(Short homily delivered at Trinity Theological College, Singapore, 14/10/16)
The description of ‘patience’ and ‘endurance’ in today’s James chapter sounds a lot like a description of faithfulness: we are to stay faithful in our suffering. But how? I have had some truly terrifying moments in my life when it felt like I could not endure anymore and I wished my life would end. How do we keep faith through those times? It seems impossible. Perhaps this is because we have the wrong idea of how to stay faithful, or ‘patient’ in our suffering.
We talk about God being ‘full of faith’, ‘faithful’; and what we mean is that He is committed to relationship with us, no matter what. If faithfulness is a relationship, I think our biggest mistake when it comes to pursuing patience in suffering is trying to endure alone. If you’re like me, you heard this passage in James and read it as an individual, not as a community member. But at the same time, if you’re like me, some of the moments of true encouragement in your faith have been when you have gone from feeling alone to remembering that you are not, because you shared your suffering with someone. The experience of faith is not meant to be a solitary one. As Christians, we have put our faith in the only person – the Son of Man – who ever suffered completely alone – and He has not permitted anyone to suffer alone since.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 16, after a series of traumatic events. I have been on different forms of medication for anxiety and depression ever since. One of the hardest things about depression is how alone it makes you feel – even when you’re not. People seem like strangers – you fear that they are distant, and then you want them to be. There comes a point when you start feeling guilty for even existing. There is this feeling of disconnectedness to the rest of the world, a longing to feel part of it in a way you don’t feel you are. A wall of numbness seems to separate you from everyone else. And sometimes people in the church have reinforced that loneliness, with their fear of my diagnosis, or their unwillingness to understand, or their advice to just pray more, and harder, and to have more faith, and all will be healed. But I have also been surrounded by Christians who have allowed me to name my depression as it is, and they have loved me. Their willingness to take some share of my pain was a covenant, a promise to love me, even though it was no light burden that they were offering to carry. We must not only be patient in our own sufferings, but patient in bearing the sufferings of others. We are never alone, and as Christians we can remind each other that God is there: there is no ‘I’ in our endurance of suffering.
God comes to us gently, with human hands that hold us when we cry, and it is only later that we realise that God was there in the touch of others. That is not to say that humans can replace the divine. But we can present the divine to each other. If we are to be the body of Christ, then that seems exactly what we are called to do. Loving those suffering begins in being willing to listen without restriction as they share pain, and trusting that God is present with us.
Imagine the loss of God’s presence! Jesus’ suffering on the cross was under true conditions of utter loneliness: no one with whom to share his pain – not even his heavenly Father, in the end. Picture the world’s suffering on His shoulders, unable to tell even His closest friends the huge burden He bears. And, worst of all, the one person who might know, who might hear, who might share in this torment, has shut the door: Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani. The door of God had never been shut before. Praise be to God, the door has never been shut since.
In some ways, the love I have received in the midst of my mental illness has convinced me of this. God’s door has never been shut for us. Sometimes it is hard to see it open, because we convince ourselves that the door should look like cosmic signs instead of human faces. But if the Door of God can be found in the comfort of human touch – if Christ can be found in human arms and hands – we are not only able to stand like welcomed beggars before the Door, clutching our suffering and knowing that it will be received, but we are able to help each other come to the Door of God. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” What a privilege! May we all learn what a privilege it is to bear with each other as we seek patience in suffering!