Thursday, April 16, 2015

Longsuffering as Creative Victimhood

Near Wilberforce, Ohio
Chapter 1 of Lewis Smedes's Love Within Limits is on 1 Corinthians 14: 4, "love suffers long" (aka "love is patient"). This is a beautiful chapter, written for all who have ever suffered and want to know how to suffer well.

Smedes writes: "Love is an uncommon power to cope with common suffering." (1) Everyone suffers. "Suffering is having to endure what we very much want not to endure." (Ib.) When my son David died Linda and I long-suffered. We wanted him with us, and I wanted the grief of his loss to go away, not only from myself, but from Linda. Suffering means "putting up with." This makes "longsuffering" a minor miracle.

Suffering is to be distinguished from longsuffering. "To suffer is to be a victim; to be longsuffering is in a sense to be free." (2) A longsufferer chooses to live indefinitely with what they hate. This is a paradox, says Smedes, and it is what makes longsuffering "a creative art of living." (Ib.) We determine to live with what we do not want and rejoice in it.

"Longsuffering, therefore, is the power to be a creative victim." (3) It is not passive. "It is a tough, active, aggressive style of life." It requires "power of soul." It is not merely "hanging on," but rather "the power of affirming and creating life in the midst of suffering." (Ib.)

The power to do this is the love of God, which is agape-love. "Agapic love is the liberating power that moves us toward our neighbor with no demand for rewards." (Ib.) Such God-love has the power to be "creatively weak." (4)

There are limits to longsuffering. The longsufferer cries out, "Lord, how long?" Maybe forever. Maybe until tomorrow. Maybe yesterday. "But," says Smedes, "suffering long is not the same as suffering endlessly. There come moments when suffering must stop. There are some things we must hate and reject. There are lines to be drawn. The trick is to know when we have reached the moment to draw the line. God himself draws that line." In this we see the tough side of God. Put another way, this is about "boundaries." (See, e.g., Cloud and Townsend)

"Love suffers some things longer than others." For example, marital infidelity causes great suffering. "Agape is the power to suffer the pains of frustrated and rejected and betrayed erotic love - and it is the power to suffer them long. How long? No one can draw the line. But agapic love is by definition a power that moves us toward another person with no demand for reward. The rule of thumb is this: when I turn off suffering for the sake of my pleasure, I turn it off too soon." (6)

Love is the power to suffer evil for a long time. But we are not called to accept the evil; we are not to capitulate to it so as to escape it. We are not to affirm evil, which accepting it would require. We bear with it even while we reject it. "Longsuffering is the work of love giving us the power to suffer, but not to accept, what is unacceptable." (8)

We are not to praise God for evils that assault us and bring suffering. It might sound religious and pious to do so, but "it is false and offensive to God to praise him for evil." (8) God is not the cause of evil. "God is light and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:15). God gets and desires no credit for evil. Evil, such as cancer, is unacceptable. "God does not want us to affirm the work of his enemy." (9)

As we live in Christ and are empowered by his longsuffering, patient love, we are given, by the Spirit, courage. "Courage is the power to resist assaults on our lives - both negatively and positively. In a negative sense courage is the power to be angry at - indeed, to hate - the evil which assaults us. The person with cancer needs courage to hate the disease that is sapping away his life. The person struck by loss of sight needs courage to hate blindness. The woman who has had a mastectomy needs courage to hate the operation. They must not only be angry, they must not only hate, but they must push that anger and hatred to the surface of their lives and shout to the world: "I hate my cancer."" (9)

It is at this moment that love comes in "as the power to suffer long what we desperately want to go away. Love is the courage to love life and be glad for it. Love is the courage to discover that life is not completely tied to the precious goods we have lost or not yet found." (9)

Longsuffering-as-love never suffers for the mere sake of suffering. Smedes says that "love suffers long so that time can be created for redepmtive powers to do their work, so that justice can be fought for without hasty and needless violence, so that healing and reconciliation may be possible. Love suffers long so that the evil suffered can be done away. Love suffers long so that suffering can finally cease. And when love gives us the power to suffer long, love also gives us the power to see reasons for rejoicing while we suffer." (10)