Suffering is real, it is painful and it is not recognized or dealt with Biblically in the modern evangelical church. It seems that a false understanding of suffering is present; “Now that I’m a believer I will enjoy a pain free life.” Or, conversely, “I must be in sin so God is punishing me.” Both assumptions are false and do more damage to ourselves and the church than we can ever imagine.
So let’s look at a Biblical viewpoint of suffering and how we are to deal with it. Can we first agree that it is real and agree that if one hasn’t suffered yet, one will? It is inevitable. “In this world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). What else could Christ mean here? We will have trials, sufferings, pain, sickness and persecutions in our lives. As D.A. Carson reminds us in his book, “How Long, O Lord?”, now is the time to prepare for suffering, it is often too late when you find yourself in the middle of a deeply painful situation to try to start dealing with it Biblically. Thus it is critical to have a theology of suffering now before it strikes you or a loved one.
Carl Trueman, in his fine work titled, "Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," brings to light some crucial truths on suffering in his chapter, "Meeting the Man of Sorrows." On page 40 we read
Suffering and weakness are not just the way in which Christ triumphs and conquers; they are the way in which we are to triumph and conquer too. … [I]f suffering and weakness are the ways God works in Christ, it is to be expected that these are the ways he will work in those who seek to follow him. … [O]ne becomes a theologian by suffering the torments and feeling the weakness which union with Christ must inevitably bring in its wake.
What a powerful statement. For most of us we’ve had it backwards for much of our Christian walk, have we not? Continuing on page 42 he states
[A]s Christ accepted suffering and death as part of his own life and ministry, so those who seek to walk in his footsteps should expect no less. Indeed, for Luther, suffering and weakness are the essence of the Christian life, for it is in our suffering and weakness that God achieves his proper work in us: … of bringing us to heaven.
Here’s the bottom line:
[O]nce we are saved, we can expect suffering and weakness as part and parcel of the Christ-centered life. We should, therefore, not be surprised when difficulties arise in our lives, for these are an essential part of God’s alien work whereby he achieves his proper work within us (pg. 43).
Suffering and weakness are with us and we can’t escape them. It’s time to stop fooling ourselves; sin has a way of convincing us of the very opposite of what we should believe. Many ministers and churches teach just this very thing: good things are from God, bad things are from Satan, the world, other people and the list goes on. Thus, the true nature of pain and suffering are never faced and people are duped by a false theology. They experience no comfort because they believe they have failed God and are being punished or some other power other than God has caused them their suffering. Neither choice is Biblical or healthy.
Are you suffering? Then Jesus Christ has suffered too and knows in a deep and mysterious way what you are going through. Are you lonely and isolated? Then Jesus Christ has been lonely and isolated too. The brokenness of the created order engendered by sin is laid bare in the life and work of Christ (pg. 48).
[S]uffering and weakness, in whatever form they may come, are an inevitable part of life in a sinful broken world and are therefore something with which the church must genuinely grapple if it is to take seriously the God of the cross (pg. 49).
How does the church grapple with this truth? First and foremost, it must teach and preach the truth of suffering for Christ’s sake. It must not deceive its hearers any longer and point its hurting people to Christ. And, its members must then make it a safe place for those who are suffering. How? Next time we’ll turn to Nancy Guthrie for some advice.