Fifty-six years ago John Lewis used a whites-only restroom in Jackson, Mississippi. Police arrested him and authorities sent him to Parchman Prison. Parchman is the state’s only maximum security prison for men.
Lewis entered that restroom to protest racism in America. He knew that arrest and imprisonment would probably follow. In the segregated South, black men and even children had been lynched for less.
For the sake of justice Lewis willingly endured suffering. His life offers an inspiring example to others because he lives by a counterintuitive truth.
Life’s meaning emerges most clearly when we know what we are willing to suffer for.
Congressman Lewis learned this truth from Jesus. And what Jesus teaches about suffering convinces me that he’s worth following.
I recognize that, for my atheist and agnostic friends, suffering provides the strongest available argument against belief in God. Well, maybe the second strongest argument after Christian hypocrisy, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Let me be clear. Jesus never tries to square all the suffering in the world with a loving God. Instead, he clearly faces the truth that everybody suffers.
As Jesus puts it, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) Faith does not give anybody a get-out-of-misery-free card.
Jesus does not teach us how to avoid suffering. He teaches us how suffering is involved in making life meaningful. His teaching is summarized in two brief sayings that initially seem difficult to reconcile:
My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24b)
In other words, we will find comfort and peace in the teachings of Jesus. At the same time, following Jesus involves taking harrowing risks and making significant sacrifices. A story involving John the Baptist illustrates how these teachings complement each other .
After Jesus’ ministry has gotten serious traction, John the Baptist finds himself languishing in prison. It’s bad enough to be stuck in Herod’s moldy, rat-infested basement. But John realized that he wouldn’t leave the palace grounds with his head attached.
John’s blunt criticisms of the establishment and his fierce confrontations with the rich and powerful had landed him in a cell. He had called Israel to a better way. A way that he believed right down to his sandals was God’s way. After all, he had gotten it from Scripture.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Care for the widow and the orphan. Do not enrich yourself at the expense of others. Oppress no one with force of arms and the threat of violence. Welcome the stranger and the foreigner. Ensure that everyone has a way to make a decent life for themselves.
For his efforts he was rotting in jail and facing a grisly execution.
Staring at the walls and fighting back images of the chopping block, John started wondering, “Was it worth it?”
And so, he sends his followers to Jesus. He wants to know, “Are you the one?” Is God really going to make justice happen? Or am I suffering for nothing? (Matthew 11:3)
Jesus answers by pointing to his works. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:5)
I take his meaning to be something like this: Would your life be worth living if you didn’t do whatever it takes to pursue the dream of God’s justice for all?
Sure, you could play it safe. You might save your life by keeping your mouth shut. By going along to get along. But in a more significant sense, you would lose your life. You would become a hollow soul. Filled with regret and fear and shame.
Knowing the dream for which you will suffer—for which you will make sacrifices—gives your life clarity and purpose. You can live comfortably in your own skin.
Conversely, forsaking your dream for a paycheck or social approval or personal safety withers the soul. Sister Helen Prejean recently tweeted about a conversation she had with the member of an execution strap-down team. He said to her, “What am I supposed to tell my kids when I get home?” Later, the man quit the job.
Jesus isn’t about playing it safe. He urges us to follow him on the way of the cross. Paradoxically, it is the only way to a life worth living. To eternal life.