Suffering Well: The Gift of Gravitas

“There is great power in making the small and insignificant, magnificently significant.” – Peter Marty

This year I don’t want to lose weight. I want to gain it.

Let me explain.

The Industrial Revolution had many effects. One of the more unfortunate was to change the way society valued individuals.

In her landmark book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that we have gone from a culture of character, which valued moral rectitude, to a culture of personality, which values personal magnetism and likability. This happened around the turn of the 20th century when our economy moved from agriculture to industry.

Think about it. All of a sudden Johnny Main Street and Suzy Creamcheese moved from the small town they grew up in—where they were known through the context of their entire lives—to a factory job in a big city where they were anonymous and without history. Job interviews, looks, personal magnetism, and first impressions now counted more than a lifetime of discipline and personal integrity. A person’s life was measured in fifteen minute increments: how they performed during a panel interview, whether they made you laugh at a party, looked swell in a gown, or paid for your drink. Human value scaled to the time between television commercials or the depth of cleavage in a dress.

Left in the industrial wastebasket were traits long-valued by societies around the globe. Things like discipline, kindness, dependability, perseverance, and long-suffering. These were more than words. They represented a philosophy of life quietly lived out in behavior over years and decades. A solidness and weightiness of character. A life of substance rather than show.

There is a word to describe such character. The word is gravitas.

Today, gravitas is usually defined to mean seriousness or solemnity, but its Latin origin means “weighty” or “heavy.” Think of a stone tossed into a still pond. The heavier the stone, the larger the ripples. Character is also like that. People with gravitas have a noble weightiness to their lives. They are heavy with influence, such that people “gravitate” toward them. What they say and do matters, and people around them feel the substantial positive effect of their decisions.

Ironically, while contemporary pop culture and electronic media often devote their attention to celebrity gossip and the fliff-flaff of marshmallow entertainment, history is largely swayed by people of gravitas. Think Abraham Lincoln and Clara Barton; Rosa Parks and MLK Jr.; Anne Frank and Winston Churchill; Mahatma Gandhi and Malala. The best writers, and thus, the best books, have a weightiness of wisdom which promote their words from forgettable hash to timeless classics. There is a difference, too, between politicians of the moment and states persons who transcend their times.

Admitting that gravitas is worth having, how do we gain it?

It is not easy. People with gravitas have credibility. That means, usually, that they have suffered well. They have faced adversity and pain and are the better for it. They have walked through the fire and have not been burned. Instead, they have been refined and purified. They have hard-fought wisdom that can’t be bought.

It is also long-term. The nature of gravitas demands a life of character and personal integrity. It disallows cheap methods or twelve-step programs to capture it. You can’t invade it, schmooze it, impress it in an interview, or pop a pill for it.

It requires suffering. There is a reason we read Joni Eareckson Tada on disabilities or C.S. Lewis on the nature of grief, or why the best books on forgiveness were written by prisoners of war and survivors of concentration camps. Personal tragedy transformed authors Corrie ten Boom, Ann Voskamp, and Philip Yancey in a way no celebrity platform could. They write from a depth of experience that readers can sense whether or not they know their stories.

It is genuine. You cannot conjure gravitas from artificial methods. I know of a television photo-journalist who engineered a series of “hot zone” engagements where he dipped into various conflicts in a tight black t-shirt and Fabio locks, then breathlessly reported from his dire circumstances with muddied flak jacket and darting eyes. It was obscene and the series was rightly panned.

Fortunately for those seeking gravitas, suffering will find you. It probably already has. You don’t need to flee ISIS to understand human depravity. There is plenty of ache in your own neighborhood, isn’t there?

In your own family.

In your own house.

In your own heart.

No one needs world-class suffering to attain gravitas. You don’t need to climb mountains or swim the sea to gain it. The daily grind of a nine-to-five, the demands of small children, the pressure of unpaid bills, chronic illness, sleep regressions, and unrecognized sacrifices offer ample opportunity to gain good character. As Peter Marty writes, “There is great power in making the small and insignificant, magnificently significant.” So it was with God becoming flesh as a tiny human baby. So it is with us.

The Bible knows gravitas.

In Hebrew, the word for honor and glory, “kavod,” is related to the word for weightiness, “kaved.” The idea is that when we honor God, we acknowledge his immense heaviness, his absolute significance. The entire universe pulls gravitationally toward the center of God’s perfect character.

Similarly, when we suffer well we become more like God by gaining gravitas through Christ-like character. Paul writes in Romans that “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Paul makes the connection between suffering and glory explicit in 2 Corinthians. “Therefore we do not lose heart,” Paul writes. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all.” Because of this, he writes, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Suffering well results in a depth and weightiness of character that makes people irresistibly drawn to you. They remember your words long after you’re gone. Gravitas is why I remember the homeless man who shared the gospel with me, the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s who told me of God’s goodness because it was the only thing she could remember, and the missionary to Papua New Guinea who gave up his American citizenship and died in the bush so he could minister to mountain tribes.

What about you? It’s not too late to make another New Year’s Resolution. Will you consider gaining weight this year?

Will you ask God for the gift of gravitas?


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