“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God” – I Peter 4:1-2
We believe that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – The Belhar Confession
To begin with, we have to reckon with the fact (and it is a fact) that there is more in the New Testament about the suffering of the church than about any other single theme or issue of ecclesiology. – The Cross in Our Context by Douglas John Hall; p. 138
I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering. I know. Real uplifting stuff, right?
Like the author quoted above, the word “suffering” has begun to jump off the page at me when I read the Bible. It’s everywhere. I’m trying to reckon with that. I know that God is asking me to do something with it, but I’m not sure what that something is yet. Maybe you can help. Here’s what I’ve been thinking:
There is the suffering that tests faith, the suffering of circumstance. It’s the result of disaster. It’s the result of disease. It’s the result of random acts of violence and children who die. It’s the anguish that tries to consume our trust in God’s goodness and God’s providence. When there is no comfort in life or in death. But, I suppose that this is where the Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God comes into play; that God will make it right however long it might take. Besides, when the Bible talks about suffering, I don’t think this is the kind of suffering it means (but you’ll find a whole bunch of anguish in the Psalms).
Then, there is the suffering that is the result of faith, the suffering of character. Not low self-esteem, but the kind of suffering that results from wrestling with God and against the flesh; of the Spirit trying to make us holy. It’s more of an aggravating struggle, perhaps, than suffering. But there is effort and pain and failure. It’s the struggle to bite your tongue when it wants to lash out. It’s the struggle to open your hand when it wants to remain tight-fisted. It’s the challenge involved in keeping your heart soft when it wants to harden. It’s dying to comfort and convenience. I think that this kind of suffering is part of the Christians life, but I don’t know that it’s really suffering in the truest sense of the term.
Finally, there is the suffering that is the consequence of faith, the suffering of compassion. It’s the mocking, the ridicule, the persecution that Jesus suffered and about which Jesus warned his disciples as he sent them out armed only with love into a vicious world. It’s the beatings and afflictions and trials and sleepless nights and near-death experiences that Paul endured as he sought to spread the good news of God’s kingdom coming near. It’s the suffering that results from the “courageous facing of death and confrontation with death” that Mr. Hall describes in the book above. It’s this kind of suffering that the Bible seems to be describing and, sadly, the kind of suffering that seems to be absent from the church in America.
And my life.
I don’t know what to do about it.
What I do know is that the words below call to me. They seem holy. Worthy of Jesus.
The church is a community of suffering because it is a community whose eyes have been opened to the suffering that exists…If the church does not see this suffering and if, seeing it, it does not take the burden upon itself, then its whole life must be called into question (p. 152-53).
Far from clothing myself with suffering I shield and shelter myself from it. Mr. Hall is clear, and I want to echo, that I don’t think suffering is a good thing or something that Christians should do on purpose. But, following Peter’s advice, we are somehow called to “arm ourselves with the same intention,” “to set my face” toward death, to be “given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in our mortal flesh.”
To say that suffering is the will of God is not to oppress, not to keep people in their place (wives or slaves or otherwise), but to encourage. That is to say, that God’s desire is to fill with courage a people who will acknowledge suffering and move toward death and confront it and challenge its place as lord of life. But my character resists that move. So, maybe you can encourage me.