On suffering

It seems fairly odd that in some quarters of the church, a denial of suffering is equated with the blessing of God: that if God is in it, it will be done quickly, easily, without fuss or mess. This is similar to the old idea, “If you follow your passion you’ll never have to work”—the idea being that we work (e.g. expend painful effort) only for those things we are not passionate about it (the “drudgery of life”).

It’s odd, because in many scriptures suffering precisely equates to God’s blessing, promise or command:

  • Matthew 24:14 speaks of suffering that will happen on the way ’to the end’
  • Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27 all carry the famous “pick your cross and follow me” passage
  • John 16:33 says ‘in this world you will have trouble’
  • Acts 5:41, the apostles rejoiced that they were ‘counted worthy to suffer’
  • Paul likewise suffers: “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me,” (Acts 20:23) he says. He is kidnapped (Acts 21:27), beaten (Acts 21:30-31; 23:3), threatened (Acts 22:22; 27:42), arrested many times (Acts 21:33; 22:24, 31; 23:35; 28:16), accused in lawsuits (Acts 21:34; 22:30; 24:1-2; 25:2, 7; 28:4), interrogated (Acts 25:24-27), ridiculed (Acts 26:24), ignored (Acts 27:11), shipwrecked (Acts 27:41) and bitten by a viper (Acts 28:3).
  • Romans 5:3, Paul says, ‘we glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance’
  • 2 Timothy 3:12 affirms ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’
  • Philippians 3:10 says ’to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings’
  • James 1:2, ‘Count it joy when you face trials…’
  • 1 Peter 3:14 encourages us that we are blessed if we ‘suffer for what is right’
  • 1 Peter 4:13 says, ‘be glad for the chance to suffer’
  • Revelation 6:9 speaks of the martyrs who suffer for their faith, and Revelation 12:11 says ’they loved not their lives’

When I think about suffering, I can identify four kinds:

  • from the acts of others – which we are virtually guaranteed to face, if we are relentlessly following Jesus
  • from acts of self-denial – akin to various people (like marathon runners, for example) who deny themselves things and discipline themselves in order to achieve greater heights of performance and excellence
  • from the discipline of God – ’those he loves, he chastens’; and not all discipline is ‘punishment.’ We tell our children to do certain things (‘wash your dishes’, ‘put away your laundry’, ‘do your homework’) as exercises that build up character (’suffering produces character…’), not because they’ve done anything wrong or sinful per se.
  • from nature – as many writers (my favorite being C. S. Lewis) note, our world is a dangerous place, and perhaps God made it so because courage in the face of danger is the testing point of all virtue. We think of our world as being able to kill the body, but the greater danger is those things that kill the soul. We, after all, will live forever, so suffering from nature is only a ‘light and temporary affliction.’

Those who run from suffering are running from the opportunities that suffering affords. I’m not trying to be melodramatic or masochistic, but the point remains: if we refuse to suffer, we refuse any chance that might lead to a greater advance of the kingdom and an improvement for our own selves. Pain isn’t something that we (normally) enjoy, but things that might hurt are things to be examined as potentially good things. We all prefer treats to vegetables, but we also know which is likely to lead to longer life.

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