There are no dead ends

March 31st, 2021

Suffering happens.

It happens to the good and the bad, the clever and the clueless, the rich and the poor, the devout and the profane. Despite all our best efforts, we fall and we fail. Pain, loss, and eventually death will visit each of us.

To riff on the writer of Ecclesiastes, the wise and the foolish, the industrious and indolent both end up six feet under. So, he says, “All is vanity.” (1:2) In other words, it’s all a dead end.

Just look at the news. One day we’re planning a wedding, looking forward to a graduation, anticipating a big promotion, bouncing grandkids on our knee. The next day an angry young man with an assault weapon murders you and nine other strangers at the local grocery store.

What a pointless death! Is this what life came to for these people? Is this what life can come to for all of us?

Jesus answers this question. Not with words. But with his death. His crucifixion reveals the meaning of all the crucifixions of our lives: all the falling and the failing of regular people like you and me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Put a pin in what I said about Jesus. We’ll come back to it. First, let’s look more closely at suffering.

Suffering is not just part of being human. It’s crucial to being truly human. That’s because suffering invites us to go deeper.

Let’s face it, on many days, we’re running on automatic pilot. We don’t ask why we’re here or why we get out of bed in the morning. Suffering jolts us out of unreflective life and leads us to search our hearts for our reason for living.

If you deprive people of food, they will grow weak and eventually die—likewise, the soul withers and decays without a “why,” without meaning. Meaning is what makes life worth living.

Now, let’s get back to Jesus.

When we look at the crucified Jesus, we see that God is with us even in our most ghastly moments. The terrible moments we had hoped to avoid and the shameful moments we’ve tried so hard to keep hidden from others.

No matter what happens, no matter how harrowing or embarrassing or shocking life gets, God shows up. And God is not just getting a close but still detached look. God is embracing us in all of life’s messiness.

In other words, the crucifixion reveals God’s relentless, unflinching love for us. In Christ, God goes down to the grave with us. Into every grave, we tumble into in this life, including the final one.

And because God is, well, God, that suffering love is more than a gooey affection. God’s love is power. The same power that brought this vast universe into being.

That love brings life—a whole new kind of life—out of death. God’s love makes suffering the birthplace of eternal life. It is in suffering that we can realize most clearly that we are unconditionally loved, and that love makes life worth living.

Richard Rohr put it this way, “If all of our human crucifixions are leading to some possible resurrection, and are not dead-end tragedies, this changes everything. If God is somehow participating in our human suffering, instead of just passively tolerating it and observing it, that also changes everything.” (“The Crucified Jesus,” CAC, October 21, 2016)

In other words, when we are open to it, divine compassion transforms us. Not just in the next life, but already in this life. Now. To echo Paul, we become a new creation in Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17) We begin, at least tentatively and haltingly, to love as Christ loves.

The cross reveals that we are the beloved and bearers of a love that can change the world. There will still be sorrow, pain, and death in this world. But with love, there are no dead ends.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

Jake Owensby

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. Jake is the author of several books read more…
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