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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Patience of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We were last considering the humility of God and especially his humility in becoming Man. In other words, in speaking of Christ we distinguish between his humility as the Son of God who became Man and then his humility as Man in which he revealed the humility of himself as God. Our present reflection is on the patience of God.
There is no doubt that the Old Testament often speaks of God's patience especially with his unfaithful people. Nevertheless, the patience that we are here talking about is something which was only dimly foreshadowed in the Old Testament. It took nothing less than God to become Man to practice the kind of patience of which we are here speaking and on which we are meditating.
Our scope in this meditation will be first of all to look at the meaning of patience, especially as this has been developed through centuries of reflection by the Church on the patience practiced by Christ who is the Son of God.
We begin by observing that patience is the willing endurance of suffering. We may somewhat loosely speak of someone being patient without actually suffering; yet the true meaning of patience implies first the experience of pain which is suffering. That is why, properly speaking, we should not speak of animals as suffering; they have pain but they do not reflect on, or in our own human sense are not aware of, do not, properly speaking, experience the pain. Only a person who has a mind and a will who is enduring pain can suffer. People can experience agonizing suffering, even though the actual physical cause of the pain may be minimal. That is not to say that suffering is mainly in the imagination. No. But unless I am aware as an intelligent being that I am enduring pain, I am not properly speaking, suffering. Only human beings on earth can suffer.
But while all human beings suffer, no exception, not all human beings suffer willingly. The mind being aware of the pain I am enduring, that is suffering. The will accepting the suffering, that is patience.
Understood therefore in this way, when the ancient prophets spoke of the patience of God, and they did many times, they did not, they really could not mean that God as God could suffer, and then willingly endure the suffering and practice patience. The purpose of attributing human qualities, here patience, to God was to help the ancient Israelites to better understand who God is before God became Man.
With the Incarnation, a totally new mystery of the Godhead was revealed. God became Man in order to suffer. Why suffer? Because when man sinned and God then inflicted all kinds of penalties on the human race as the result of sin, he already in the third chapter of Genesis, which we sometimes call the first gospel or the primary gospel or the proto-gospel - the gospel meaning the good news, God already revealed in the Book of Genesis that man, the sinner, would be redeemed. It takes simple childlike faith to believe it, to continue to believe it in spite of the sophisticated and overly learned objections raised by some of the strongest minds of those who maybe having believed, ceased believing. Namely, God became Man voluntarily. God with the use of his free will, the same free will which he exercised when he created the world, with his free will God chose to become Man. God became Man not only, though obviously, that he might have a human body in which he could experience pain and a human soul that could suffer. God didn't have to, but God assumed a mortal human nature so that the body and soul united in Christ might be able to separate, which they did on the cross, and thus cause the Man Jesus, who is God, to suffer the agony of death.
All of that is true. God willingly assumed a human nature that could experience pain and therefore suffer. But the real lesson that I wish to get across in this meditation is not precisely that. Christ had a human body; we have a human body; he had a human soul; we have a human soul. Our bodies and souls are united. We are going to die; Christ also died. On all three levels, he experienced pain; so do we. But remember we began by defining patience as not merely the experience of pain. Patience is the willing, the voluntary endurance of pain. The main reason that God became Man was that he might have a human will. Let me repeat. The main reason that God became man was that like us he might have a human will, so that as Man, being capable of suffering, but having a human will, a free will, he might voluntarily, freely, willingly choose to suffer.
When we speak of Christ choosing to suffer, we are saying far more than meets the eye. We human beings descended from fallen ancestors. We do not have a choice on whether we are going to suffer or not. We have to suffer whether we want to or not. But Christ, being God, did not have to become Man. He voluntarily chose to take on our human nature, which would then enable him to suffer.
But more still. Might God have become incarnate, might he have redeemed the world without the endurance of any pain? Absolutely speaking, yes. But as God, having justly laid on man the penalty for man's sin, then, out of love for man, this infinitely just God underwent in his own person the suffering that as God he had imposed on a sinful mankind.
What are some of the lessons that Christ revealed to us by doing all that we have just described?
Suffering has a divinely ordained purpose in our lives. Remember the many chapters of the Book of Job? Suffering, all kinds of misfortune befell him. His "friends" gathered around him and told him: "Job, look, why don't you confess; why don't you admit to God: Ive got it coming'? Maybe God in his mercy will have pity on you." Job protested. Never in the history of divine revelation is pain, deep, agonizing, searing, human pain more graphically described than by the suffering Job. But coming as he did centuries before Christ, Job admitted: "I don't understand. I do not believe that all this suffering that I am experiencing is God's punishment for my sins; but I trust God that he has a reason." God, centuries later, became Man. Christ is called a second Adam; he is also called a second Job. Suffering has a divinely ordained purpose in our lives.
By our ready acceptance of pain, we become more and more like God, who became Man in order to endure suffering. Having been trained on the Spiritual Exercises from the Novitiate on, when I was ordained and began to give retreats, naturally I would talk about suffering and pain and spend a meditation or two on the Passion of Christ. As I look back, I tell the Lord, "Lord, how little did I understand what I was talking about." You must experience pain to understand it. And this is what faith tells us: God became Man so that he, God, might experience pain. And then, if like him, we not only experience pain, but while enduring it accept it, we become more and more like the God who, out of love for us, voluntarily underwent pain. Why? So we, out of love for him, might voluntarily endure pain.
The value of our patience before God depends on the love which motivates us to suffer willingly. The ancient patient stoics, they were patient all right; but you read, for example, their leader, Seneca; nothing seems to move him. Do you know there is such a thing as suffering and being proud of your capacity to endure? This is not the patience of God on which we are meditating. We are reflecting on the patience that God endured. And he became Man in order to be able first to experience suffering and then, with a human will, not only resign himself to the pain, or reluctantly endure the pain, but lovingly choose the pain, and in Christ's case, the most excruciating.
In God's providence, a patient endurance of suffering is the ordinary way in which sinners are converted to God. Where there is sin, there must be suffering. Let me repeat. Where there is sin, there must be suffering. Someone must endure pain in order that the sinner might be reconciled with God, and then might expiate the debt of penalty due for the sins committed.
"All right," we are liable to say, "sinners deserve to suffer; let them suffer. If that's the penalty for their offending a good God, they've got it coming."
But that is not the lesson of the patience of God in the person of Christ. The lesson that Christ's patience teaches us is that someone must suffer, and there is such a thing as someone else suffering for the sins I have committed, and I suffering for the sins that others have committed against a just God. What Christ's patient suffering teaches us is there is a mysterious solidarity among the members of the human family, which is why God became Man: to join the human family, so that the sin of one member of the human family can obtain from God the mercy the sinner needs by the suffering of another member of the human family.
Christ's patience teaches us that by our patience, not by our pain, not even by our suffering, but by our patience we become more and more like Jesus Christ who, having joy set before him, chose the Cross. I just wish I had preached and taught this way twenty-five years ago. I didn't realize, I'm sure I don't fully realize it yet; but no words can describe what faith tells us: the value of patient suffering out of love for God is the most precious treasure that man can possess in this world. Oh, the blindness of the human heart! With the short few moments, which we happen to call years, spent in this life, we fail to realize the priceless value of patient suffering in union with Jesus Christ.
What are some of the implications for our spiritual life besides the truths of faith and the lessons that Christ's patience teaches us?
We are not to be surprised that suffering is part of our faithful following of Christ. Don't be surprised; that's the way it is.
There is a necessary relation between sin and pain. Sin, we believe, is an offense against the will of God. Our created will says no to the will of God, that's sin. Pain is the experience of something against our will. There are two wills involved, the will of God and the will of man. Whatever is against the will of God is sin; whatever is against the will of man is pain.
God sent pain into the world in order to expiate the evil of sin. In other words, had there been no sin there would have been no pain. But now, in God's mysterious providence, he enables us to suffer in order that sin might be expiated.
Everyone suffers, but not everyone suffers willingly. To suffer willingly is always to expiate the evil of sin. Let me repeat. To suffer willingly is always to expiate the evil of sin, either my own sins or the sins of others. And we don't have to read the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times to know there are mountains, Himalayas of sin.
My Jesuit confrere, St. Francis Xavier, exhausted himself for ten years in India. There were one hundred thousand known baptisms that he personally performed. He kept writing back to Europe, pleading with the easygoing, well-fed, well-groomed European gentry. "How can you be lolling in ease and not doing all you can to keep souls from going to hell?"
All the patience we are talking about in this meditation, the willing endurance of pain, has a purpose. What's the purpose? To prevent souls from going to hell. That's why, faith tells us, God became Man.
The more holy a person is, and therefore the less sins that individual, man or woman, has to expiate, sins which they have themselves committed, the more innocent the sufferer, the more sinless the one who endures pain, the more pleasing that suffering is to God, and the more expiatory in the salvation of souls. Because, you see, it was the innocent Lamb of God, the all-holy Son of God who became man and who suffered. Needless to say there were no sins of his own that he had to expiate What are we being told? To become as holy as we can, so that when we experience suffering, and patiently endure pain, our sufferings, like that of Christ's, will be sublimely effective in the eyes of God.
Often too, in the providence of God, the patience we are called upon to practice with someone who is unkind, offensive, rude and maybe even cruel toward us, that is the normal way that God enables us to embrace the one who causes us suffering; so by our patience with him or her, the graces that in God's ordinary providence that person would never receive, they will receive, provided we have been patient in enduring pain at the hands, the arms, the lips of other people. Nothing in the world more closely unites us with Christ and makes us more like him than to suffer for him, to suffer with him, and to suffer like him.
Needless to say, in order to practice the patience that God expects of us, we must cultivate the habit of constant prayer. Why? To obtain the grace we need to endure; to obtain the grace we need to see the value of suffering; to obtain the grace to unite what we experience with acts of love and in so doing, endear ourselves to the patient Christ.
"My adorable Savior, grant me the grace to accept this trial from your hands not only patiently, but cheerfully. You love sacrifices made in joy. And the perfection of my offering is to show gratitude when I am tried. Help me to see that the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. May I profit from this visitation of your mercy by resigning myself to your will, and generously cooperating with the grace you offer to expiate my sins and grow in the likeness of you, my Lord and Redeemer. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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