A friend of mine from school had frequent recourse to reading the prophet Jeremiah and he would from time to time rebuke me for not attending to the prophet’s words myself. Only a couple years later, would I understand why Jeremiah’s peculiar voice is not only wise but essential to every life. If you listen to our God calling you, he will lead you down a path of humiliation and sorrow. You will suffer. Let “us make plots against Jeremiah,” the people said. And the prophet, on his knees before God, calls out, “they have dug a pit for my life.” “Is evil a recompense for good?”
We all want good actions to bring us to a good end. The call of God is a summons to fulfill our natures and if we do not heed it we will never attain what we most desire—we will never be happy. Why, then, does the path to happiness pass through a valley of sorrow? Why is it the one who clings to what is good also the one who will have everything stripped away? Why, finally, do each of the eight beatitudes—each of those brief sketches our Lord offers us so that we will know what true perfection, blissfulness, joy, and holiness really looks like—why, I ask, does each of them involve humiliation, sorrow, suffering, and even death?
As a young man, fresh from school and working an empty job in a strange city far from home, I found myself stripped, sad, and in solitude one night, and all my prayers were suddenly Jeremiah’s prayers. Why did it seem like every action I took led nowhere? Did my existence mean anything at all, or was I just a creature of sterling insignificance, full of self-regard but drifting purposelessly toward failure?
We are all too often like the mother of James and John, who brought her good boys before Christ to say, these are your faithful apostles, will you not reward them with a seat of honor to the right and left of your heavenly throne? We expect the love of God and the pursuit of what is good to culminate in our decisive honor. Can “you drink the chalice that I am to drink?” our Lord replies. We have not been promised the reward of honor. We have not been promised to be spared suffering. We have rather been told that only through entering into the mystery of Christ’s suffering can we see the world as it really is, can we know who we are and what we are called to be. Humiliation is a great evil, but only by passing through it in the company of Christ can we begin to imagine the enthronement of glory and joy that awaits on its other side.
Suffering is not just a rebuke, but the beginning of wisdom and a challenge thrown down to us by God. Holiness is a crown of glory indeed, but it will first be a crown of thorns.
James Matthew Wilson