Saturday, January 9, 2010

Charity Suffereth Long, and Is Kind

As I have begun this year's resolution, I have had a few thoughts about how it all begins this month. I have thought about the "what" of this month's goal (to suffer longer in kindness), the "why" (of its importance) and the "how" (the specifics of suffering and kindness). For this first post, I am going to concentrate on the first question:

What does it mean, in practical terms, to "suffer in kindness" - explicitly as it relates to charity?

I also want to tackle what I believe it does NOT mean, in the context of practical, real-life examples where suffering might not be something that should be done "long".

As I tend to do, my first thought was to define the possible meanings of the word "suffer" - and this led me to an interesting epiphany that I want to share as I begin the month.

There are two distinct meanings of "to suffer" that have direct application to the way that word is used in the New Testament. The most common definition (the one we automatically understand in the context of charity suffering long in kindness) is:

to undergo, be subjected to, or endure (pain, distress, injury, loss, or anything unpleasant): The patient suffered greatly from his illness.

Based on this meaning, charity involves being able to be kind to others who are afflicting me - or to be kind while some aspect of life afflicts me (like an illness, disability, unemployment or other financial hardship, misunderstanding, extreme or unpleasant living conditions of some kind, separation from family, divorce, etc.). It is not lashing out in anger over those things that make us suffer - that bring "pain, distress, injury, loss or anything unpleasant" into our lives. Not succumbing to this natural tendency is a noble goal, and it is part of my resolution this month to succumb less often in this way - but there is another meaning of "suffer" that is just as important, in my opinion, to a fuller understanding of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 13:4.

to tolerate or allow: I don't suffer fools gladly.

This specific example from the dictionary itself ("I don't suffer fools gladly.") is a perfect counter-example of what charity includes - and it stands in direct opposition to the best example from the life of Jesus where "suffer" is used to mean "tolerate or allow". Mark 10:14 says:

Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

This verse clearly indicates that part of charity is "suffering" things that one would rather not "suffer" - tolerating those whom it is hard naturally to tolerate (like little children in a setting often associated with worship or teaching or any other setting where they might disrupt attention and lead to feelings of irritation) and allowing those situations to continue (or even encouraging them). By extrapolating a little, I believe it is valid to extend this meaning to ANYONE with whom irritation is natural - to those who see or believe differently, those whose personalities are different, those who are socially awkward or lack interpersonal skills, those who are blinded to their own irritable character traits, etc.

My main point about this type of "suffering" is NOT that we merely tolerate those who are different and allow them to stick around us, but rather that we strive to see them also in such a way that we can say "suffer (them) to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven". It is developing a feeling inside that allows a place for them in our own lives, both here and in the here-after -that allows them to be themselves and still be loved and accepted - that allows them to be loved without condition or requirement of change - that allows them to continue to irritate and distract without being condemned or kept from our company. (This has critical implications about how we treat members of our own religion and congregations whose views and beliefs about some things differ from our own.)

Finally, a word about the limits of this view of charity:

In theory, there is no limit to charity as it is presented here. In theory, ALL should be loved and accepted and tolerated and allowed to be seen as worthwhile children of God. In practical reality, however, there are some things that simply cannot be tolerated or allowed - some things that are egregious enough that change must be demanded and, if necessary, separation enforced. Serious abuse is the easiest example of this need. (I use the qualifier "serious" carefully, since I believe all who have not mastered charity [including I, myself] abuse some others in some way - but I also believe too many suffer serious abuse by defining it solely as "extreme abuse". There is serious abuse, and there is extreme abuse - and I am speaking of not tolerating or allowing serious abuse even if it is not extreme.)

To suffer long does NOT mean to allow serious abuse to continue. Jesus allowed his abusers at the end of his life to continue, but that led to his death - and it didn't last "long". Alma and Amulek allowed their abuse to continue, but that also was to seal an indictment on an entire community and didn't last "long".

Coming full circle to the two definitions of "suffer" discussed here, I believe there is an important distinction between the first type of suffering (pain, injury, loss, etc.) being caused by situations and circumstances and being caused by other people - and that distinction is critical to whether or not allowing it to continue is right or not. The key to suffering imposed by others, in my opinion, is suffering it in kindness while the suffering lasts - NOT prolonging the suffering simply for the sake of suffering. I believe that interpretation has led to more suffering than is right, good and necessary - and I believe it is NOT what Paul intended when he wrote of charity.

This is a fine line, and I understand and appreciate that it is a difficult line, but I believe it is a line that needs to be drawn.


Mama D said...

"those who are socially awkward or lack interpersonal skills, those who are blinded to their own irritable character traits"

There is another group of people with whom irritation seems to come easily. In working with the elderly over the past several years, I have found that dementia, Alzheimers, and other illnesses among the elderly can be very frustrating. Yet they have so much to offer if we look past their weakness with charity!

Anonymous said...

A wonberful essay papa,and a very real and pertinent comment mama.So good to check in with you guys and get a useful corrective.
Interestingly I have been looking at this passage of scripture of late.The more I understand of this,the more I fall short.Since I find it hard not to get discouraged by myself,I've decided to focus on individual aspects of Paul's 'more excellent way'.
I recently realised that his firct injunction carries within it the concept of maintaining courteous behaviour,so I have been trying to focus on this with family members.My family members are generally delightful,but we all have our moments,and we spend way too much time in each other's company due to circumstances beyond our control.It can be hard to measure up to even this injunction,even in our comparitively luxurious situation.Paul really hits the mark.Thanks for the practical religion.It's people like you that keep me coming back for more,and let me know I'm in the right place to find it.

Bored in Vernal said...

What Ray said.