1112138276This week we begin a 5-week mini-series on the theology of suffering.  We referred to this some weeks ago when we considered For the Good of Those that Love Him.  As we said in that blog, there is a prevailing attitude in the west that largely assumes things will go well for us, God will protect us, and we will succeed.  So when a major disaster strikes, it can cause us to question our beliefs if we do not have a good understanding of how and why suffering occurs.

This is what is known as a theology of suffering, and churches, bible colleges and mission agencies are all keen to ensure that their members appreciate that things can go very badly wrong in the mission field at times and that they are prepared to deal with some tough questions.

Many of us will know of people who have lost a close relative, suffered serious injury or disability, been kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned, or suffered spiritual or emotional abuse in the mission field.  Others have been persecuted for their faith, as Christians are even today in places like north Africa, the Middle East and west Africa.  Many have questioned aspects of their faith as a result, or even lost it completely.  So how does this come about?

Has God been caught off-guard?  Was God busy with more important issues?  Has Satan outwitted God?  It can certainly feel like that when we’re looking for answers but God HAS to be bigger than that.  Suffering bothers us because it affronts our desire to be in control of life.  It reminds us that life – and God – is much bigger than we are, as Job found out when he complained that God wasn’t keeping up his side of the bargain: I’ll worship you as long as you deliver health, blessing and prosperity.

Suffering contradicts our sense of entitlement in a way that would seem absurd to many in developing countries who know only too well that life is hard.  The reality is that life is messy and bad stuff happens.  Whether you believe it to be the consequence of the Fall or just the impact of human greed and selfishness at work, the world is full of harm and hurt.  And that is a normal aspect of human life.  Christians suffer just like others.  Christian refugees have recently been drowned alongside Muslims crossing the Mediterranean.  Christians have been killed in Iraq alongside Yazidis.  Christians have probably died in the Nepal earthquake alongside Hindus.  Being a Christian does not give us a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  Jesus pointed out that the sun shines on those who try to follow God and those who don’t (Matthew 5:45), and when asked if people killed in a disaster somehow deserved God’s judgement, he pointed out that we all deserve judgement and should take the opportunity to get right with God (Luke 13:1-5).

Moreover, the Bible is realistic about the existence of suffering.  The writers of the New Testament clearly thought it was normal to suffer, and particularly to be persecuted for being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus talked about it a lot (see Matthew 5: 10-12, Mark 13: 9-13, Luke 21:12, John 12:24-26 among several other verses).  And what can Matthew 16:24 mean if not to communicate Jesus’ teaching that he expects us to suffer?

If you want to follow me, forget about yourself.  Pick up your cross and follow me.  If you want to save your life, you will destroy it.  But if you lose your life for me, you will find it.

And of course, Jesus knew what he was talking about.  He understood that it was God’s plan for him to suffer and die on the cross.  And although it was hard (Luke 22:42), he embraced it with determination.  And he expected us to follow him.  Joni Eareckson-Tada, a well-known quadriplegic woman who has had a prominent ministry bringing encouragement to suffering Christians commented that “Suffering drives us down the road to Calvary where otherwise we would not be willing to go.”

So when suffering strikes, no matter how terribly painful or unjust it feels, the best way to deal with it is to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross.

To find out more about a theology of suffering, check out these links:

  • Dr Ken Williams has put together a very helpful study with a huge quantity of Bible verses
  • Smallgroups.com has a helpful 5-session Bible study for groups on this issue.
  • Many authors including D A Carson, C S Lewis, R C Sproul and Philip Yancey have written on this subject but we particularly recommend Is God to Blame? by Gregory A Boyd.