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To Have Meaning

In Islam, Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet, testified that there are three kinds of faith: that rooted in fear, that motivated by the promise of reward, and the faith of service.

When I first re-engaged the Catholic Church, the priest challenged me “Do you want to die, or live forever?” While that didn’t reach me deeply, it ties together the first two inducements: fear of death and the promise of eternity.

According to Jesus’s teaching, both outcomes will be implemented by God. For this reason, the Protestants sought for signs of God’s favor in this life.

But for most now living, fear is rooted in this life – in the pain of deprivation, or the reality of physical abuse. For those that suffer, it is not powers and principalities in the afterlife that stand as rewards, but simple justice: that those that prey upon them will be cast down, and comfort will be offered.

In the faith of service, we surrender personal fear – fear for our fate in the afterlife – and devote ourselves to bringing relief to others. The question is how we can best fulfill that role, for it has many aspects. The prisoner of fear may not be capable even of living outside the walls of their cell. The experience of freedom confronts them with choices that they are unprepared to navigate. So to simply provide for their needs is not enough to liberate their souls.

The wisdom of the Buddhist path is to encourage the sufferer to realize that if they can lift their heads up to study the world around them, they can make one small change after another until freedom is realized. A friend can help them make that journey, a journey from dependence to independence.

The danger is that in the context of tyranny this effort will flare into violence – either violence against the oppressor (whose children then become victims), or violence against those seeking freedom. Once violence is engaged, the dynamics of material power rule, and the oppressed are most likely to be destroyed. We see this everywhere in the world today.

How than are the oppressed to rise above fear and into service? As Jesus says that to serve is necessary to eternal life, how are we to achieve that reward if we are denied the means to serve? Life appears to be completely meaningless, and faith misplaced for all except the privileged.

The answer to this dilemma is that in suffering we serve.

It takes both great courage and great faith to so suffer. But when Jesus proclaimed “Pick up your cross and follow me!”, this is exactly what he meant. So to any offering service, the question must be “How do we support the determination of those that suffer?”

To serve in faith is to allow love in our hearts to control our decisions in life. It is to demonstrate that to offer ourselves to the redemption of the world is a source of greater joy than any material reward. To one that suffers, heart-broken, this appears impossible. Their heart lacks the strength even to redeem themselves.

My testimony of service is this: Only God can heal that wound.

So this is the ultimate act of service: to take into our whole heart the broken heart of a brother, and allow them to meet the healing power of God within us. It is to provide an irrefutable experience that there is no wound that God will not suffer with us, and finally no wound that God cannot heal.

The difficulty to those that serve in faith is that it hurts. They may have forgotten what it was like to be broken. They live in community that protects them from harm. Their defenses are weak.

But it is not upon us to survive this experience of receiving a broken heart within us. It is upon God. Ours is only to be available in that moment when grace can be received, and allow it to flow through us. Indeed, to try redeem another of our own strength is folly: it is to surrender ourselves to their experience of life, and so to be consumed by their weakness. No, ours is only to be the material manifestation of God’s love that wakens hope that change is possible. Once God moves into the sufferer’s life, the person of faith needs to get out of the way, lest the limits of human endurance infect the redeemed with doubt.

Only God can offer certain guarantee of meaning to those that suffer. Only He can say with assurance “You have meaning to me: there is no suffering that I will not share with you, and indeed reward eternally for your service in redeeming the world!”

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