Partaking of the Sufferings

And our hope of you is steadfast knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation (2 Cor. 1:7).

In a world that is ever plagued by deceit and cruelty, suffering seems unavoidable. Yet Paul in this verse implies that suffering is optional: one may choose to partake of the sufferings or refuse to partake; one may accept or reject suffering. How is it possible to refuse to suffer when loss, injury, abuse, and death come to everyone? Not only does Paul advocate partaking of the sufferings, he makes being “of the consolation” contingent upon it. Assuming Paul is correct that salvation follows a partaking of suffering and this partaking is not automatic but must be chosen, the meaning of the phrase “partakers of the sufferings” is worth looking into.

A feeling of diminishment, whether from loss or the fear of loss, comes into every life, and we are free to respond in any number of ways. Paul advocates for a particular handling of these feelings, in such a way that we are prepared to receive the consolation of Christ, and he also implies that a contrary approach does not lead to receiving Christ. Examples of each will illustrate the difference between the two, and so, I will present the approach of first-generation Friends by looking at some passages from George Fox’s Journal that document his early years. Before doing so, however, I’ll present a diametrically opposed approach to that of the first Friends. This contrasting ethos is embodied in Roman Carnival revelers of the nineteenth century. Though these two approaches differ, the challenge that each group faced was the same, and is, in fact, universal.

It was once a custom among the inhabitants of Rome to celebrate Carnival in the time before Lent. The word “Carnival” is drawn from its Latin root carnem levare and means “remove the meat.” The Latin root has also given us the word “carnal,” which is used in Scripture to signify that which is not spiritual; “fleshly” and “worldly” being synonyms. The distinction is made clear by early Friend Edward Burrough in the following passage in which he refers to Paul’s use of the word “carnal”:

If they be not carnal, then they are spiritual…things seen…are temporal and carnal;   and what is temporal is not eternal, nor spirit. The apostle speaks of “carnal        weapons,” 2 Cor. 10:4, and “carnal ordinances,” Heb. 9:10 (Works, 3:78).

Carnival was a time of self-indulgent and thoughtless behavior, a time of personal display, extravagance, masquerades, contests, and parties. On the final night of Carnival, Romans crowded into the main thoroughfare of their city to play a game called “Moccoletti” in which each celebrant lit and carried a candle. The goal of Moccoletti was to extinguish another’s flame while keeping one’s own burning. Any ploy, subterfuge, or fraud was to be expected in this contest, as there were no rules. Charles Dickens in Pictures from Italy describes the scene:

Then everybody present has but one engrossing object, that is, to extinguish other people’s candles and to keep his own alight; and everybody: man, woman, or           child, gentleman or lady, prince or peasant, native or foreigner yells and screams,    and roars incessantly, as a taunt to the subdued, “Senza Moccolo, Senza Moccolo!” (Without a light! Without a light!) until nothing is heard but a gigantic chorus of those two words, mingled with peals of laughter.

At midnight with the ringing of church bells throughout the city, Moccoletti was over; Carnival was finished and Lent began. At that moment, the highest contrast in behavior could be observed: the frenzy of Moccoletti vanished into the somber season of Lent. Dickens describes the abrupt changeover in this way:

When in the wildest enthusiasm of the cry, and fullest ecstasy of the sport, the Ave Maria rings from the church steeples, and the Carnival is over in an instant—put out like a taper with a breath!

Since first learning many years ago of this Roman Carnival practice, I have thought of it as a metaphor for the spiritually darkened, routine happenings in our world that result from a prevailing “carnal” or worldly approach to being alive; and conversely, Lent, which immediately follows Carnival, as its antithesis. Lent occurs in the 40 days preceding Easter and is a time of socially enforced asceticism, in which participants refrain from self-indulgence, reflect upon their misdeeds, and thus come to feel a heightened sense of personal emptiness, absence, and need. It is a time of penitence, of thoughtful self-scrutiny. That the two seasons of Carnival and Lent abut is no accident; the stark difference between their respective worldviews is accentuated by their proximity: the natural, mundane life followed by a disciplined restraint that would prepare for some new and better way of life, a way yet unknown to either the carnal-minded or the ascetic.

Two centuries before Dickens wrote about the Roman Carnival, the seventeenth-century men and women that would bring forth the Quaker movement had been engaged in something like a Lenten practice. George Fox and others subjected themselves to rigorous self-examination that was, in fact, the awareness the Lenten discipline was intended to evoke. That Friends opted to undergo this self-scrutiny in the absence of any cultural prod vouches for their having been guided not by a culturally religious prescription but by “the light of [their] nature,” as Paul describes some Gentiles in the book of Romans. They were

their own law, for they display[ed] the effect of the law inscribed on their hearts. Their conscience [was] called as witness, and their own thoughts argue[d] the case on either side, against them or even for them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus (Rom. 2:14-16 NEB).

Both the Gentiles that Paul refers to in these verses and the early Quakers subjected themselves to the dictate of the pure law of God:

the light in the conscience before faith. And the law is the light and the      schoolmaster until faith…men have this light before they believe in it, and are         children….then afterwards [to] believe in it; and with it they see the author of their       faith, Christ Jesus, from whom it comes” (Works, 3:68).

This standard of righteousness (the law, the light in the conscience, the schoolmaster) when attended to and learned from does ensure that all that must happen, will happen:

Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete. I tell you this: so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law until all that must happen has happened (Mt. 5:17-18 NEB).

In the first few pages of George Fox’s Journal, we learn of his attention to righteous behavior. Before he had received faith from Christ, he diligently attended to the light in his conscience, the schoolmaster. He speaks of his early memories of feeling offended at seeing “old men carry themselves lightly and wantonly towards each other” (Nickalls, 1) and of his aversion to “foul ways and devouring the creation”:

But people being strangers to the covenant of life with God, they eat and drink to         make themselves wanton with the creatures, devouring them upon their own lusts,     and living in all filthiness, loving foul ways and devouring the creation; and all           this in the world, in the pollutions thereof, without God; and therefore I was to             shun all such (2).

Unlike the Roman populace, Fox felt repulsed by self-indulgent, corrupt behavior, and instead was drawn to behaving in a way that is in “unity with the creation.” Those who attended to the light in their consciences were, says Paul, “their own law.” Within themselves, there would be an honest struggle to discover and live by what was right, even if it required inner conflict: “their own thoughts argue the case on either side against or even for them.” Fox engaged in such conscientious self-questioning and argument, as here is shown:

And I wondered why these things should come to me….Then I thought, because I         had forsaken my relations I had done amiss against them; so I was brought to call      to mind all my time that I had spent and to consider whether I had wronged any….I was about twenty years of age when these exercises came upon me, and some years I continued in that condition, in great trouble; and fain I would have put it from me (Nickalls, 4).

He “would have put it from [him]” because his self-questioning was troublesome, painful to the point of despair. Yet he willingly endured this painful uncertainty about himself; he willingly partook of these sufferings, because he could accept no false solution or relief from them: no provisional cultural, social, intellectually speculative, or theological answer could suffice for him: he honored the truth and endured the cost. Neither able to deny his inner reality nor to anticipate any resolution, Fox simply partook of the suffering: “I cannot declare the misery I was in, it was so great and heavy upon me”(10). Unlike most, he endured this severe tension without resorting to hypocrisy, aggression, legalism, conformity, or dissipation. He partook of the suffering that accompanies knowing oneself to be in existential need with no real solution in sight: in truth, he felt and saw himself as he was—without God.

Fox’s misery departed after he had been given faith, immediate knowledge of God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent. At ease in God’s love, Fox could now view himself with equanimity:

Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see his love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can       get by history or books. That love let me see myself, as I was without him; and I  was afraid of all company: for I saw them perfectly, where they were, through the love of God which let  me see myself (Works I: 74) [emphasis mine].

Receiving faith through hearing Christ, the Word of God, was the life-changing event for Fox, and so it is for everyone who follows the same excruciating path of partaking of sufferings. Receiving faith ends the old, worldly order of misery as well as the moral evil that arises from humanity’s determination to muffle and quell the fear of weakness and self-diminishment, the fear of death.

Emil Brunner in The Christian Doctrine of Church, Faith, and the Consummation outlines the inevitable progression from fear of death to wickedness:

Between death and moral evil there is from the standpoint of experience a scarcely comprehensible, but none the less real, relation. Moral evil, in so far as it is not pure defiance but also weakness, is rooted in anxiety, and this anxiety is in the last resort always the fear of death. All insatiable hunger for power, all the cruelty of tyrants, all the timidity of the narrow-minded–what are they but attempts to find security from an unknown threat? Our wickedness–human wickedness–is not so much…a defiant “no” to the Creator’s will as the expression of a latent panic in the face of coming death. Fear of death is the secret cause of moral evil, as death itself is moral evil’s manifest result: “the wages of sin” (437).

Glancing backward to the Roman revelers, we see the crowd pressing each person into keeping a vigilant eye focused outward: One’s stealthy neighbor might put out one’s flame! How humiliating and diminishing that would be! Like a symbolic death! Better to put out another’s flame first! thinks each anxiety-filled reveler.

What abundant conflict is entailed in this routine aggressive/defensive behavior! And what diversion! The conflict–playful here but serious in society, and deadly serious among ethnically diverse societies–keeps people busy and avoiding the hard work of looking within, and each seeing himself as he is. One might occupy oneself indefinitely brandishing and thwarting power for term of life! One might never move beyond this state of sin in which fear of death, and thus death itself has its reign.

If in place of the lit candle of Roman Moccoletti, we substitute rights, property, status, influence, opportunity, dignity, or physical life itself, the senseless conflict in the world arising from fraud, abuse, violence, and war is seen for what it fundamentally is: an outward distraction that enables and promotes the refusal to suffer honest self-scrutiny that is, in truth, the obligation of each human being to undergo. For it is undergoing self-scrutiny that a person prepares himself to receive God’s gift of grace and life.

Fearful defense of  natural assets is just as surely an outward diversion as is the aggressive acquiring of them; therefore are we told: “If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well” (Mt. 5:40). All the aggression and defensiveness  denies and masks the naked truth that we each in our human nature are not complete, not whole, not absolute, not total, not immortal. Shameful as that feels, we need to partake of that knowledge: the revealing of the self that does not know God, and instead lawlessly attempts to usurp His place by claiming our natural being is whole, absolute, independent, autonomous, and in charge.

The problem for the person of sin is a lawless, false self-projection arising from a terror of truth that can be revealed at any moment. In the day of visitation, however, all is revealed:

for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and lawless one is           revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above           every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of         God, declaring himself to be God (2 Thess. 2: 3b-4).

Though it’s not always Carnival season in the mid-1800s, the carnal mind sets itself in the aggressive/defensive posture that is found in the Carnival game, often without an awareness of having done so. For example, many Quakers presume their calling to be working to eliminate social ills that beleaguer our world, and accordingly have focused their attention outward to extend or defend contemporary Quaker values that are referred to as the testimonies. A rationale of improving social conditions through championing causes provides ample assignment to occupy time and consciousness, and substitutes human aspiration to virtue over knowledge of and hearing/obeying response to God.

Neither entertaining diversion nor a focus on social justice work honors or manifests the faith found by Fox and other early Quakers who braved examining their souls in the light of the standard of truth, the divine law. Instead, people refuse to endure the inward scrutiny that reveals the failure of usurped autonomy. Again from The Christian Doctrine of Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Brunner shows the correlation of this false claim to independence and a life given over to death:

When man as a sinner denies his dependence on God and turns it into         independence, he is severed from God, the original source of all life; his guilt   stands between the living God and himself as he actually is. Thus the creature destroys the root of its own life, its fellowship with God. But man is unable utterly to destroy the relation to God which was established by God the Creator. He remains bound to God, but now instead of living in the love of God, he is under God’s wrath….The shadow of judgment lies upon his whole life and makes it a life in darkness, in exile. This life in its totality is in fact a “being unto death.”

William Stringfellow in his An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land identifies all nations, all institutions as embodying a demonic idolatry of death. He argues that a fear and worship of death is the attempt to furnish meaning but results in social chaos in many forms: racism, ecological corruption, misogyny, conformity, violence, etc. This situation can’t be eradicated, he claims, but he does offer guidance on how to live humanly in the midst of it: resistance to the power of death and a “biblical style of life.” The following excerpt from Stringfellow on resisting the power of death would certainly have been agreed to by Fox:

In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word.      Amidst babel, I repeat, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and            falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God.             Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, defend the       Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the         Word of God, expose death and all death’s works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out   demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and            conscience.

It is through a humble willingness to endure the truth of ourselves, even unto the brokenness that is typified by death on the Cross, that we become prepared. This partaking of the sufferings, we discover, is followed by the Lord’s coming to dwell with us, a resurrection to unforeseen, abundant life. No longer do we depend on the powers of nature to vivify and secure ourselves; no longer do we fear the loss of our natural powers, for, as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, the Lord shall be our everlasting light, and the days of mourning shall be ended.

The sun shall no longer be your light by day,

nor the moon shine on you when evening falls;

the Lord shall be your everlasting light,

your God shall be your glory.

Never again shall your sun set

nor your moon withdraw her light;

but the Lord shall be your everlasting light

and the days of your mourning shall be ended. (Isa. 60:19-20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Partaking of the Sufferings

  1. treegestalt says:

    What that Roman game suggests to my mind — is not so much the relatively harmless flaw of attachment to ‘carnal’ goods — but the spiritually crippling blindness of people unable to recognize God’s light at work in unexpected ways in anyone else, feeling obligated to deny any form of that light but what they themselves know.

    [Even William Stringfellow, whom I also admire, assumed (at least at some times in his life) that the intimacy with God he knew was only available to other Christians. In his case, I suspect, this was from a lack of actual contact with his counterparts from other religious traditions.]

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  2. The work of the ministers of the gospel was not to reflect upon persons, or strike at creatures, but they struck at the power which captivated the creature, to the intent that the creature might come into the liberty of the sons of God. And so thou that art reflecting upon persons, dost show a mark of thy being a false prophet; instead of speaking of the power, thou art reflecting upon persons. And this reflecting upon persons was never the way to beget to God;but that which strikes at the power which captivates creatures, reacheth to the witness in prison, and brings people into unity with God and one another in the spirit, which is the bond of peace. (Works, III, 383).

    This passage identifies where Friends worked: not against any particular person, but against the power of death and darkness that held the person captive. In ministering the gospel, Christ, the power of God, Friends (gospel) ministers reached to the witness of God in prison in everyone. Those who loved the light were convicted of their transgressions against it, came out of their opposition, and became convinced. Those who hated the light, and would not come to it that their deeds might be reproved, continued to kick against the pricks.

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