Suffering for the Wrong Reasons

The Christian life is not an easy one…but then, what life is?

“Life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal,” wrote Longfellow in “A Psalm of Life”. Prophets and preachers can be stung to harshness at the thought of people wasting that one precious life on trivia, when they could be growing in the knowledge and love of God. But I also see a lot of Grape-Nuts religion; woe to you who prefer Frosted Flakes to a bowl of unsweetened gravel, because you are still selfish enough to want God to make you happy. 

That is not the God I am encountering in the Gospels and the Psalms. God is always making promises to people, very concrete ones involving food, shelter, the birth of children, and livestock, as well as the ones we can reframe as acceptably “spiritual”, like justice and salvation. “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

The issue of homosexuality puts this kind of “No pain, no gain” religiosity on display.  Requiring gays to be celibate — the last-ditch response now that the existence of an unchosen, unchangeable gay orientation can no longer be denied — imposes a suffering far greater than lack of sex. It is about depriving a whole class of people, through no fault of their own, of even the hope of a loving family life. Not even single straight Christians, who are remaining chaste until marriage, face this certainty of a lonely future.

The typical response by celibacy advocates is to sidestep all appeals to compassion by saying that every Christian is called to suffer and sacrifice. This is my cross, this is yours, end of discussion. Chris at Betwixt and Between deconstructs this position admirably in his August 6 post; boldface emphasis mine (scroll down; the permalink feature is not working for me right now):

At heart, Christianity is NOT a sado-masochistic religion. It’s not about suffering for suffering sake. Or even “giving up” something. It’s about “responding unto”. It’s about response to the God who is love.

But some straight Christians and gay celibates can sure turn Christianity into that when discussing what is good for gay Christians in general. It often happens through an argument from the extreme case (celibacy) to every particular case….

All too often I run into posts across the internet about gay people and our needing to “give up something”, take up our cross, meaning that we’re automatically called to celibacy in toto. That a little more suffering is a good thing in and of itself even when nothing shows for it. But Christianity is not about suffering for suffering sake, or that a little more suffering will get you closer to God, after all, at heart, our faith makes clear that suffering can destroy and we can do nothing of ourselves to get us closer to God, rather God draweth nigh to us amidst the sundry realities of life, especially in our suffering….

Good and WISE spiritual discernment and direction knows that we have to be careful in determining another’s call or what from they are called to abstain, and even more careful in making carte blanche generalizations for an entire class of persons in this regard, and particularly so, it seems that while it is suspect to draw conclusions from gay individuals who claim celibacy is NOT their call and partner, it seems many heterosexuals are quick to glom on to those gay individuals who claim it is the call of every gay person simply because it’s working for those gay persons….

It’s my opinion that such efforts to make such determinations are ego-driven rather than driven by a concern to love the other as ourselves or to bring them the Good News of Christ Jesus and let the response be truly a working out of God in the gay person’s life. And this egoism can be hidden under all sorts of pious declarations and considerations.

In the case of gay people, I think the want to tell all gay people their calling is celibacy by virtue of being gay, is at heart, so that these people don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable reality of another orientation existing and making space for that orientation as ordinary even if abnormal statistically with appropriate means for the vast ordinary majority in that class to live as such with the possibility of growing in love and virtues. It’s about ego. Even when they see virtues arising from the vast majority of gays who will simply cut down the middle–just like them, in partnership. Give it up! Because the law says… It’s stifling to behold.

It’s like the bottom-line basis by which we discern is taken out from underneath us–fruits of the Spirit (virtues), and stamped on, simply because we’re told, the extreme (celibacy) would show that we truly loved God and would do us better because God requires more of us. And if we have to suffer a bit more. Oh, well! Quit that intimacy with your partner, and then we know you love God. But what if the relationship shatters and virtue slides away? I’ve seen this happen in ex-gay situations when one of the partners gets “saved”. No answer. Or some damn platitude, “Well God has a better plan…” Or another smarm about suffering. But that’s the whole point. Such argument from the extreme to the most of us who are ordinary and not gifted in celibacy can destroy. It’s bad spiritual direction and poor pastoral understanding.

Instead, what is good for us is ascertained by the extreme (celibacy)—well the Desert Elders did some claim for example so why can’t you gays, rather than recognizing most will likely find themselves, just like straights, needing a middle path….A path, partnership, that even many of those, who advocate that we are automatically called to the extreme, recognize leads to virtues. Many who say we should nonetheless take on an extra helping of suffering simply to suffer or to appease God because God calls us to give up the good (for what purpose in toto isn’t clear besides maintaining the rules) nonetheless admit that such partnerships show virtues. Perhaps that which is pleasing to God isn’t simply to increase suffering, but doing that which in a particular life leads to holiness?

…The danger in all of this is that gays will come to understand that the God of Jesus is a body-soul divider, opposes the Spirit to the flesh, a Manichaean God so often the image I get from straight people who make such suggestions but wouldn’t deign to turn that same suggestion on themselves (nor do they offer an equivalent to they’re generalized, “well heterosexuals suffer too” response when queried) or from the gay people who it seems have a vocation to celibacy so they universalize their vocation to all gay people (or the worst, apparently straight people called to celibacy who then have lots of suggestions for the gays while making snide comments about our parnterships)—not some tricky slide, well I give up x, y, z, so you need to give up partnership, but a humanizing, we’re more similar than different in this so most likely and reasonably speaking not all of you would be asked to give up partnership. It’s an argument from the extremes, that ironically, is at odds with monasticism in its healthiest forms and its focus on practice–that most practice will be in the middle not on the edges. To suggest that all gay people should be just like the Desert Elders or monastics is an extreme arguing into practice for the general population–of gays in this instance.

Instead, a blanket policy makes life easier—for the straights and the gay celibates who advocate this. And connecting that policy to the cross gets such people off the hook of examining what looks an awful lot like sado-masochism. Asking of an entire class of people what they wouldn’t ask for themselves, and being unable to think in terms of the particular in ways that would be unthinkable for straight people. The rules say, and so it goes… You will need to suffer a little more because…God needs appeasing. While we have tangible and good things in our lives, we’ll tell you about all of the non-existant ones you’ll inherit in the next. But instead in following Jesus, what we’re giving up is the story these people have told us about ourselves, and that puts us in some difficult jams. We get plenty of crosses coming our way by doing so everyday. The suggestion that we don’t already face crosses simply by living life is a form of blindness to what gay people face just for existing and living in ordinary ways.

I could understand this argument from the extreme if always and everywhere gay partnership failed to blossom in virtues or positively led to vice. But even many of these folks admit it doesn’t. Virtues arise. Which tends to tell us that the desire itself is not the problem, but rather what we choose to do with it, just like heterosexuality. And that those of either orientation given the GIFT of celibacy are not “giving up” but “responding unto” in the will God has for them rather than tending to put God and humans at odds, in competition.

In his 1974 tome On Being a Christian, renegade Catholic theologian Hans Kung helpfully distinguished between seeking suffering for its own sake (a misunderstanding of the cross) and bringing forth spiritual fruit from the suffering that inevitably comes our way:

Following the cross does not mean copying the suffering of Jesus, it is not the reconstruction of his cross. That would be presumption. But it certainly means enduring the suffering which befalls me in my inexchangeable situation — in conformity with the suffering of Christ. Anyone who wants to go with Jesus must deny himself and take on himself, not the cross of Jesus nor just any kind of cross, but his cross, his own cross; then he must follow Jesus. Seeking extraordinary suffering in monastic asceticism or in romantic heroism is not particularly Christian.

…It is likewise not a true following of the cross to adopt the Stoic ideal of apathy toward suffering, enduring our own suffering as unemotionally as possible and allowing the suffering of others to pass by while we remain aloof and refuse to be mentally involved. Jesus did not suppress his pain either at his own or at others’ suffering. He attacked these things as signs of the powers of evil, of sickness and death, in the still unredeemed world. The message of Jesus culminates in love of neighbor, unforgettably instilled in the parable of the good Samaritan and in the critical standard of the Last Judgment: involvement with the hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned. (pp.576-77)

In my opinion, what makes universal gay celibacy a false cross is that the sacrifice benefits no one. Unlike chastity before marriage, it is not preparation for a relationship of mutual self-giving and fidelity. Unlike priestly or monastic celibacy, it is borne in solitude and shame, not in an honored role that provides alternative channels for that person’s loving generosity to express itself. It’s throwing away a resource rather than using it where it is most needed. It’s the cross for the sake of the cross, without salvation or resurrection. Jesus called people to sacrifice not so they could prove something to God with their unhappiness, but so that others could be happy as well. Sacrifices with no justification beyond formal obedience to reasonless commands should be looked upon with suspicion. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

2 comments on “Suffering for the Wrong Reasons

  1. M Light says:

    I like the whole post, but I particularly like the last paragraph. It put into words something I have generally felt, but hadn’t ever really expressed.

  2. Moominpapa says:

    Very cogent post – and on M Light’s recommendation I’ve added your blog to my nightly list.

    To me that last paragraph reminds me of the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said that they lay burdens on others and lift not a finger to help. He condemned them for letting people suffer while carefully measuring out their tithe of mint and rue. Jesus repeatedly commented (vehemently in some cases) on the evil power of following the rules as rules when it meant that people (or even animals) would go uncared for. Man was not made for the Sabbath – the Sabbath was made for man. The law was made to help us serve one another and live together in harmony, to educate us in relationship with each other and with God – the same God whose relationship with us is perhaps best described in Genesis, where He walked with us in the garden. That’s what God intended before things got more complicated and we started using the knowledge of good and evil to hurt ourselves and each other.

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