Suffering Guaranteed

“Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.” – Plutarch

This past December, I ran my first ever half-marathon. The whole 13.1 miles. The experience built upon my previous understanding of a concept that I thought I already knew quite well:

Running sucks.

It hurts, man. The knees, the legs, the back, and the danged little muscle that runs over top of your shoulder-blade that screams at you for miles and miles. Yeah, all of it hurts at some point or another.

Now I was a “runner” in high school: I ran cross-country my senior year, and I thought I was pretty cool for being able to run a 5K (that’s 3.1 miles for all you normal people). I kept running after I graduated, mostly because my chosen profession just so happens to require me to run at least 3 miles a year. In 2014, the folks I worked for had me getting a 6 mile run at least once a week. And at the time, I thought that was a big deal. I mean, hey, I was at 200% the required annual mileage every week. Hot stuff, right?

Apparently not. Between adding kids, buying a house, and me just being lazy ‘ol me, I let running slide. I still did it when I had to, but other than that it was “No sir, no thank you, there’s a reason I pay for car insurance.”

Fast forward to the summer of 2016, and now suddenly there’s a runner in my house again. Except this time it isn’t me – it’s my wife. She starts small, only a mile, and if my memory serves me correctly she was walking it in the beginning, not even running. But then she’s running, and then it’s two miles, four miles, and it just keeps on adding up. I still remember the day she came home and said “I did eight miles today.” I thought to myself “Well, she’s finally ran further than I ever have.” I thought what she was doing was great, but I was still in the “more-power-to-you-have-fun-with-that” mode.

Then she starts doing races. A 10K, a half-marathon, and then finally, a little over a year after she started this crazy pursuit, she ran her first marathon. The whole 26.2 miles. Remember those 6 miles I was so proud of before? Yeah, well, obviously that paled in comparison to what my wife was now capable of. I’d like to say that shook me up and made me ask myself “What are you doing with yourself, man? What’s your potential?”, but it didn’t.

What did get me, although it took quite a while sink in, was when Katie later said to me, “Y’know, I just don’t think you get runners.”

What I heard (as I have a tendency to read between lines, even when there’s nothing written there) was “You don’t understand me, Preston. We’re on two different wavelengths.”

Ouch.

Now, I want you to hold that thought right there, because I had to hold it for a long time before I got anywhere with it. Shifting gears, changing lanes, and turning the heater on, but I promise we’re still in the same car.

So earlier last week, I stumbled upon this blog post from The Partially Examined Life. I’m a bit of an amateur philosophy nut, and I love reading and pondering about where history, theology, and philosophy intersect. The essay, titled “Science, Religion, Secularism Part XV: A Fractured World: God, Humanity, and Nature” just so happened to tickle my histo-theo-philo bone, and I ate it up.

The essay is meant to be a summary of a book by Michael Allen Gillespie called “The Theological Origins of Modernity” (Probably sounds like a snore to you, but to me it sounds like a seriously awesome time. I know, I’m weird.) To re-summarize the summary, it’s basically an examination of how, in the classical understanding of the world, there were universal kinds, meaning divinity (God) and reason (logos) were intertwined. Things like “love” and “righteousness” and “justice”, all attributes of God, were understood as universal, possessing the same definition for both humanity and divinity.

Modern thought (as in Modernism, Post-Enlightenment, not necessarily present-day), would hold that all things are particular and individual; that there are no universal kinds. So whereas God, humanity, and nature had all been understood to be pieces of an interconnected whole, with the modern thought they were fragmented and thus their ideas became antagonistic with each other. Philosophies like theism, humanism, and naturalism all came about from rearranging which particular entity was on top (God, humans, or nature?)

“Okay, Preston, you were talking about running, now you’re dumping all this brain-bending stuff on me…is there a point to all this?”

Shush, I’m getting there.

Now, normally, I would’ve read that essay and just filed it away in the back of my head somewhere. I read it on a whim, and I certainly didn’t go looking for that kind of read. It just so happened that I did read it.

Then I just so happened to go to church.

And it just so happened that at that particular church, which we’d never been to before, it wasn’t the pastor who was preaching on New Year’s Eve, but a retired professor from San Diego State. Do you wanna guess what he just so happened to talk about?

Among other awesome things, the roots of modernism, and the fragmenting of the “collective whole” of the classical thought by reductionism. 

What? Philosophy? At church?

Let me tell you, I was on the edge of my seat. That excitement was compounded by the fact that I had literally just been reading about the stuff he was talking about, and here it was being presented from a Christian perspective. Makes it kinda hard for me to believe that things “just so happen”.

So how did he get there? Why was he talking about it?

Well, honestly, he had to talk about it.

The sermon was over Colossians 1:24 – 2:8. Paul is writing to the Colossians because they’re being challenged by Gnostics, folks who basically followed a complex school of thought that salvation was attained by some sort of special knowledge, instead of through faith. The professor (I hope he’ll forgive me for not remembering his name) had to make the connection between the complex philosophy taught by the Gnostics and the complex philosophies that exist today, essentially to show us “Hey look, this is still relevant to us.” When Paul says “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy…according to the principles of the world, and not according to Christ. (2:8)”, it applies just as much to the post-modern “nothing means anything, because words only relate to other words, and words are not universal” as it does to the Gnostic “You need access to special, hidden knowledge to attain salvation.”

For me, all this “intellectual-theological” engagement was thrilling. The professor had me hooked in by the brain, but his conclusion smacked me right in the soul.

He was referring to the weapons that Paul says we have against such persuasive and powerful philosophies, the primary of these being prayer (holy alliteration, Batman), which is really less about assault and more about alignment. And then he said this: “If you pray and ask for God’s will to replace your own, I guarantee you will suffer.”

Wait.

Didn’t he mean to say “be blessed”, or something? Suffer? What kind of church is this, anyway?

But when he said it, I knew he was right.

Now you might say, “Preston, you’re not being a very good evangelist here. You’re not going to convert anybody going around telling them they’re guaranteed to suffer.” To which I would reply, “You’re exactly right. I’m not interested in selling Christianity, Christ didn’t come to be marketable. He came as the way and the truth and the life. I’m interested in the truth, and I’m going to do everything I can to find truth so that I can share it.”

And the remarkable bit of truth here is that suffering is guaranteed, at least as long as we’re here. None of us want it. Even Christ Himself didn’t want to suffer. But it had to happen as it was part of the plan. But look at how often Paul exhorts us to rejoice in suffering. Why?

In Colossians 2:1, Paul tells the church at Colossae that he wants them to know what a “great conflict” he has “that their hearts may be encouraged…attaining all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God.” The word “conflict” here is translated from the Greek word agona, which at its root is the Greek word for “contest”. It’s also partially where we get our word “agony” from. Get it? To be in “agony” feels like your insides are at war with themselves.

Paul is in agony to get his message to these people. Agona.

Now remember how I didn’t get runners? I told you we’d come back to that thought. See? You can trust me. It’s called a scenic route, try it sometime.

So dig this:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

You see that “the race”? Want to guess what that translates from in the Greek? Agona.

See, that was what I came to understand about running. Running sucks. It’s agonizing, it’s painful, it’s tough to keep going mile after mile. But people do it anyway. And they keep doing it, longer and faster and further. Why? Because finishing is worth it. They know the race is finite. They come to love their suffering, because they know it doesn’t last forever, and the feeling of victory at the end keeps them coming back again and again and again.

See, the things about races is that they aren’t all of life. They’re just a tiny portion of it, something you do outside of your regular life. When you finish, you don’t have to keep running. You can walk instead, you can sit down, you can go take a nap, you can enjoy a post-race feast. And the joy in all these seemingly simple ordinary things is multiplied exponentially, so much so that the anticipation of the coming joy spills over into your suffering while you are running the race.

I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says “I rejoice in my suffering for you” (Colossians 1:24), when James says “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials,” (James 1:2:), and the author of Hebrews speaks of “laying aside every weight” (Hebrews 12:1). They are confident there is goodness at the end of the race, and our appreciation of that goodness is magnified by our suffering.

Lean in and live joyfully towards finish line, my friends, for that is when real life begins.

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