Esther Ahn Kim walked slowly up the hill to the shrine, with her students following silently behind her. The young music teacher knew that when she arrived at the place of worship she would be forced to make a life-changing choice. The Japanese, who had taken control of Korea in 1937, were forcing everyone to bow at the shrine of their “sun god.” The punishment for refusing was imprisonment, torture and possibly even death.
Even though so many other Christians had decided that outwardly bowing to the idol was acceptable as long as they continued to worship Christ in their hearts, Esther could not make such a compromise. She said a silent prayer to Him. “Today on the mountain, before the large crowd, I will proclaim that there is no other God but You,” she declared.
A huge crowd had gathered, standing in straight, respectful lines, afraid to move under the cruel gaze of the Japanese policemen. Esther’s heart began to pound with dread for what she was about to do. A sense of uneasiness swept over her, and she silently repeated the Lord’s Prayer, over and over. “Lord,” she prayed, “I am so weak! Please help me do this—watch over me as I stand for You.”
When one of the officials called out in a loud voice: “Our profoundest bow to Amaterasu Omikami!” the entire group bent down, bowing solemnly before the shrine. Esther was the only one who remained standing, looking up at the sky. The fear and uncertainty that had gripped her just moments before had vanished. Peace flooded her heart. She knew she had done what God wanted her to do.
Her courageous stand for Christ led to six harrowing years in Japanese prisons. During that time, though her body grew weak with suffering, she shone with a supernatural love for her persecutors and fellow prisoners.
One freezing night, Esther heard what she described as an “eerie, moaning sound.” She was informed by a jailer that it was a 20-year-old Chinese convict who was scheduled to be put to death for killing her husband. Unable to get the woman out of her mind, Esther asked that this dangerous prisoner could be brought to her cell. The jailer warned Esther, saying, “She’s crazy. She bites everybody.” Esther persisted.
The following days were arduous for Esther, physically, emotionally and spiritually. She gave up her meager prison food to this woman who was filthy and insane. Instead of despising her, like everyone else, Esther prayed for her relentlessly, sacrificing her own comforts to reach the woman’s heart. Over time, she was able to share Christ’s love with her new friend. Their fellow prisoners were astounded to witness the woman’s transformation.
When this young woman was taken to her execution, Esther’s eyes overflowed with tears, watching her walk “as though hurrying to meet Jesus Christ.” Because Esther decided to embrace this “crazy,” “dangerous” woman with a love she had never known, many others have since followed her astounding example of “suffering hardship as a good soldier for Christ.” By opening her arms to receive her, as she would receive Christ, she brought many others, who would never have heard the gospel otherwise, right into the Kingdom of God.
Am I prepared to suffer well for Jesus Christ? In the midst of our comfortable lifestyles, it’s easy to think, “Of course, if persecution came I would never deny the name of Christ. Of course, if I were thrown into prison I’d remain strong in my faith.”
We must ask ourselves, are we truly “dying to self” daily, as Esther did? Or are we more concerned with protecting our own comforts and interests?
I’m gonna follow Jesus, All the days of my life, Even through times of pain and strife, I’m gonna follow Jesus For I know that He alone, Can deliver me from the bondage of sin, So I’m gonna follow Him until the end, Until the end of time I shall not look to man for my strength, To follow Him all the days of my life, For they shall crumble like sand, And fade from the face of the Earth That’s why I say, I’m gonna follow Jesus, To the end, To the end of time I’m gonna follow Jesus, All the days of my life, Even through times of pain and strife, I’m gonna follow Jesus.
The long season of Lent has prepares us to delve once more into the mystery of the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus. As I have been contemplating the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, my mind has turned, again and again, to the brute fact of pain. Perhaps this was conditioned by a recent conversation I had with Jordan Peterson, who commented that pain is somehow metaphysically basic. What he meant was that even the most skeptical philosopher would have to admit the existence of pain and would have to deal with it. Try as we might to flee from the world of matter, our bodies and our minds simply will not permit us to set aside the fact and the problem of suffering. Everyone suffers and at a variety of levels. Babies suffer from hunger and thirst, and their piercing cries remind us of it. All of us have experienced at some point cuts, blisters, bruises, broken bones, infections, rashes, and bleeding. If we live long enough, we develop cancers; our arteries clog up and we suffer heart attacks and strokes. Many of us have spent substantial time in hospitals, where we languished in bed, unable to function. Innumerable people live their lives now in chronic pain, with no real hope of a cure. And as I compose these words, thousands of people around the world are dying, gasping for their last breaths. But pain is by no means restricted to the physical dimension. In many ways, psychological suffering is more acute, more terrible, than bodily pain. Even little children experience isolation and the fear of abandonment. From the time we are small, we know what it is like to feel rejection and humiliation. A tremendous psychological suffering arises from loneliness, and I have experienced this a number of times in my life, particularly when I started at a new school in a city I did not know. Commencing one’s day and having no realistic prospect of human connection is just hellish. And practically everyone has had the dreadful experience of losing a loved one. When the realization sinks in that this person, who is so important to you, has simply disappeared from this world, you enter a realm of darkness unlike any other. And who can forget the dreadful texture of the feeling of being betrayed? When someone that you were convinced was a friend, utterly on your side, turns on you, you feel as though the foundation of your life has given way. But we haven’t looked all the way to the bottom of the well of suffering, for there is also what I might call existential pain. This is the suffering that arises from the loss of meaning and purpose. Someone might be physically fine and even psychologically balanced but might at the same time be laboring under the weight of despair. Jean-Paul Sartre’s adage “la vie est absurd” (life is absurd) or Friedrich Nietzsche’s “God is dead” expresses this state of mind. Having surveyed these various levels of pain, we sense the deep truth in the Buddhist conviction that “all life is suffering.” Now I want to take one more important step. There is a very tight connection between pain and sin. Most of the harm that we intentionally do to other people is prompted by suffering. In order to avoid it, avenge it, or preempt it, we will inflict it upon others. And this is the leitmotif of much of the dark and roiled story of humankind. To bring it down to earth, just consider how you behave toward others when you are in great pain. My gentle reader is probably wondering by now why I have been dwelling so insistently on these dark truths. The reason is simple. During the holiest time of the year, the Church places before us an image of a man experiencing practically every kind of pain. The Roman cross was perhaps the most wickedly clever instrument of torture ever devised. The person whose infinitely bad fortune it was to hang from it died very slowly of asphyxiation and exsanguinations, even as he writhed in literally excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross) pain. That’s how Jesus died: at the limit of physical suffering, covered in bruises and lacerations. But more than this, he died in equally excruciating psychological distress. His closest friends had abandoned, betrayed, or denied him; passersby were laughing at him and spitting on him; the authorities, both religious and political, were mocking and taunting him. And dare I say, he was also in the grip of something like existential suffering. The awful cry, “God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” could only have come from a sense of distance from the source of meaning. However, the one who hung upon that terrible cross was not just a man; he was God as well. And this truth is the hinge upon which the Paschal Mystery turns. God has taken upon himself all of the pain that bedevils the human condition: physical, psychological, and spiritual. God goes into the darkest places that we inhabit. God experiences the brute metaphysical fact of suffering in all of its dimensions. And this means that pain does not have the final word! This means that pain has been enveloped in the divine mercy. And this implies, finally, that sin has been dealt with. Once we understand that God’s love is more powerful than suffering, we have lost, at least in principle, the motivation to sin. These wonderful Easter days teach us that pain, in point of fact, is not metaphysically basic. The divine mercy is metaphysically basic. And in that is our salvation.
Question: My best friend recently lost a terrible bout with cancer. It was heart-wrenching to watch her suffer for so long, only to pass away in the end. She was one of the most devout people I knew. Why does God allow good people to suffer? Answer: Thousands of years ago, a man named Job wrestled with that very same question. Why is it that good people suffer, while it seems like sinners prosper? At the end of the book of Job, God answers Job out of a whirlwind and says, in essence, “My ways are not your ways!” But after Job came Jesus. And Jesus radically changed the nature of suffering. Since Jesus was—God-in-the-flesh, He could have avoided all suffering. Being divine, He could have avoided all mental or physical pain from illness, injury, rejection, death of a friend, torture or death. But He chose to feel those things because He is Emmanuel—God- withus! Jesus knew that suffering was part of the human condition, so He chose to become “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Suffering was not part of God’s original plan. It entered the world because of original sin. When our first parents had turned away from the blessings that God had planned for them and sought to make themselves into gods instead, the result was death, trial, tribulation and pain. However, God did not make suffering as a punishment. No, it is a healing remedy, because suffering teaches us that love costs. Consider this—when a mother stays up taking care of her sick child, it is arduous—but it is also an act of love. When a father works hard at a stressful and difficult job to put food on the table for his family, it is a onerous—but it is also an act of love. When a brother puts up with an annoying younger sister, it is challenging—but it is an act of love. We could not learn to love if it were not for suffering. When your friend was going through cancer treatments, I’d imagine that many people helped her out in a variety of ways. They cooked for her, they drove her to appointments, they gave her encouragement, they prayed for her— and in all of these ways, the people around her learned how to love sacrificially, in imitation of Jesus. When we are suffering, we can be conformed to Christ. Going through cancer teaches us the virtues of courage, perseverance, humility … and when we offer it up in union with Christ as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), we participate with Him in the salvation of the world! Every suffering we endure can help us grow in virtue. Remember—we are never closer to Jesus than when we are hanging upon the Cross with Him. Ultimately, Jesus never promised happiness in this world. Rather, He promised the Cross. But, He also promised that He would never abandon us, and that all things work for good for those who love Him. From an eternal perspective, your friend’s suffering and death brought about her sanctification and innumerable graces were bestowed on her and many others—graces that we will only understand when we meet Christ in eternity!
How strong is your relationship with God, our heavenly Father? Your earthly father is deeply concerned about every trouble you face. Your heavenly Father has an even greater concern because He knows the troubles you reveal to no-one (even yourself sometimes). Every first Friday of the month, Saint Francis of Assisi would spend time alone in the woods praying, from six o’clock in the evening until six o’clock in the morning. Observing this routine, one of his fellow brothers asked him, “How is it that you keep yourself awake to pray through the night?” Saint Francis replied “Go to the woods with an empty bag and another bag filled with stones. There, pray the ‘Our Father.’ Each time you repeat the prayer, transfer a stone into the empty bag. Do this throughout the night and as dawn approaches, all the stones will have been moved over to the empty bag and you will not feel sleepy!” His fellow brother was very happy to hear this, so he followed Saint Francis’ advice. As dawn approached, he had transferred about three hundred stones into the empty bag. When morning finally came he was thrilled that he had prayed the whole night long without feeling sleepy or weary. He ran to find Saint Francis so he could report how many times he had repeated the Lord’s Prayer. However, when he discovered him, what he observed touched his heart. Kneeling beside the hedge, a tearful Saint Francis gazed toward heaven, clasping the first stone in his hand, still praying the first part of the “Our Father.” Awestruck, the Brother realized that Saint Francis’ relationship with God was very deep. He didn’t need to pray the Lord’s Prayer many times to keep alert. In his profound love for God, every word of the prayer was unfathomably fascinating. At the sound of the ringing bell, Saint Francis set off for Mass without even completing the “Our Father.” This brought his fellow Brother to tears. Saint Francis hugged him, saying, “What we need in our prayer and in our Christian lives is an ardent love for our heavenly Father. If you have a loving relationship with your Father in heaven, everything else will fall in place.”
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