Genuine, spiritually powerful redemptive suffering does exist as a genuine call from God. However, what most of us experience is far from redemptive, because our suffering is not in union with Christ’s suffering.
Redemptive suffering is not long-faced misery, because it is life-giving and life-affirming as we live in, with and through Christ our Saviour. This suffering might involve physical pain, but it is lived in the Light, in peace and in joy. When we are no longer the centre of attention, but we chose to make Jesus Christ the centre, all heavy, psychological despair and mental anguish dissipates like insubstantial mist under the burning sunlight.
It takes humility to realize our miserable, self-inflicted suffering does not save anyone, least of all ourselves. Accepting Jesus as our Saviour really goes against our grain as human beings because we want to earn our salvation, purify ourselves by suffering out of a misplaced sense of guilt. Ironically, it usually takes suffering to break down our ego and pride.
Once exhausted by trying to save ourselves, we often must hit rock bottom before we are desperate enough to change, to let go of our pride and control and surrender in humility to Christ our Saviour. A drowning man realizes he needs to be saved. A sick man grasps the truth that he needs to be healed.
The words from Isaiah 58:5-6 are like brilliant beams of light, cutting through any false notions we might have about this season of repentance that we call Lent.
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Yes, we tend to think of Lent as a time to share in the suffering of Christ yet when we do so, we become morose and end up centering more on our own sacrificial devotions than on God. Lent is a time to get rid of the flub in our lives but only so we are able to connect more to the Heart of our Beloved, and more on the people around us who are in need. Lent is not an excuse for dramatic acts of fasting, wearing sackcloth and ashes, figuratively or literally.
Our Father is not interested in such spectacles which simply focus on ourselves and our sins. As mortals. we are all the same. As St. Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. (Romans: 3:23) This fact is a given. The truly repentant man, the sort of man who is acceptable to God, is described in the Psalms. A repentant man is contrite, humbly acknowledging his sin in simplicity, trusting more in God’s mercy than any of his own heroic acts of supposed repentance. It is God alone who washes us from guilt, who cleanses us from sin. He is not concerned with mere outer actions of repentance like sacrifices but on our inner attitude. Only a humble and contrite heart will do.
Not only is God looking for an attitude of true humility but He desires positive actions. We all fall into the dubious habit of asking, ”So, what are you giving up for Lent this year?” Wrong question folks. Isaiah 58:6-11 is quite clear,
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then the Scripture breaks into words of glorious joy, inspiring hope in all of us mere humans because positive acts of mercy, love and concern shine like beacons of light into this world of ours. God will then forgive us and vindicate us. He will answer our prayers with mercy because we have shown mercy in positive acts of love and concern to those in need.