Eastertide: The Nature of the Spiritual Journey
Then he said to them, “How foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)
If you ask people to name a time in their spiritual life when they grew the most or felt closest to God, many people will refer to a time when they had to endure pain, loss or suffering. Even though whatever they endured was real and they probably would not choose to go back, looking at it through the lens of what God was doing through it offers a whole different perspective. In fact, sometimes what they feel they gained was so valuable that they might even say, “Even though that was hard, I wouldn’t trade it for anything!”
This is exactly what Jesus gave the two disciples on the Emmaus Road—the gift of being able see what they had been through from a whole different perspective. Having listened to them so well, he had now earned the right to speak. And when he did speak, he offered them so much more than platitudes or mere comfort regarding the troubles they had seen. He offered them a completely different lens through which to view their recent traumatic experiences.
The Nature of the Spiritual Journey
The lens Jesus offered the disciples was to draw their attention to the nature of the spiritual journey—the paschal rhythm of death, burial and resurrection, and of suffering as a necessary part of it. With so few words Jesus captured the essence of the spiritual journey: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
He had, of course, tried to describe this aspect of the spiritual life earlier on while he was still with his disciples, but it was impossible for them to grasp it until they were experiencing it for themselves. Matthew 16 records the fact that Jesus told his disciples in great detail that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering” and eventually be killed, but Peter in particular just would not have it. He actually rebuked Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Peter’s (and presumably the other disciples’) difficulty accepting the fact that Jesus would have to suffer raises a sobering possibility for spiritual companions to consider, and it is this: in our attempts to be loyal and faithful and helpful (as Peter was surely trying to be), we too could be a distraction and even a stumbling block to one another if we fail to understand the nature of the spiritual journey and God’s divine purposes in all aspects of the journey, including suffering. How confusing it can be if members of a spiritual community have fundamentally different ideas about what the spiritual journey is all about.
For instance, if one’s vision of the journey is shaped by a “success gospel” in which the sign of God’s blessing is that everything is always “up and to the right” while others understand it to be a series of “necessary deaths” in which we let go of that which is false so what is truest within us can fully emerge, we could actually do more harm than good in our attempts to companion one another!
If some in the group believe that growth in the spiritual life is marked by increasing certitude, while others are being drawn into the kinds of questions that defy easy answers and trite sayings, we could actually thwart what God is trying to do in their lives.
One of the most valuable offerings we can make to one another in transforming community is the perspective that enables us to “see through” to what is really going on spiritually speaking, no matter how painful the events and experiences might be. To affirm that God is at work even in our suffering can be redemptive if we allow it to be. As Richard Rohr puts it, “Resurrection is when one moment reveals the meaning of all moments.”
The Heart of the Matter
What Jesus did here in so few words was to draw attention to the heart of the Christian story. Those who had experienced the weekend’s traumatizing events were not merely witnesses to a terrible injustice; they were actually witnessing the great saving act of God accomplished in and through Jesus’ suffering and the sacrifice of his life.
This necessary rhythm of suffering and death, burial and resurrection was the spiritual reality Jesus’ disciples were living through in a condensed fashion as they experienced the events of that first “Good” Friday, waited numbly through that first Holy Saturday and tried to find their way back home on that first Resurrection Sunday. Even though they hadn’t been able to make sense of it yet, Jesus’ journey from death to life was revealing the true nature of the spiritual life. He was signaling to them that we, too, must “die” if we desire to be raised to new life in Christ. We, too, must lay down anything that is a hindrance to us spiritually, so we can walk in newness of life.
Jesus was perfect, so there was no sin in him that needed to die; but he did need to “let go” of the physical body that limited him to being in one place at a time, here and not there, earthbound rather than seated on the right hand of God in the heavenly places. The difference between Jesus’ journey and our own is that most often what needs to die in us are the sins, negative patterns and false-self attachments that limit the freedom of our true-self-in-God. This letting go feels like suffering and death because on some level it is; but what we need to know is that it is death unto life.
Out with the Old and In with the New
All this talk of death and suffering might seem like a rather dour—if not harsh!—view of the spiritual life, but I assure you it is not. The only thing we stand to lose in this process of death and dying is that which is not needed anyway. In fact, what needs to die is not really even real; it is the set of illusions that is the false self. The true self—our very essence—is hidden with Christ in God and is waiting to be revealed (Colossians 3:1-3). There is a kind of freedom on the other side of this “death” that we can only imagine.
Through his life and his death, Jesus taught us that we must lose our life (small l) in order to gain that which is Life indeed (capital L). Father Thomas Keating writes, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of small humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated [as] we keep getting closer and closer to our Center”—the place where God dwells within us as redeemed people.
Oftentimes it is suffering that initiates the necessary “evacuations”; even Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8).
The goal of the Christian journey is surrender—the ability to trust God with our whole selves and our very lives—rather than relying on attempts to achieve safety and security, affection and approval, power and control, satisfaction and fulfillment on our own terms. It is an increasing capacity to be given over to the love and the will of God in radical trust, just as Jesus was, regardless of outer circumstances.
This necessary suffering leads to new life as the authentic self that God created, that God knows so intimately and that God invites to live free and unencumbered in his presence. We emerge from this experience able to walk in newness of life and union with God in the places where we had been resisting surrender. Finally, we are free.
This is the married couple who has been through an infidelity and–having stayed with one another and allowed their illusion of the perfect marriage to fall away–discover more honest selves and truer intimacy on the other side. There is something about them now that is so much more real as the light of God shines through them as earthen and earthy vessels.
This is the man whose wife has left him, and he must accept an unwanted divorce. As he struggles to accept the death of his dream of what his life would be, he quietly speaks of a newfound intimacy with God that never would have been possible while he was clinging to an ideal that didn’t exist.
This is the woman who loses a job she had allowed to define her; in the aftermath she realizes that she never could have discovered her over-identification with her work until it was gone. Now she moves with freedom and ease because what she suffered created space for her to find her truest identity in God. Now she knows that nothing she does externally will affect her basic identity.
This is the parents who oriented their whole lives around their hope that their children would turn out a certain way, and when a child makes heartbreaking mistakes and squanders opportunity, they are able to let go and trust God—finally—with what is most precious to them. Even though they care deeply for their child, they also know that whatever happens, they will be OK in God.
This is the person who discovers he has cancer, and after denying and being angry and arguing with God, he is finally able to let go of willfulness and allow God to be in control of his destiny.
Was it not necessary for the Messiah and for us to “suffer all these things” in order to enter into the “glory” of being with God in some new and more complete way? Yes. Would we wish suffering on ourselves or anyone else? No. Do we grieve whatever losses there might have been? Yes, of course we do. But are we walking around now as resurrected people because we have lost our life in order to find it?
You’d better believe it!
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. This article is adapted from Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVarsity Press, 2014.)
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