‘Put me to doing, put me to suffering’

by Andrew Lunn.

In the older version of the Methodist covenant prayer the phrase ‘put me to suffering’[1] has sometimes been a problem.  Surely we do not ask God to cause us pain, to ‘suffer’ in that sense?  The phrase is open to misunderstanding because of the way the word ‘suffering’ has changed its meaning.  There is an associated risk: that the content of the older meaning is diminished, because we no longer have a single simple word with which to express it.  That older meaning which allows us to pray ‘put me to suffering’ lies in the idea of dependence—of ourselves as creatures who depend on each other at many critical points in our lives.  Such dependence can also be understood in terms of vulnerability.  Those on whom we have been, are, or will be dependent, are also those to whom we are vulnerable.  Each of us cannot but be those who ‘suffer’ in that sense—we cannot but be those who are dependent on others.  Needless to say, as creatures we are also utterly dependent on God.

In his book Dependent Rational Animals[2] Alasdair MacIntyre argues that to deny such dependency, such suffering, is to turn aside from a central resource by which we are enabled to live the good (that is, the virtuous) life.  Even while we seek to become ‘independent practical reasoners’, our dependent beginnings in infancy, and the recurring possibilities for dependence in sickness,  emotional turmoil, or old age, shape the experience of our whole lives.  ‘In order to flourish, we need both those virtues that enable us to function as independent and accountable practical reasoners and those virtues that enable us to acknowledge the nature and extent of our dependence on others.  Both the acquisition and the exercise of those virtues are possible only insofar as we participate in social relationships of giving and receiving.’[3]

For MacIntyre, this provides the basis for our empathic connections with all other people, even strangers who might find themselves in dire need before us.  He explores the central virtue of ‘just generosity’[4] the exercise of which involves responding to need which echoes our own experiences of dependency.  Being in places of ‘suffering’ in this sense equips us to respond to others who suffer, provided we are embedded in relationships of giving and receiving which help us to learn such virtues and exercise them as ‘independent practical reasoners’.  In this sense ‘doing’ and ‘suffering’ belong together.

MacIntyre’s work might be seen as offering a philosophical counterpoint to the theology of the Gospels.  The story of the incarnation, of Christ entering into human vulnerability and dependence, displays for us the tension between God’s impassibility and God’s freedom, a theme explored in Vanstone’s extended reflection on Christ’s waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane.[5]   In other places the vulnerability and dependence of the disciples comes into the foreground.  In Matthew 10, as Jesus sends them out to minister (‘doing’), he reminds them repeatedly of vulnerability (‘suffering’), yet also places value in that vulnerability for ‘you are of more value than many sparrows’ (v. 31).  While in verses 40-42 those who respond to the needs of the vulnerable are identified as those who will be rewarded.

These themes provide us with theological and philosophical bases for our mutual relationships for life in the church.  We should be consciously echoing both the practices which Christ taught his disciples, and the virtues which he embodied himself in his passion.  The cup of cold water offered to ‘little ones’ which is rewarded, elevates the importance of responding to the needs of those ‘little ones’—a phrase open to a variety of interpretations, but which certainly encapsulates the idea of vulnerability and dependence.

As we create communities of Christian practice from the basis of our common dependent humanity many aspects of pastoral practice will be found at the theological heart of our life together:  from care of the bereaved, to messy church; from safeguarding practice to the political response to refugees.  It is not that we do these things because we have been and will be vulnerable and dependent in the same way as those to whom we minister—not, that is, in exercising benevolent self-interest—rather, we do them as those whose practices are shaped from the beginning by our dependence on each other, and as those for whom ethical action takes its shape and meaning precisely from our common patterns of vulnerability.  We do them also as those whose faith is shaped by God, revealed in Christ as a God in whom vulnerability is not just protected, but embraced in the mystery of the incarnation.

To pray ‘put me to doing, put me to suffering’ is to acknowledge both doing and suffering as essential parts of being Christian, and being human.

 

[1] ‘The Covenant Service’, The Methodist Worship Book, (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1999) 290.

[2] MacIntyre, Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (London: Duckworth, 2009).

[3] MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 155-156.

[4] MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, 121 ff.

[5] Vanstone, W.H., The Stature of Waiting (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1982).

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1 thought on “‘Put me to doing, put me to suffering’”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    I found your words a little complicated. Surely, “put me to doing, put me to suffering,” is just that, asking God to use you for His purpose, even if it may mean suffering. It reminds me of the words in the garden, “Not my will but yours.” Not that I believe that God puts us to suffering, but is our comfort in those times for we have a promise. It also reminds me of the hymn words, “Not forever in green pastures would we ask our way to be, but the steep and rugged pathway.”
    Finally, I recently took the closing prayers at a training day in Manchester & used the words of the covenant in the plural as part of those prayers.

    Like

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