I used to participate in a stationary cycling class several times a week. It was very enjoyable and very good exercise. On one occasion, a man much younger than most of us in the class decided to join the group. He arrived at the class dressed in dirt-trail riding gear and made a point of telling everyone that he was a very experienced rider. It was apparent that he regarded our stationary cycling class as too little a challenge for him. After the class, the young man slumped against his cycle, struggled to remain on his feet, and confessed, “I had no idea.” I tried not to look too smug.
That fellow who so underestimated the effort required for spinning offers a good example with which to understand Paul’s statement in the Acts of the Apostles in today’s first reading.
The first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas was not without its challenges and struggles. The evangelists were jailed, beaten, and threatened with death. Apparently, they had not expected to face any of those hardships.
At the beginning of their missionary journey, they probably thought that they would preach, make some converts, and return home safely. During the course of the journey, they had reason to question whether they would ever see their home church community again. At the end of his first missionary journey, Paul summed up his experiences by saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
Paul’s statement should not be taken to mean that he looked forward to suffering; nor should it be interpreted to mean that he thought he and his companions deserved to suffer. Further, it is quite a mistake to think that entering the kingdom of God is an experience that can be purchased or merited by suffering or any other action. Rather, like the young man who underestimated the effort required by a spinning class, Paul looked back on his first missionary journey and realized that he never would have thought it was going to be as difficult as it proved to be.
In a moment of self-reflective honesty, Paul admitted to himself that discipleship was a much more challenging activity than he had anticipated. In doing so, Paul provides us with a faithful disciple’s perspective on suffering.
It would be inaccurate to say that Paul courted the sufferings he experienced. It is true that his conflicts with others arose because of his preaching, but it was not the case that he sought conflict. Paul was determined to preach the Word of God and to offer all his hearers the opportunity to repent. Paul was not at fault for the fact that some of his hearers took his preaching as an insult or a threat. Paul bore no responsibility for causing the suffering he endured, but he was forced to endure it, nonetheless.
Such is human life. All people suffer, and most suffering is unmerited. Most commonly, suffering elicits complaining about its unjust nature and blaming for its random occurrence. Paul engaged in none of that. Paul didn’t whine about how unfair life had been to him; nor did he complain that he deserved better because he was a disciple. Notably, Paul did not blame or condemn those who caused his suffering.
Paul came to understand that, in a world conditioned by sin, even the most faithful and virtuous people experience suffering. Consequently, Paul chose to apply to his suffering the remedy that Jesus instructed his disciples to apply to all incidents of sin and evil: Paul chose to forgive.
Paul acknowledged that suffering is necessary – in the sense that it is unavoidable. As it is unavoidable, it deserves to be forgiven. This is what Paul meant when he said that he had “to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) The hardships were not a price to be paid, but an opportunity to practice Jesus’ command to forgive all people’s sins. This is the path that leads to God’s kingdom because it is an act of faith and generosity that fulfills God’s will.
Most of us will never have to suffer for proclaiming our faith, as Paul did. We can, however, gain entrance to the kingdom of God, as Paul did. All of us will experience suffering, and although we probably won’t have to suffer for the Faith, we can choose to suffer with an attitude of faith. We can fulfill God’s will by forgiving those who offend us and granting forgiveness to the limitations of the world.
Sadly, suffering is unavoidable, but salvation is not unavoidable. We cannot choose not to suffer, but we can choose not to be overwhelmed by suffering and hardships: we can choose to forgive. We can choose to define our lives by fulfilling God’s will rather than allowing our lives to be defined by unavoidable hardship. In doing so, with Paul, we enter the kingdom of God.