“I left because I couldn’t swallow a God who would allow me to suffer, and condone such suffering in the world around me.” These words came from a friend of mine during a conversation on theodicy (the unbelief in God in light of human suffering). It’s no doubt a tough question to deal with, because none of us like to suffer, and we do what we can to avoid suffering by natural instinct. My friend’s question was simply an echo of a Western culture’s idea of what life (and for the purposes of this conversation, the Christian life) should look like. Suffering and pain implies the non-existence of God, or at least the non-existence of a good God, and invalidates the Christian message. Those who are living for such a righteous cause shouldn’t suffer at all, should they?
The problem is, in asking this question, not only do we project our larger ideas of what seems good onto God (I am a good and loving person, and I would not let innocent babies die, therefore God must not be good and loving), but we assume that suffering itself has no relation to Christianity. If we are truly serving a God who is all powerful, if we truly are “…more than conquerors through Him who loved us…”, then we should not be subject to suffering, pain and misfortune. However, the apostle Paul makes it clear in every letter he penned that suffering was not just a possibility as a follower of the risen Christ; it was to be expected.
Dr. Bob Yarbrough seems to agree, stating: “Christians are called to be servants–of God, of one another, of their spouses and other family members, of friends, of the world at large…Jesus’ call to serve is also, probably too frequently for our liking, a call to suffer.” No one likes to suffer; and, there should be no disagreement that suffering and pain are not naturally a part of the created order. It exists because of human sinfulness; it wasn’t created ex nihilo. It is a pollution of original intent, a shattering of the peace and prosperity that was meant for mankind (see Genesis 3). In spite of our “best efforts”, pain and suffering became a part of life when the created rebelled against the Creator. Things were thrown off kilter, and the balance and harmony inherent in creation shifted. It was from that very moment that man could no longer maintain his status of dominion and rule over the Earth. Death was now an ugly shadow over the light of eternity, and all that belonged to it. In short, we were no longer strangers to suffering. And indeed, Jesus did not present Himself aloof to suffering, nor did He suggest that those who followed Him were above such. As a matter of fact, Jesus gives a warning to a couple of men who wished to follow him in Matthew. The encounter bears significant weight in the testimony of who Christ was and what it meant to follow the path of righteousness.
“Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
It might initially come as some stark contrast to who we expect Jesus to be (as I’m sure it did for some who heard it). After all, have we ever heard the Gospel presented in such a way to a new believer? “Come to Christ, He welcomes you and beckons you to Himself, but before you do, be warned–this is going to hurt. You are going to suffer.” I wonder how many would follow Christ when presented with that sort of Gospel call? The passage never tells us whether or not the two men Christ warned followed Him; it is left to our imagination. I certainly wonder when I read this passage. Did they? Would I come traipsing after this Savior who warned me of intense suffering to come?
And so we come to the heart of a question that plagues those who follow Christ (more frequently in the post-modern, Western mindset): Does being ‘more than conquerors’ mean that we suffer less, or more? Paul seems to answer this in his letter to the church at Phillipi, by presenting the example of the suffering servant:
“…being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
We can also see, upon reading the book of Acts, that those who spread the Gospel aren’t met with welcome hugs and shouts of praise, but with pain, ridicule, criminal charges, death sentences, etc. Whether it be the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, the persecution of Paul through imprisonment and torture, or the death of Peter by crucifixion, it is clear from the outset that carrying the message of Christ and his resurrection is bad for our physical health. At times it can be hard for us, in a society which is fairly lenient when it comes to the freedom of presenting our religions publicly, to qualify any hardship that we go through as suffering; especially when we see such heinous suffering on behalf of Christians in other parts of the world. But a proper understanding of suffering, particularly in the Christian life, seems to suggest that the why’s of pain and suffering are not so much outcries against God’s goodness, but lamentation over the absolute injustice of suffering itself. Author Thomas Long puts it this way:
“When we voice protest over the evil and suffering we encounter in life…we engage in…[a] profound form of prayer. Prayer…is a part of our ongoing relationship with God…in ways we do not understand and cannot articulate, God allows our cries…desperate appeals…and protests…to be gathered up into God’s actions in the world.”
We see this same sort of cry from the Psalmist; and it is a cry that is as old as humanity itself. But Paul understood, even as he penned the words from a prison cell, that “…in all these things we are more than conquerors…”; in famine, in persecution, in distress, in hardship, in nakedness. We are not conquerors because we rise above such suffering; no, we are conquerors because we endure, through the strength of Him who faced suffering and death for us, so that we might be called sons and daughters of the living God. We are not slaves of a God who sits aloof to our suffering; no, we strive for obedience to a God who has poured Himself out for us. As Dorothy Sayers once wrote: “Whatever the answer to the problem of evil, one thing is certain: God took his own medicine.”
Soli Deo Gloria.