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Life is Hard,
God is Good:
Suffering Has Meaning

by Tom Everson

As they bounded into the stadium for the third-round playoff game, each member of the football team was screaming, —Redemption, redemption, redemption!— That was the key word for the challenge they faced.

Earlier in the week the word of the moment was —revenge.— The team wanted to erase the memories of a 41-7 defeat at the hands of their playoff opponent during the regular season. It marked the only loss of the season. Now was the time to get back, to rub noses in the dirt, to humiliate the rival team.

How did the word revenge change to redemption?

Enter Coach Nizzi, football coach for Boys Town High School in Nebraska, who didn—t equate victory simply with humiliating the opposition. No, Jesus had given a far better word to describe the challenge. That word is —redemption.—

Define, Please!

Redemption is the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, and your chance to share in it, no matter what your life circumstances are. Redemption is offered by God so that you might fulfill your purpose in life as a Christian.

Redemption means to identify what is scarred, broken and in need of healing in your life. It means to bring these experiences to Jesus and to allow him to mold you into a new creation, to teach you a new way to live.

For the Boys Town football team that night, the experience of redemption became one of openness. Each member gave his all while respecting the fact that the opponents also gave their best. The result? A final score of 15-14.

Who do you think won?

Who—s a Winner?

Who wins and who loses always seems to require scorekeeping. In the eyes of the people of his time, Jesus was no winner. Indeed, it looked as if he was beaten down in death. The crucifixion was the final buzzer.

Jesus had taught over and over that death was never the winner, that death was not final. Yet, many of his closest friends didn—t get the message. They gave up, abandoned him, leaving him to face his greatest opponent alone and in great suffering. They didn—t understand that the road to redemption would first travel through suffering to the point of death.

Redemption Happens! Wouldn—t that be a great bumper sticker? Yet, what would it say to a world that experiences violence in so many ways?

It would be the rare person who, in searching through the family tree, would not hear stories of relatives who lie, cheat, steal, abuse alcohol and other drugs. You may have heard of cousins who committed acts of violence toward other family members, maybe even sexual abuse or the inward-turning violence of suicide.

Whenever you uncover the truth about violence in your own life, and in the lives of family members, you are presented with a choice.

The Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy puts it this way: —I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him— (30:19-20). Redemption begins when you choose to pursue life over death.

Pursuing Life

Athletes often use the phrase, —No pain, no gain.— In this context, it is meant to encourage you to endure the pain of getting in top physical shape in order to be ready to compete.

This philosophy runs counter to the most basic motivating force present in the lives of even the youngest human beings. We all want to move from pain toward pleasure. What good, then, is pain?

Pain lets you know that something is wrong. When you attend to your pain, you can decide to respond to it so that it will go away. Simple examples include taking aspirin for a headache or having your broken bone set. You can address the issue of pain intelligently.

Pain, however, can multiply. Painful event upon painful event can add up to a lifetime of suffering. At this point, suffering differs from pain.

Juanita (a composite of many abused young people) is an example of a person whose pain has crossed the line into suffering. Juanita is a victim of sexual abuse within her family. She has suffered for years. She is filled with questions and doubts: —Why did this happen to me?— —Why do I hate myself?— —If there is a God, how could this happen to me?—

Juanita is sexually acting out with just about every boy who pays any attention to her. She takes drugs to try to escape from both the physical and emotional pain of her life. How can she find redemption in the midst of her suffering?

You can find one answer in John—s Gospel: —In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it— (1:1-5).

These words speak the truth about Jesus— very nature—to be the light in the darkness. As humans, we may be inclined to believe that Jesus is only attracted to goodness in us, to the light in our words and deeds. Jesus also comes our way because we are in the dark.

Jesus— choice to be a light in the darkness is best understood through the central teaching of the New Testament. This teaching is about redemption: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus and our chance to share in it.

By using Jesus as a model for confronting and working through our own suffering, we discover a very useful skill: how to find meaning in suffering. Learning and practicing this skill is to tap into the real power of the Resurrection. That power is best expressed in the following equation: Joy (Resurrection) = Suffering that has been worked through.

This joy is discovered in suffering that has been thoroughly dealt with, not just dumped. Jesus did not toss the cross from his shoulder. Rather, he faced it. In doing so, Jesus gave each of us a new way to look at the purpose of suffering.

Toward the Light

What new purpose does suffering serve? Suffering, in the context of love, can lead to purification and education (new learning). Let—s return to Juanita in order to understand this more fully.

One day, Carla (a composite adult guide) steps into Juanita—s life. She helps her get the proper care that she needs in order to address her suffering.

Carla commits herself to connecting Juanita with the best available resources to promote healing and health. This includes spiritual resources. Carla even commits herself to being a mentor for Juanita in her struggles.

As a result of Carla—s support, Juanita begins to learn about God, about real love, about reading the Bible and about a new way of living. Juanita comes to a point of conversion. This powerful experience of grace changes her entire way of looking at life.

Juanita—s understanding of conversion tells her that she is —in Christ...a new creation— (2 Corinthians 5:17). How does understanding this help her cope with her suffering?

Quite simply, Juanita—s conversion challenges her to embrace the truth about her past. She has, in fact, been sexually abused. She has been a drug abuser. She has engaged in indiscrimate sexual behavior.

Juanita does not feel good about her past. She does not always see hope for a positive tomorrow. Still, Jesus invites her to state these facts, to name these truths, as one important step on the road to healing.

As Juanita walks this road, she must learn new ways to behave and to make decisions. She must change her attitude toward other people if she is to form new relationships built on Christian principles.

When she has honestly faced her past, Juanita must let go of her old ways. They must die. In this way, she begins to make some sense of her suffering. It has helped her begin to live in a new and healthy way.

As Juanita is restored to physical, mental and spiritual health, she experiences real friendships for the first time. After several years of hard work learning new ways to relate to young men, she goes on her first real date. She and her date choose a good movie. Both watch the movie and enjoy the conversation and meal afterward. She is dropped off, thanks her date, shakes his hand and goes inside.

Juanita feels good about herself. She sees concrete changes in her behavior. She is moving beyond living as a victim. She is now beginning to live as a redeemed person, a survivor of past suffering. Juanita has tapped into the healing power of the Resurrection.

Redemption Happens

You may or may not identify directly with Juanita—s experience. Yet no one—s life is exempt from suffering. Whether it is the death of a loved one, a tragic accident that leaves you permanently injured, the divorce of your parents or a broken relationship, every one of us has suffered and will suffer. How, then, can you find meaning in suffering?

The key is to ask and search for the answers to two questions:

1. What did I learn from suffering? Did you learn something meaningful—or something meaningless—from your experience of suffering?

2. How does suffering purify me (change me for the better)?

These questions help you to recognize that there are two distinct ways to approach suffering; one leads to meaning, the other to meaninglessness.

Meaningless suffering tends to ignore these two questions. Such pain is marked by thinking, —Life is unfair,— —I am bad,— —I am powerless.— You may feel hurt, angry, hopeless, depressed and unloved. Your behaviors reflect how you think and feel. You act out violently toward others through words and actions, or toward yourself by using drugs or attempting suicide.

In contrast, meaningful suffering embraces the opportunity to answer these questions. Even in your darkest moments you can find reasons to be hopeful and to recognize that you have power. You look to the present and the future as opportunities to grow. You know that you are loved by God. You learn that some family members, teachers and friends will support you through your trials. You don—t act out violently or wallow in self-pity. You even reach out to others.

Discovering meaning in working through suffering models the actions of Jesus in his passion, death and resurrection. When Jesus was betrayed by Judas and Peter, he did not strike out at them. When he was beaten and crowned with thorns, he did not swear back or fight his tormentors.

On the way to the cross, Jesus accepted help from others. He allowed Simon to carry his cross with him. He allowed a woman to wipe his face. Ask yourself: Who do I allow to help me as I struggle to work through my suffering?

Jesus was then crucified. And how did he respond? He reached out to forgive his executioners, saying, —Father, forgive them, they know not what they do— (Luke 23:34). Jesus modeled the ultimate power of God, of redemption, in forgiving the very people who thought they had the power to have the last word in his life.

Forgiveness is not an easy skill to practice. It often can take much time, even years in the case of abuse victims, to work through the experience of forgiveness. Yet, when that moment arrives, the true power of Christ—s presence is in the hands of the one who forgives, not in the hands of the one who victimizes.

Jesus reached out one last time to the thief hanging on the cross next to him. When this criminal spoke out in defense of Jesus, he was invited to share in the glory of redemption.

When you reach out to others despite your own pain, you are like Christ. You, too, will reflect that light in the darkness, the same darkness Jesus swallowed up by dying, and shattered by rising again.

The Final Score

What of our football game? Coach Nizzi—s charges came out on the short end of the score. They lost a second game to their opponents, though just by one point. So—where—s the redeeming victory in this defeat?

Quite simply, redemption had moved from word to action (and the Word became flesh). The team discovered that they were up to the challenge. They rose up from the humiliation of their first defeat and played their hearts out.

As with the crucifixion of Jesus, the numbers on the scoreboard did not tell the final score. The buzzer may have sounded, but its deeper meaning was just starting to sink in.

The game was over, but a new season in their lives was just beginning. Redemption does indeed happen!

Tom Everson is the director of the Boys Town Center for Adolescent and Family Spirituality. He has been director of religious education at Boys Town and has been a religion teacher and coordinator of youth ministry.

 

Need Help Making Sense
Out of Suffering?

  • Family problems got you down?
  • Pregnant? Nobody to turn to?
  • Being abused or abusing someone?
  • Feeling pressured about sex, drugs, alcohol?
  • Peers hassling you?
  • Boyfriend/girlfriend conflicts?
  • Problems at school?
  • Feel that nobody's listening to you?
  • Thinking about running away?
  • Suicidal thoughts?

You can call the Boys Town National Hotline at (800) 448-3000 24 hours a day, every day. This is the only national hotline that young people (both male and female) and parents can call with problems at any time. Hotline services are free of charge to everyone in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and Canada. Over 500,000 callers contact the hotline each year. Over half of them are 19 years of age or younger.

Callers to the hotline talk to highly trained, professional, sympathetic, understanding counselors who listen and give "right now" answers. Spanish-speaking counselors and access to translation services for more than 100 languages are available 24 hours a day. A TTY line at 10-8900-448-1833 allows counselors to communicate with those who are hearing-impaired.

 

Ashleigh Knoth (14), Leslie Matthewson (15), Tonia Muhlenkamp (14) and Cheri Welling (15), all of St. Anthony Parish in St. Anthony, Ohio, met to critique this issue of Youth Update. Barb Goffena, parish secretary and coordinator of religious education, also joined in.


Q.

How can you move toward redemption with old influences around everywhere?

A.

Good question! To move toward redemption, you must surround yourself with positive influences to form a strong support system to live your Christian faith. This means you need not only to find friends and adult guides who share and support your values, but also learn new ways of dealing with old friends and even family members. In the case of serious abuse, this may mean having to live apart from your family for a time until family members begin to move toward redemption themselves. Listen to the wisdom of Proverbs 13:20: "Walk with wise men [and women] and you will become wise, but the companion of fools will fare badly."

Q.

You don't mention any mess-ups or failures on Juanita's part. When I try to change, sometimes I go backward. How do I make sense of that?

A.

Change does take time. Jesus knew this well. He spent three years teaching 12 people how to live as his followers. They didn't get it right all the time, but Jesus didn't give up on them. Neither does Jesus give up on us as we struggle to master new ways to live. Don't be defeated by failures. Learn from them. Ask God to help you to forgive yourself. Make your apologies and ask forgiveness from people hurt by your actions. Ask God, too, to give you strength and courage to act in a new way. At times like these, it's good to remember one of the lessons of the woman caught in the act of adultery. Jesus said to her—and says to us when we mess up—"Neither do I condemn you....from now on do not sin anymore." In other words, confront your failures and begin again to live in Christlike ways.

Q.

How could I help somebody the way Carla helped Juanita?

A.

Work to be in right relationship with God through prayer, worship, study and applying your Catholic Christian faith to everyday relationships. You can also take advantage of opportunities to learn how to help others. Become educated in helping skills such as how to empathize, listen and refer a person in trouble to competent help (such as the Boys Town Hotline). You may be called to serve in a helping profession as your vocation. If so, pursue courses of education and spiritual direction that will help you to deal with your own challenges in life. In doing so, you put yourself in a position to be of help to others.

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