onto to any of these things to which we attribute such high value—fame, fortune, power, prestige— the secret desires for people and things we can’t have? And in this modern age, refusing to trust God with it, so many people are so determined to be in complete control of their own life and death.

Tragically, however, in a culture of death, we are rapidly witnessing the demanded right-to-die morphing into a grotesque duty-to-die that will soon shake us to our very foundations. So since all will be lost to us anyway, at or before our death, why not yield these things up willingly when God beckons?  Further clouding our ability to do redeemed analysis and make courageous choices is that we rarely understand or properly value the joy, the peace, the invisible, internal (and eternal!!) gain on the benefit side of this godly equation. God proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven is ours to be realized NOW—if we would merely let go of the corrupt but sparkling things of the world that we can’t hold onto anyway, and grasp this new life ethic by faith.  No doubt every one of us has some thing (and too many of us have too many things) in our lives that, like the rich young ruler, we hesitate to give up when Christ calls. Yet if we would merely meditate on how temporal, how inevitable is the loss of that thing eventually… And if we would consider how rich our lives would be if we would just radically sell out to Him—and how lasting are the riches that Christ gives us…

_Oh God, give me the light to see your call and its consequences more clearly than ever before. Please God, give me the courage to choose rightly, to choose your way of life._ In the life and death of John Paul II, God seems to be making this choice very clear to the whole world. Instead of living out our usual muddle where Truth is lost or confused in myriad shades of gray, the contrast is stark right now between life and death, between good and evil, between His way and the way we think is so good, but is merely a vaporous dream, a chimera, a sweetsounding lie…  Over two billion people witnessed his funeral—the largest television event in history. God seems to be making His word—the same word he gave to the Israelites through Moses as they were crossing the Jordan and coming into the Promised Land—come alive right now for all people:  “For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven… Nor is it beyond the sea… But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply… But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish… for I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God and obey His voice; and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…” (Deut. 30: 11-20a).  Such divinely inspired words! Choose life, God challenges us, for He is our life, and the length of our days. Do you sense the intimacy of God, as if He were drawing you close to Him, almost tactile, and His lips were whispering precious things right into your ear? Please reflect on the very nearness of God’s word to you in this passage. Do you also hear the immediacy of God’s call? Today, today, today is the time to hear Him! Today He puts this choice before you and those you love. He is asking you to listen to Him right now, as even tomorrow may be too late.

Today, while the light shines, let us all shake off the sins that beset us, scrape away the scales that blind us, and renew our faith with vigor and perseverance. Today, let us press on to attain all that God has called us to know and have and do in Him. Today, let us fearlessly face our enemies and idols, and boldly proclaim that there is no god but God.  Today, while we are able, let us choose life and work to renew and preserve the remnant of the culture of life that still remains. Today, while their ears are still open, let us teach our children how to honor and observe all the things that God has revealed to us in His Word. Today, let us celebrate life and love and the promise of all good and godly things to come.  Let us do all these things and embrace this ehic of life today… because tomorrow, when darkness descends and death overtakes us, it will surely be too late. Take help from telephone therapist.

_Thank you God for all you do for us, and all You are in us. Give us all a new urgency to hear Your voice and obey Your call. Help us all choose life… today._  _George Ohlschlager, J.D., LCSW, is Senior Editor and Writer of Christian Counseling Today and other AACC publications; and is Executive Director of the American Board of Christian Counselors, the AACCaffiliated national counselor credentialing and program accreditation agency. He chairs the AACC Law & Ethics Committee, maintains a nationwide clinical/ethics/forensic consulting and training practice, and teaches in the Liberty University Center for Counseling and Family Studies, and at St. Petersburg Theological Seminary. George was honored as Consulting Editor to The Soul Care Bible (Thomas Nelson, 2001), and with Tim Clinton, is Executive Editor and co-author of both Competent Christian Counseling (WaterBrook, 2002), and Caring for People God’s Way (Multnomah, in press for 2005)._ is the only online counseling help website that allows clients and counselors to connect online – with no software to download or cumbersome technology!  It seeks to be an excellent information resource for consumers, and to connect prospective counseling clients to counseling professionals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year. Its director is himself trained professional Ryan Thomas Neace.

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