I’ve studied theology academically for about six of the past eight years. I’ve read, contemplated, and written about the theology of suffering at various times throughout those years. It was fun, interesting, and intellectually stimulating. Experiencing its true meaning has been excruciating. The talk of faith is certainly much easier than the sometimes crippling walk of faith, but what good is all the learning if I am unwilling or cannot pass a test? My most important and fruitful faith lessons continue to come, not through professors and books, but through the agonizing lessons of life which seem to advance in difficulties as I advance in stage.
Think about the simple, happy days in elementary school, the complications of high school, the rigors of college, and the challenges of graduate school. My faith education has progressed in a similar manner from simple, happy days to some very real challenges, which, in retrospect, were all necessary and appropriate for each particular stage. Like the difficult tests, lengthy papers, and demanding projects in college, my more advanced tests of faith have frequently been quite painful. Sure, there were times of guidance that came through grace-filled moments of peaceful prayer and experiences of enlightenment in joyful periods in my early days of learning, but education typically becomes more difficult as we advance. We expect that, right?
The past month has been pure hell, and many have attempted to point me towards my faith for support. Someone specifically reminded me about my religion’s teachings and my theological education on the redemptive value of suffering. It felt a bit like Charlie Brown’s teacher at that particular moment as I listened and attempted to recollect my education while paralyzed by mental fatigue, fear and deep emotional pain: “Wah wah wah Wah wah Wah wah wah Wah wah.” My mind could not find comfort in the words of the catechism, the biblical commentaries, or the classes at the seminary. Actually it all seemed quite cold and abstract. I thought, “Who really cares about fanciful theories and words devoid of feeling when I’m in the midst of intense suffering?” My subconscious replied: “The Word became flesh.”
Theology is simply “faith seeking understanding.” If I want to understand my faith, what better way is there than for me to experience it? Perhaps the Word became flesh because we cannot learn what we need to learn through words but through life, and the Way was agonizing, the Truth was painful, and the Life was sometimes excruciating. The lessons of the Word made flesh advanced from the happy days of Christmas to the challenges of Good Friday. That I can feel, relate to, and learn from.
I’m exactly where I need to be at this advanced stage of faith — crying out with arms open wide willing to experience and receive the pain with no questions asked. That’s the experience and the ultimate test of faith that I must be willing to take. If you think about it, it’s like an open book test. The answers have been given — the Word has been made flesh.
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