Mark 8: 31--33: Affliction and Understanding
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
“Suffering is a mystery by which we are driven either to humility or despair.”
I surprised myself by writing this line in the margins of a notebook that I fashioned myself out of cheap twine twine, computer paper, and impatience.
I didn’t realize, then, the effect that something written in the margins of a shoddy notebook would have on me, the way a scribbled line would take me by the hand and lead me into a place I’ve never been. It is that feeling I get sometimes while writing: that of being greeted by some version of myself that is wiser, and less dramatic and who understands Christ more, some better version of myself that takes me by the hand if only for a few moments and takes me in a direction I would not have guessed.
It was Christmas, and I had been thinking a lot about suffering. My own suffering, the world’s suffering, and the suffering of people I loved very much.
I would like to focus here on my own suffering, not because it is more important but because it is the suffering I have spent the most time with, the suffering I’ve had the most experience with. The suffering that surprises me the least.
I have the kind of OCD that can turn ordinary moments into a haunted house, briefly full of great anguish and distress. I managed to write a whole book about what’s it like, and how I came to understand I could still make a life with it.
Central to the experience was learning that what I had was an affliction, that I have a brain that that provides great anguish and distress without its warning or my volition. I have tried, desperately at times, to help people know that a mental illness is an experience provided by the brain rather than a character flaw.
It is more like being bullied, intimidated, or harassed than it is anything else. I tell people to imagine someone very close to you beginning to bully, or harass, or intimidate you and then to imagine that person never leaving because you can’t run from them or hate them or fight them and the reason you can’t is because they are not a person or thing that can be run from or hated or fought because they are the chemicals misfiring in your own brain.
I’ve called my OCD a bully, but that, again, personifies it in a way that is sometimes helpful, sometimes not. It is not really “there” to like or dislike. But it is, certainly, an affliction: that is, it is a way that I have suffered. I wrote once in my journal, “OCD is an evil and punishing affliction upon the dignity of the human person.”
I’ve done my best to make peace with my OCD, to make a life with a brain that is not my friend. I go from being mad that my brain is like it is, with all its ridiculous warnings and commands, to wanting to take care of it because it is fragile and it is mine. So that some tenderness and respect is owed it.
And it has gotten better. Even with this affliction, I enjoy my life very much.
But even with the right food, less stress, lots of sleep, and good habits, there are still times when that affliction is especially hard to bear, times of day when I seem to be knocked sideways by it, times when, although I’m no longer surprised by this affliction, it still seems to take me by surprise.
For some reason the time of day when I can expect to be surprised by how bad it is possible to feel is midday.
How can I begin to describe it? It is a sudden rush of anguish and distress. I feel discouraged, confused, sad, irritable, mean and upset. I find myself writing down things in my notebook like this:
“Everything is wrong, Nothing is what I want, I’m upset, and I’m starting to feel mean.”
In that moment, everything somehow feels both urgent and hopeless. I realize I am in the grip of an experience I can neither control or deny. In the wake of such a powerful force, my world is, briefly, threatened with meaninglessness. Life seems, suddenly, briefly, intolerable and unendurable.
I use words like “briefly,” to underscore something: I have learnt, and am learning, that nothing in these brief experiences is “real.” Something about the sensations is too intense, too dry and mechanical, too much like a droning siren to feel “real.” It is, again, an experience provided by my brain. An affliction.
But what happens next is where things can get bad. Because this midday affliction is not something I can control by either effort or sorrow, because it is not something I can make better, I find myself also visited by a sudden revolt and despair.
In these moments, with a life still to live and a day still to have and things still to do, I turn and find the way blocked by the fact that I just don’t want to.
In awe both of this anguish and despair, confronted suddenly both this affliction and the way it has both awakened and deepened my own hardness of heart, I find myself suddenly deeply ashamed.
Ashamed I feel this bad, and ashamed I can’t fix it, and ashamed at how upset it makes me that I’m upset, and ashamed at my own sudden revulsion and hardness of heart towards things in my life. Ashamed that I feel mean, ashamed that I’m now some dark and horrible thing. This shame too, is hard to bear.
Feeling this way, and angry and hurt and prideful about feeling this way, I suddenly become afraid to feel this way. Afraid I will feel like this forever.
This then creates, of course, a feedback loop: deepening my distress, hardness of heart, shame and fear, which deepens the distress, the hardness of heart, the shame and the fear, which deepens the distress, the hardness of heart, the shame and the fear….
So there is, of course, this affliction. But there is, of course, never just an affliction. There are, instead, afflictions we're ashamed of, afflictions we’re afraid of, afflictions that have awakened and deepened the hardness of our own heart.
This is the best way I can explain it: at midday, somehow, this affliction and the shame of it, and the fear of it, and the hardness of my own heart toward it and toward others and toward myself, form together into a more terrible and perfect union, a kind of sweeping, annihilating dark wave, knocking me this way and that. So that I realize I’m under the grip of such terrible forces.
At midday this affliction comes to me as The Final Word and The End of the World.
I see now, when I minister to people, only people under the grip of terrible forces over which they have no power. Fiercely bound by shame, fear, and affliction. Enslaved even to their own hardness of heart.
I think Christ saw this, saw that we are even helpless in our own rebellion.
Something I’ve learned over the years is that we can’t answer suffering. And yet suffering demands an answer. Otherwise suffering will become an intolerable bully, joining hands with such terrible things as fear, shame, and our own pride. An answer must be made otherwise the world will be rendered meaningless and intolerable.
What am I supposed to be doing when I feel like this?
The intensity of the affliction is not the worst. The disorientation, the vertigo caused by the subsequent shame, fear, and pride make it harder to bear, make it, indeed, a different kind of suffering altogether.
Under such terrible forces, what can one do? I know it will pass, and yet I feel disoriented. I seem to have lost the thread entirely.
Another way to ask this: At such moments, what can I do to be okay? What do I need to be okay?
It can be hard to talk about what its like to feel bullied by an affliction, to feel not only humiliated but intimidated, to feel you like you don’t have ground to stand on, to feel like this affliction, this horrible mood, could even take your faith away.
It felt important to me, when met with that kind of suffering, that there be something I can do. Something I can do when feeling better doesn’t seem possible. It’s taken me a while, but I realize now.
The only thing I can do in my affliction is hear promises.
For me, specifically, Midday Prayer is the most important thing I can do when I am miserable.
With Midday Prayer, the scriptures and prayers are oriented toward the time of day when Jesus hung on the cross with the sun beating down on him. The scriptures and prayers are deliberate in reminding us that at Midday Jesus was hanging on the cross.
Hearing, at midday, that Christ died for me, and feeling, at midday, like I’m dying (though I know I’m not), is a strange things. A blurry thing.
I feel, at least, Christ knows. I can’t argue that this makes a great argument for the existence of God in a suffering world. All I can say is that has been very meaningful to me.
Meaningful in a way that has grown steadily over time. So that I think I can now put into words exactly what it is so meaningful about it, what it means to mean to me to have Jesus hanging on the cross:
That something about Jesus hanging on the cross means that our afflictions can no longer deprive us of Christ. That nothing can stop Christ from giving himself to us, that even in suffering and affliction Christ gives himself to us.
That Jesus Christ and our affliction can occupy the same space. Indeed, they must if He redeemer.
His hanging there on that cross is, somehow, a Word to us. A Word about suffering, yes, but also about hope. With this Word, by this Word, Christ has pledged himself to us in our afflictions. That is what He Has Done. That is His promise. That Word has joined our afflictions the same way It has joined the bread and the wine and the waters of baptism.
This is a promise to us. And the most important thing we can do in our affliction is hear the promise of what Christ has done.
This is my what I believe: the only thing I need in my affliction is to know who Christ is. And we only know who Christ is by hearing what Christ Has Done. The human heart can only be changed by hearing what Christ has done.
The Christ whose Death and Resurrection is the Clothing of our shame
the Casting out of our Fear,
The Strength in our Affliction,
And the Overturning of the Hardness of Our Own Heart
When we know this, when we’ve heard this, and when we’ve learned to hear it again and again, then I believe something incredible can happen over time: our afflictions will begin to no longer wield the power of shame, because we are not ashamed of them, will no longer wield the power of fear because we are not afraid of them, will no longer summon and awaken our own hardness of heart because Christ has been trusted with an affliction that is no longer ours, but His.
We will no longer have an affliction we are trying to get rid of through fear, shame and pride. We will have a consecrated affliction that has been rid of fear, shame and pride.
I believe that Christ’s disappearance in the flesh (the ascension) is His Entrance into the world as this Word. That His bodily disappearance in the flesh is His intention to fill the world with this Word, through his Spirit, in His Fellowship. And I believe the hearing this Word, through His Spirit, in His Fellowship is Christ Bearing this Life with Us, Christ Bearing Our Affliction With Us. The Hearing of the Word is him, even now, clothing our shame. Even now, casting out our fear. Even now, shaming the devil. Even now, strengthening us in our afflictions. I believe the hearing of this Word is our share in Christ’s victory over Sin and Shame and Fear and Death. That our death and resurrection is a patient, quiet, trust in His. A trust won for us by hearing.
So that neither his absence nor our affliction can now deprive us of Him, the One present by His Spirit, Through His Fellowship, and in the Proclamation of What He Has Done.
At the heart of my suffering, I’ve found , then, not an answer but a Person. And the understanding that this affliction can deprive me neither of Him nor a simple life with Him.
I have prayed for a remedy to this affliction, for better feelings through the day.
But instead of better feelings I have been given a deeper understanding of who Christ is, and who I am, and what I'm supposed to be doing.
I believe the word for this understanding is humility, humility that is not a feeling, or a command, but a gift. Humility that is the understanding of who Christ is, so that we might know who we are.
This has been my victory: it may seem paltry to some. For me, it has meant everything.
When I am miserable I can still understand who Christ is. This affliction can not destroy that understanding. This affliction and that understanding can occupy the same space.
And with that understanding The End of the World and the Final Word have become a simple affliction. An affliction that Christ bears with me.
And that this understanding will always be more, and mean more than this affliction and even my own hardness of heart. No affliction can bully or diminish the humility by which I know who Christ is. It can only help create it. A humility deepened and maintained by the promise of What He Has Done. A humility that is not command but gift, the inheritance of those who have heard the Gospel. So that we are given a composure in hell that confounds even ourselves.