Reading Time: This post will take about 20-25 minutes to read.
This post is directed toward anyone that claims the Christian faith. If you are not a Christian or do not have religious leanings I hope that you might still be able to find the content helpful.
Learning How to Suffer: An Under-Attended Class
In the last several months I have had several reasons to do some thinking on the topic (and reality) of suffering. The reason for my writing began with the opportunities that these events have provided for me to do some thinking and rethinking of what I believe regarding this subject. What I am not trying to do in this and future posts is to make too much of the personal questions like, “Why is this happening to me?” or other questions that look at suffering as a force acting on me. I think that this kind of effort can be and is beneficial, but I wanted to take this a step further.
What I have been wondering about is what the bible has to say to me about my response to suffering. Does the bible have anything to teach me, in a practical way, about how I am supposed to respond when a tragedy hits my life directly (i.e., the death of a loved one)! And if there is something in the bible that helps me to better live in and live through suffering, what can I do to begin to do that so that I might better reflect the bible’s example and direction. And, also related, to experience some of what I read in the life of the apostles and the early church.
As I read the bible I find that there is a given assumption that suffering will be, and to a greater extent than is understood, should be an expected part of what I encounter as a Christian. Suffering should be expected as the rule and not the exception of the Christian experience (I will explain further in the next section). Just because society has “advanced” according to some standards and measures, the offense of the Gospel to the self-righteousness found in the world (and still many times in my own heart) has not changed. I think that we make a grave mistake in thinking that the world has grown in its desire for the things of God. I know that this may sound crazy to some. I am okay with that.
What I am thinking as I write these thoughts down is to try and investigate what the bible has to say about how I should experience and perceive suffering within my own heart and mind. Another thought, and possibly more importantly, what impression are those who do not hold my faith in Jesus left with, about my faith, when they see me dealing with tragedy and suffering?
Essentially there are two short questions here. They are:
- How should a Christian suffer?
- What will the world learn about Jesus when we suffer as Christians?
Suffering’s Two Tributaries Into My Life
I believe that suffering will come in two general ways to a believer. The first is that suffering will come because we are living in a world that as been contaminated and polluted by Sin. This means that there are events and circumstances that we cannot avoid just because we are now redeemed by Jesus’ work on the cross. I am not just saying that “stuff happens.” I am saying that we should not be surprised when it does. The blood of Christ is not a magic potion that makes us immune to the suffering of this world. The blood of Christ provides us a way through that suffering that will, or should, reveal the full measure of the Gospel in us to those who see us. (Here are a sampling of Paul’s own words as he discussed the issue of suffering in his own life: Romans 5:3, Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 1:5-7, Colossians 1:24, Philippians 1:29, Philippians 3:7-10, 2 Timothy 1:8, 12, 2 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Timothy 2:8-10).
Connected to the presence of Sin in the world, I have in mind that even the Christian will have to deal with the consequences of their personal sins. Christ has taken away the penalty of sin, but in the same way that every action has a reaction, every sin has a consequence. These cannot be avoided and so we should not be surprised when we suffer for them. Peter tells us as much in his letter (1 Peter 2:20a). This suffering is justified and while God can use it God does want us to make a practice of sinning (1 John 3:7ff). This it is not what I am referring to when I talk about suffering. (Just want to clarify.)
The second way that we will suffer is due to our profession and demonstration of faith. [Aside: I am growing in my curiosity about whether or not an increase of suffering in our lives of this second variety is an indicator of our devotion to Christ. I will have to look at this further, but I am going to go on a limb and say, “Yes,” in response.] As we become convinced that Christ is who He said He was and that the life that he purchased for us is not speculation or wishful thinking, it will become natural for us to grow in our desire to conform our life to His. It is in this process of maturity that we will have our eyes opened to the inconsistencies that exist between our life in Christ and what this world has to offer. John does not pull any punches when he says the following:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17, emphasis added, ESV)
It is the love of the world that creates in us the double-mindedness that James warns about (James 1:8). We have been born again, born from above, recreated, given a new nature, a new purpose, a new will, a new citizenship in a new city. We have a new king, a new family, a new language, new gifts and new clothes. Why are we so infatuated with things that will fail, places that will fade and people that will falter? Why do we find ourselves so willing to pawn the treasures of God for the cheap souvenirs of a place that we will forget faster than our last breath? I just do not understand this anymore.
Growing Restless With The Way Things Are
I find myself growing more and more restless. Not so much with the people outside of the church. They are doing what they are supposed to do. I grow frustrated with the people who claim Christ as their treasure. But even more than frustration, I grow increasingly fearful. Fearful of the lack of devotion to Christ. Not just commitment. There are a lot of folks committed to Jesus (as long as the dividend is high enough). But then “it” hits the fan and the fade begins. Look again at the attitude that Peter demonstrates in John 6 when Jesus starts talking about cannibalism (Jesus’ teaching about drinking His blood and eating His body).
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (emphasis added, ESV)
Oh God, that my resolve to follow you be converted into an unquenchable devotion to Your Son! “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” This is not just poetic language. This is not brown-nosing. This is not an attempt at piety. This is the confession of a man that has truly “believed, and [has] come to know, that [Jesus is] the Holy One of God.” I am convicted of this almost everyday.
The Bottom Line: I Lost My Passport
So what is the bottom line? I think that we have not been assimilated to our new home in way that makes us long for it more than what we see around us. If it is true what Paul said that what is spiritual is more real than what we can see with our eyes, we have a long way to go when we long to keep what we have here over what God has for us (2 Corinthians 4:18)! Here is a question that I have been asking myself lately: Would I rather live life here on this earth? Or, do I want to be where Jesus is?
Anybody, especially any Christian, who thinks that this sounds morbid, to overly dramatic or even like a death wish has not, I believe, fully considered what God has given to us. I am a professional Christian, and I am only now coming to appreciate what the Gospel is offering to me, a lost and wretched sinner. I am sure that we can argue back and forth on this point, but I think that this question is at the very heart of why God has not completely eradicated suffering and evil. He does not want us to grow so accustomed to this world that we lose sight of what Jesus went to prepare for us in heaven. Remember, we should not love the things of this world (1 John 2:15-17).
A Sinful Silence on Sin
So where does this leave us? Why have we not kept our passports current? I think that is has something to do with a failure to feel the weight of Sin’s effect in our lives and in the lives of those around us. This world does not like for sin to be talked about and exposed. While this may appear obvious, the church has become remarkably silent on the subject. How many sermons in a given year directly and pointedly tackle THE GREATEST hindrance to having a relationship with God? We want to help people rather than heal them. We want to furnish our buildings rather than finish Christ’s work. We want to share our opinions rather than the Word of God. We want to placate the religious rather than to please the Father. Our priorities are so messed up we have grown doubtful that it will ever change. So what do we do? We start new churches that will get it right.
Please understand, I think we need more churches! As many as we can start as soon as we can start them. The concern that I have is that we may start churches that will duplicate and repeat the very thing that is not working – majoring on the minors of what it means to be a church. The church must return to the only mission for which she was created, to make disciples. (I will pick up this subject on another day!) Let’s back to the subject at hand.
Implications Precede Applications
It is now my conviction that the root of complacency in the early years of my faith was my failure to dig deeper and deeper into the implications of the bible. This led to laziness in my faith expression. The implications of the Bible must necessarily precede any applications that I might attempt to make. One example is God’s admonition for us to be holy as He is holy. While it might be easy to look at the first part of that phrase and make it the primary focus because it is about what I have to do, I would be wrong. That first part may be what I want to find out, but if I start there before I know the second I have put the proverbial cart before the horse.
But why is this a mistake? It is a mistake because the more important aspect of that statement is that God is HOLY. What exactly am I trying to be or become if I am supposed to imitate God in holiness? If I don’t have the clearest understanding of what God’s holiness is and demands I will be satisfied with whatever makes me feel better or just makes sense to me. The implication of God’s holiness will have a direct and radical effect on how I try to do what the command implies.
Let me press into this a little more. Follow me here.
- God is Holy
- God’s holiness requires holiness in everything else
- Any failure for holiness requires punishment
- Adam sinned and put the whole of creation under the curse of Sin
- Any effort to “make it up to God” fails and I am left without escape
- Only a holy person can stand in the place of the accused (but that person does not exist)
- So, God comes in the person of Jesus Christ
- Jesus fulfills the law I could not
- Jesus receives the judgment of God for Sin
- Faith in 1 – 9 gives God the right to count me righteous
- Anybody that does not believe is still under judgment
- And that judgment is eternal separation from God
Now this is just the implication!
The application of this is that we must live in a way that accords to this implication. Behavior will follow belief. I can not behave my way to a new belief. I have believe my way to a new behavior. This is not an act of the will, but a change in our affections. In other words, when I dig deep, what is the motivation that is driving me? Until I am able to articulate that motivation I will make decisions based in something that I am not as aware of as I need to be, or at least could be.
This is why the Gospel ought to become the most loved and cherished information and message that we have ever heard, and ever share! It is the Gospel that provides the greatest motivation for living because if we can apply what the Gospel implies we will keep our focus on what God is focused on.
Next time: We will look at the issue of suffering within the context of God’s will and God’s word.