Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Theology of Suffering

Although I cannot recall the exact time of day, or for that matter, which day exactly, I’ll never forget the moment. The moment occurred during the summer of ’85, I was just 12 years old, and mine had been a very sheltered and protected 12 years. In fact, it was while sleeping in my very own room, completely at ease an unconcerned with anything in the world that my sheltered and protected existence was shaken to the foundations for the very first time, because on this particular evening I was awakened from my sleep by an unexpected splash of light; startled, and with spots in my eyes, I looked towards the door of my room. I could tell right away that it was Mom, but I couldn’t tell that she was crying, at least, not until she sat down beside me. Pulling me close and holding on to my shoulders, with her tears wetting my chest, Mom said, “Travis, Popaw has just died.” Until then, I had only witnessed the suffering of others, but at that moment, and in the next few days that followed, it was to be experienced.

I had cried before, but never like I cried that night, first at home, and then later at Popaw’s house; everyone was there, everyone except Popaw. At the funeral I remember looking at Mom and Dad in a whole new light. Since that fateful evening eighteen summers ago, I have been reacquainted with suffering many times. Dianna and I have endured two heart-wrenching miscarriages.

I know that everyone has faced similar experiences, and it is not uncommon, and it is not wrong, to wonder why God allows such things to happen. What is His purpose for allowing such sadness in our lives? The truth is that more spiritual progress is made through failure and tears than success and laughter. Notice that I did not say all spiritual progress comes via failure and tears, I said more. Through God’s grace and might, we discover that those incidents make us more sensitive, faithful, and useful to the cause of Christ.

I believe that sound, Biblical theology is pleasing to God, and I believe that all Christians should be theologians. Thus, Christians should possess a sound theology of suffering, in order to please God and for our own spiritual and emotional benefit. Obviously, sound theology must be Biblical theology. From Isaiah 53:3 we read:
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were [our] faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
This passage is a prophecy of Christ's work on the cross, about this passage John Stott says,
The God who allows us to suffer, once suffered Himself in Christ…The cross of Christ is the proof of God’s personal, loving solidarity with us in our pain.
Still, we are continually bombarded with the notion that “successful” Christian living takes place in the realm of constant victory, health, wholeness, and financial prosperity. Let me say it plain, such notions are the product of empty heads and closed Bibles. We must not pretend that suffering doesn’t exist or that it might be instantly cured, or that it is reserved for those under the judgment of God. When the Apostle Peter wrote to Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire he made sure that they were in no doubt about the place and purpose of suffering. 1 Peter 4:12-16, 19:
Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy [are ye]; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or [as] a thief, or [as] an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters.Yet if [any man suffer] as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls [to him] in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.
There is no attempt on the apostle’s part to explain the presence of suffering as a result of unconfessed sin or an absence of faith. Peter declares that those who suffer for the cause of Christ should continue to commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do what is good.

Paul also spoke to this issue. In 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 the apostle wrote:
[We are] troubled on every side, yet not distressed; [we are] perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed
How was it that Paul was often knocked down but never knocked out? It is because “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” We are vessels so that God might use us, and we are earthen vessels so that we might depend on God’s power and not our own. We must focus on the treasure and not on the vessel. Paul was not afraid of suffering or trial, because he knew that God would guard the vessel so long as Paul was guarding the treasure.

The puritan Thomas Watson said,
Suffering may be lasting, but it is not everlasting.
Peter reminds us that suffering is only for “a season” and he assures us that
the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle [you]. (1 Peter 1:6; 5:10)
The trouble is, when you are enduring suffering it seems to last forever! Nevertheless, in light of eternity even seventy years of continual heartbreak and suffering is but a blink of an eye!

This brings us back to why Christians need a sound theology of suffering, because if we do not we are in danger of marginalizing our expectations of heaven. Too many of us are preoccupied with the here and now and the me and mine, and we compound that with the idea of getting everything that we want down here. If we conclude that we are now to experience total healing, total reconciliation, total restoration, limitless joy, unparalleled success, and freedom from pain, then why be concerned about heaven? Do not be devoted to trying to produce heaven on earth; instead, recognize that, as Christians, the best is yet to come!
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward [man] is renewed day by day.For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding [and] eternal weight of glory;While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen [are] temporal; but the things which are not seen [are] eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Today there is death and tears, mourning and pain, but one day these will all be things of the past.

To be sure, it would be wrong to suggest that in suffering we know God’s presence exclusively, however, in suffering we do know God’s presence especially. While traveling through tough times and dark days we are tempted to believe that we walk alone; thankfully that is not true. I also want to assert that suffering, in and of itself, will not always lead a person into a deeper relationship with God; it can, and, I believe, it should, but that is really left up to the individual. Some people have responded to suffering and trials in such a way as to become hard, cold, and rebellious, while others display a spirit of humility. What makes the difference? Faith does, because while both people may declare that they do not understand why God would permit such sadness in their lives, only the latter adopt a humble attitude and affirm, “Although I do not understand, I will trust You.” Along that avenue there is peace and growth, while on the other side of the street there is only confusion, disgruntlement, and sadness.

God in His goodness has blessed me immensely; blessed me with a life partner that is a true and wonderful help meet, with three sons full of life and vitality, with a family that has always loved me and shielded me, with a church that wants me to succeed and be fruitful, helping me towards that end, with a mentor from whom I have learned, trained, and with whomI have labored. I have been blessed with a healthy body and a mostly-sound mind. But when I think of any realistic and lasting progress that’s been made in my life, they are unquestionably linked, not only with my successes, but mainly with my failures, tears, disappointments, and heartaches.

The Puritan Abraham Wright said,
I am mended by my sickness, enriched by my poverty, and strengthened by my weakness…What fools are we then to frown upon our afflictions! They are not indeed for our pleasure, they are for our profit.

What of you? Will you run away from your hardships? Deny your failures? View suffering as simply an unwanted intruder? Will you “frown upon your afflictions”? Or will you resolve to be a Hebrews 11 saint; understanding that suffering is “not indeed for your pleasure, but for your profit”?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can honestly say that the majority of my life has been filled with one blessing after another. Although the "hard times" have been few, they all have seemed to be life changing or thought changing moments. The blessings have definately out-numbered the heart aches. As I think about those hardships, I can say they have shaped me into who I am today and quite honestly I wouldn't take any of them back. I totally agree with "faith" being the determining factor of how you respond to adversity. I have a close relative that has been through a rough life: Lost a job, medical conditions with his children, loss of possessions, poor health, etc. In my eyes, I believe the Lord is trying to convince him to surrender his life. Unfortunately he doesn't see it that way. Trouble always seems to come his way and yet there is no change in attitude. It's like going to the refrigerator five times in a row hoping something new will appear. This relative always says that I was born with a horseshoe up my rear-end insinuating I am lucky. I just tell him, "No, I don't have a horseshoe up my rear-end but I do have Jesus in my heart." People need to know that you don't have to be controlled by your emotions and/or your circumstances. I consider myself an emotional person but through it all, I understand that God is in control. He knows what is best for us. I believe that some people forget that although God loves to bless his children, his blessings are almost always followed by some demonstration of faithfullness. Most people believe it is the other way around. As Christians, we need to lead by example, keep our faith, and be prepared for the "hard times".

-Steve

Fresh Dirt said...

I wholeheartedly agree. Christ promised his followers that they would endure suffering and persecution BECAUSE of their faith. American Christians do not seem to be under any real persecution... which always makes me wonder if we are truly following Christ. In addition, as you have said, we American Christians seem to believe that God wants to alleviate our lives of suffering and pain in the hear and now. This also makes me wonder if we are true believers of the gospel (if we heard it right or if we heard "another gospel"). Good post.