The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Glorifying Suffering?

The dark side of preaching the cross of Christ.

by Carol Howard Merritt

Epistle Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

For Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011: Year A−Ordinary 26

I have a friend whose life was shattered by sexual abuse. Then, after a few years, I watched as she slowly put the pieces back together. Now, she is a beautiful testament to wholeness.

You Can, Because I Did

When I spoke to her about her healing process, she explained how she was able to overcome the tragedy when she became a therapist. She realized how her experience allowed her to help others heal from their sexual abuse.

Whether she would say the actual words or not, she would be able to stand beside them, in their grief, agony and betrayal, and communicate, “I know how you’re feeling. I know the pain. I have been there. You can heal from this. I know you can, because I did.”

Showing Solidarity?

There is something powerful about having someone stand next to us in our difficulties. When the alcoholic tells stories in his sobriety or when the sheltered woman can recall her days on the streets, there is potency in the shared experience of hardship. There is strength in solidarity.

I think that’s why the redemptive message of the gospel has been so important. As Philippians 2 reminds us in this beautiful poetry, Jesus took the form of a servant. In his humanity and humility, he walked beside us, even to the point of death. Because of this, we know that nothing can separate us from that divine love in Jesus Christ.

Glorifying Suffering?

And yet, I have to stop and ask a difficult question at this point, because there is a dark side to recalling and reliving this redemptive narrative. In our history, have we, as Christians, glorified suffering too much?

I have heard stories that make me shudder. Victims of clergy pedophilia have been encouraged to forgive (and not seek legal action) in the name of Christ. Women and men have undergone abuse and then religious leaders told them to return to their spouses, because their reward will be waiting in heaven. In these cases, their suffering was uplifted, a divine reward was promised, and that allowed injustice to flourish.

The Hardest Question

In all of this, I wonder, do we wear our crosses too proudly? Are there ways in which we take this message of Philippians 2—this great emptying—and use it to further weigh down people who are oppressed? Has it been used to overlook the difficulties that people endure? Do we too often point to the glory that is to come in order to ignore oppression and avoid the difficult work of confronting injustice?

Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at


  1. Jim says:

    I have a covenant friend who was sexually abused by her father (and his truck-driver buddies) since she was 5. Her mother was also abusive. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt in her teens, and an NDE which dramatically altered her life path, she found the strength to confront this evil and allow for its redemption. This was a poisonous genetic heritage that she refused to pass on to her offspring. What was done to her is still evil. Evil intent will always remain evil. But the after-effects can be redeemed, bought back, and re-created into something beautiful. Her children were loved and are loved with His unconditional love with no hidden agendas, no expectation of reward, no ulterior motives. She may never completely forgive her father for what he did, but she has driven a stake into her family tree vowing that the suffering and oppression will go no further. That’s not giving up or giving in for some future reward in heaven. That is bringing heaven down to earth. That takes guts. And that takes God. For there is no way that could have happened without Him.

  2. Since 1985 I have been a crisis counselor and long term psychiatric nurse therapist for those who were sexual abused. Now as a Pastor I am still providing help for those who seek me out when they hear of my background because they feel safe telling their stories to me. Although I have not suffered this myself, the survivors believe I will understand due to my training in this area as a SANE (sexual assault nurse examiner) and therapist.

    After hearing so many stories in the process of helping 100′s of survivors, I believe I can empathize as much as one is able without having the experience myself. In some ways it helps to have the objectivity because if I had been victimized I think I would look through the lens of my own experience and be biased in my viewpoint. All of us have a tendency to place our own experiences on the other person’s rather than clearly listen to the nuances and variations of their personal history.

    Yet, there is an important place for telling one’s own story. It can give another survivor the sense that they are not alone and alien in this world. When they know another has experienced something similar and they can see that the person is recovering well this often gives the survivor good hope for their own future. But telling too much of one’s own experience may cause the survivor to regress in their own recovery as they may feel overwhelmed with a feeling that the whole world is not safe for anyone. So the sharing of one’s sexual abuse must be done carefully and at the right time.

    Reporting the abuse can be very important for the healing process, too. When justice is sought the serious response by law enforcement and the prosecutor helps to validate the victim’s experience as a criminal offense. Yet, many victims retract or back away from pursuing the legal system remedy due to the difficult stigma that goes along with the potential for public knowledge of the abuse through the changes in the family’s social life, newspaper articles, and arrest reports.

    I try to help those who have suffered deal with this additional abuse from public judgment by preparing them for the long journey and ups and downs of the legal system. I try to give them strength through realizing they are teaching others that it is right to report versus silently continuing to suffer.

    We as a nation must pray for resilience in the survivors so they can persevere in their healing in whatever form they seek. And not judge them for what they do whether they are able to forgive the perpetrator or not. I believe justice needs to be part of the process in an effort to prevent others from becoming victimized. But some are just not able to deal with the inconsistencies in our legal system’s way of addressing sexual abuse charges.

    God bless all those who are resilient enough to bring their story to light, help others, and pursue justice! Let us all advocate for an end to abuse around the world! It is an epidemic and must be stopped. Sexual abuse is a real “contagion” that is not given the attention it requires to halt this evil behavior. We should move a segment of the money thrown at the “Drug War” towards a “Sexual Abuse War.” The impact would save many more lives because victims often turn to drugs and alcohol in an effort to deal with the emotional/physical damage from the abuse.

  3. Rev. Cindy,

    Thank you so much for your insight and your ongoing work.

  4. Dave says:

    The deepest, most profound prayer I ever learned involved the tears shed over circumstance and other people. It is a hard-won prayer, often eked out in that well-worn struggle in keeping straight who I really am….whose I really belong to.

    In spite of this ongoing inner debacle, I sometimes muster up the effort and head out to the streets, the dilapidated houses, the seething neighborhoods where I am hated, mingling among the seas of despair and the “dismal tide.” Every so often I’m able to set aside just enough of the old self in a bumbling attempt to share in the misery…the suffering of others.

    It is hard won. I am so very angry when I see pictures of our nation’s capital in the background and hungry children in the foreground. I’m enraged when I think of family members, friends, and people I don’t know who suffered at the hands of abusers. I can’t stomach the sight of foster kids whose parents don’t want them save for the social services assistance check they get every month (that never, ever goes to the welfare of the kids). And I loathe the sight of violence begetting violence. But loathing and anger without an accompaniment of action is not much of anything except a lot of emotion without an outlet. Again, that’s hard won.

    So I think I’m called. I’m called to the nausea, the scroll that tastes sweet going down and then turns bitter. I’m called to stand among the kids who are out gang-banging because their gang offers them more love than their parents. I’m called to show up to juvenile court and help figure out something in a system that broke a long time ago. And I’m called to be a human shield among cowards who delight in hurting others.

    I don’t willingly go swimming among that dismal tide. If it were up to me, I’d stay right here in my easy chair, musing over this stupid inner battle between watching sitcoms, fuming over politics, resenting the institutional church I serve, and then ending the day with some meager, lukewarm prayer. It’s easier. But I’m amazed at how clearly God answers even lukewarm prayers, how God hugs me down to my soul,lovingly embracing my mediocrity, my half-hearted struggles at being a leader in the church and says something to the effect of “you’re better than all that.” All I know is that I’m supposed to go.

    I don’t think I really answered your question. I can still go, but I sure as heck don’t want the victims of this wretched war thinking they have some sort of obligation to go. But I keep seeing them do amazing things that I only dream of doing. The war vet who volunteers his time in situations that once gave him PTSD. The abused spouse who somehow eked out the courage to leave that situation and now helps others in the same situation. The ex meth addict who hangs around drug addicts and has the presence of mind to stay on message and say, “There’s something better than this.” The parent who still won’t give up on his kid even though his kid has let him down so many times. Etc. Etc. Maybe this sermon isn’t for them. Maybe it’s for people like me who still have trouble reasoning their way out of an easy chair.

How do you read?