Every preacher faces a choice. One can preach stability, promoting the existing spiritual situation of the congregation. This is preaching what the congregation desires to hear: they are doing well and they are headed for salvation. On the other hand, one can decide to preach transformation, promoting a higher level of spirituality for a congregation so it can recognize the need to move closer to the Triune God. Most congregations do not like to hear preaching that tells them to change, making them uncomfortable with the lives they lead. Transformative preaching takes courage and skill. A quick review of the preaching lives of two historical preachers might put this concept into better focus.
I feel sorry for those Protestants and poorly catechized Catholics that do not understand our concept of redemptive suffering. There are those who teach that suffering is only the result of evil or that God is punishing us for some evil we have done. Both can at times be true but it needn’t be only that. Just as Christ’s suffering on the Holy Cross was due to the sins of mankind and the evil which abides in us (through no fault of His own), ironically, His suffering on the Cross became our soul’s redemption. Our evil was made by Christ to be transformed into our only Good.
That is the mystery and the beauty of that which Christ has shown us; taking objective evil and transforming it into love, grace and goodness. Evil was turned into resplendent Good! Think of it! His example gave us the ultimate instruction as He lovingly embraced His Cross. And it is by His example that we have found that we too may take our sufferings and transform them into redemptive and beautiful acts of goodness and grace. We can offer them up for ourselves and our sins and for others as well, in union with the sufferings of Christ. We become united with Him at His moment of greatest Mercy! Was there ever a more powerful moment in salvation history than this? “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”
The evil that was done was inconceivable and incomprehensible. It was Deicide, plain and simple. We killed God, our Creator and our source of all happiness and joy; the wellspring of life and life eternal. What a callous insult to Him Who loved us more than is imaginable. Christ willed to let Himself, the pure and spotless Lamb of God, to become sin itself, the Sacrifice of sacrifice, thereby redeeming us from our constant sinfulness and disordered lust for those things that simply perish; as dust into the wind.
Catholics had this understanding for ages and the Church has left us numerous role models in our saints and among ordinary faithful Catholics who show us the immense value of redemptive suffering. As a Catholic, I have come to embrace the grace, this unmerited gift, to participate in the Sacrifice of our Lord and Savior.
In times of suffering we become aware that Christ is beckoning us to rely on Him and heed His call to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” It is not an easy task but a glorious task. Though it may be a spiritual, mental, emotional or actual martyrdom in which we participate, we hear Christ as He asked the sons of Zebedee, “Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink?” In this way, He invited us, as it were, to join Him and participate not only in our individual salvation but in that of others. Following those words He exhorted them to serve one another: “he that will be first among you, shall be your servant.”
And so this is the Christian life as Christ revealed it. Denying our selves, carrying our crosses, drinking from the chalice of suffering and serving one another through sacrificial love. It is a radical call to a vocation of selfless service to Christ and to one another without regard for own needs but for the needs of others. Understood in this way our lives have meaning even if we are not capable of work in this world due to childhood, old age, injury or sickness. Through our quiet suffering we can effect great change in the world and do monumental good. Redemptive suffering is the key to combating our eventual agony at the time of death. We can then leave this world as did our Lord before us, offering all we have left to give: our sufferings – and that in itself may be sufficient to gain a glorious crown in heaven.
We live in a moral universe. It is a universe that has choices and values from which we can choose; e.g. love over hatred, obedience over tyranny, or right over wrong. Within this framework our Creator has endowed mankind with freewill in order that he might exercise this freedom rightly and choose the good while rejecting the evil, thereby cooperating with Christ in the salvation of his own soul. This freedom is essential to our faith and without it we would be no different from the beasts or worse yet, relegated to an existence of complete and forced servitude. Suffering and death are necessary in such a universe. For without them, our choices would have no meaning or consequence; Evil would reign eternal with the Good and neither would have more relevance or worth than the other.
Freedom is not, as many are given to believe these days, the right to do whatever we want. It is the right to choose correctly, that which is in accord with our moral standard, which is God Himself. To make ourselves the standard by which we live is to have a fool for a king. It is precisely this type of moral freedom, which is largely responsible for this age of existential tolerance; a philosophy that says we must live in accord with our own individual moral code. We might call it the “I’ve got to be me” or the “I’m OK, you’re OK” syndrome.
God is not the god of tolerance. He is the God of Love. He does not merely tolerate people, but loves, even to His brutal death on the cross, all the human souls that He has created. Pray tell what can be more precious in this universe than our human souls? It is the only thing for which God has deemed important enough to live, suffer and die while clothed beneath His veil of human flesh. Likewise, the primary mission of His Church is precisely the same – the salvation of souls.
It is true that God bears our faults and that we should do the same for our neighbor; for we should imitate God’s zeal for the salvation of souls; for one another’s and especially our own. The sinner must always be loved but the sin must never be accorded tolerance. Do I want my sins tolerated? Or worse yet, do I want to be tolerated? The answer in both cases is no. I want to be loved by God – and by the testimony of our Lord and His Church this desire is assured. By our reciprocal love of God and obedience to faith, our salvation is promised.
Thereby we love the sinner and hate the sin. We recognize that there is good and evil in the world and exercise our freedom to choose the moral over the amoral. We strive to live according to the objective standard, the same standard of our universe, which bears our Creator’s mark. For our Creator is a moral God and His Creation is marked with no less than His indelible seal. There is objective Truth and an objective Morality. We have the freedom to pursue our eternal happiness, which is the sure consequence of our abandonment to God’s Will and our persistent love of Him. For to love His Standard is to love Him who created the universe and all the souls for which He died in order that we might live. Thank the Lord, that God is not a tyrant but a loving Father to whom we owe loving obedience. Praise Him Who loved us first and will not abandon us to our dark desires but bears with us in love that we might freely choose only Him. Thank God for giving us the honor and dignity of living in a moral universe.