A “Theology of suffering”: Develop it and pass it on–there’s trouble ahead!
A number of our church members are refugees from Burma/Myanmar. Needless to say, based on their personal experiences with the government of Burma, they have zero trust that anything the government has agreed to recently will actually change the situation for their families, other Christians, and other ethnic minorities that still live in that country.
My associate pastor and his wife are from Syria. They are the only members of their immediate families that live in the U.S. His wife’s parents live in Homs and have had to move to a village in the hills outside of the city–a village that has had the electricity cut off by the military and food and medical supplies severely limited. They don’t know yet whether their home in Homs has survived the bombings.
Suffice it to say that for some of our church members and almost ALL of the refugees that our church reaches out to, government or ethnic oppression has been a way of life. Personal SUFFERING as the result of the decisions of others has been the norm in their lives, not the exception.
Ministering to these people from the truths of God’s word isn’t a great challenge. His word has much to say about the subject of suffering and most of it has to do with suffering that is the result of persecution rather than the suffering that results from disease and so forth.
And in this process, something has become painfully and convictingly apparent to me: I need to tighten up my “theology of suffering” to include that which is the result of animosity from others due to being known as a follower of Jesus.
As I survey the history of the church in the United States even right up till today, outside of a few strands within the African-American church, a “theology of suffering” has never really been developed and passed on to American Christians as part of that which will help them mature in Christ.
Here’s my take on why this is and what I believe pastors need to consider:
First–In my opinion, America is not now and has never been a valid political and governmental expression of the Kingdom of God. No earthly government or political system can be an expression of the Kingdom of God. If the United States or any other country actually was, then Jesus was mistaken when He clarified to the Pharisees what the Kingdom of God actually is, (Luke 17:20,21).
Second–During the entire history of the Christian church, there have only been a few countries where being a follower of Jesus actually “pays” rather than “costs” in any substantive way. The United States has been the greatest example of this.
Third–If we’re being honest, the sheer fact that we as pastors need to define New Testament words and terms like: “persecution”, being “reviled”, being “hated”, being “defamed”, being spoken against as “evildoers”, or “suffering for righteousness sake” for our members should tell us something about the odd environment that we live and minister in.
Fourth–If that isn’t clear enough, then the reality that we need to find examples of what this type of treatment looks like from church history or from what is currently taking place in many countries around the world, should set off our alarm bells!
Let’s face it–life for the follower of Jesus in America just isn’t that similar to what is described as the norm in the New Testament or what others in church history or in other countries today experience.
But…….if we’re paying attention at all to what is happening in this country, then we know that radical changes have begun and will more than likely continue–even if the current administration suffers a defeat in the next election.
What kind of changes? Changes that I believe will make it possible for us to give examples of the things above, (included in my 3rd point), FROM WITHIN our own country and perhaps even our own personal experiences.
Personally, I believe that God is permitting things to unfold in such a way that the requirement to find examples from history and other countries will be removed—we’ll be living it. We’ll be fully biblical in a way that we always thought we were, but maybe actually weren’t.
I’m convinced that God is steering the foolish decisions of many powerful and influential leaders in our country so that not only will it be clear to everyone that the Kingdom of God and the United States of America are not one and the same, (which many Christians don’t understand right now), but also so that those who truly are citizens of His Kingdom will know by experience themselves a greater number of the truths of His word.
In other words, I don’t believe it will be long until 2 Tim 3:12 Yes, and all who desire to live Godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution, becomes a description of our own experiences and not just those from history or other countries.
Now please don’t misunderstand me.
–I’m NOT praying that God destroys the country I’ve been blessed to be raised in and have served as part of the military. The country that has probably done a better job of representing some Kingdom principles in its interaction with other countries than most other countries and that has provided resources for me and and thousands of others to go and live in other countries to spread the good news and help with expanding His Kingdom around the world.
–I’m NOT eager to suffer persecution or any of the other things that the bible seems to indicate could be the norm for someone who follows Jesus.
–And, I’m NOT saying that we should abandon the freedoms we have in this country that God has blessed us with so that we really can have a meaningful influence on the political system or government we live under. By our vote, our voices, and many other means, we can and should try to move the government and political system towards standards that are in line with righteousness and are ultimately best for all citizens.
So, because of all the above, I believe each and every pastor would do well to develop a “theology of suffering” and then pass it on BEFORE the reality of what so many others have experienced becomes a part of our experience.
Hi, Jeff – maybe a small point, maybe not. I do think we have a theology of suffering, but not the experience of suffering, which means we have a theoretical theology. Or, because any suffering we do experience is relatively mild compared to the persecution you cite, our theology of suffering is relatively understood. It is academic, not existential. The believer in America is not similar to the description of the normal NT believer because our circumstances are not similar. But all this isn’t to criticize the relative shallowness of the American believer. As long as we rise to our theology and not trim it to fit us, we will grow into our theology as the circumstances come our way. Thanks for the thoughtful post.
I’m on the same page with you regarding the reality of “growing into our theology” as circumstances come our way. As I read what’s being put forth and have exposure personally to what is being taught from at least a couple of dozen churches here in America, I don’t believe that I’ve heard a clear declaration of the role that suffering, even from disease, and certainly not from persecution, serves in God’s purposes. I’m not saying that pastors don’t have one, but I don’t believe it is being articulated.
When I was diagnosed with a terminal disease and was faced with how much of my own previously developed theology of suffering I really believed, I was astounded at how few people, including pastors, had wrestled this subject through and had come to clear convictions that they could articulate. If something as prevalent as terminal or life-threatening diseases didn’t extract a theology of suffering, what will it be like when the “real McCoy” of suffering–persecution, interrupts our flow of life?
Again, I’m not saying all pastors and believers don’t have one, but if they do, I believe the times would indicate that we need to take it out, brush it up, and intentionally pass it on to our folks in a clear and unmistakable manner. I guess my experience was that I assumed most pastors and believers had a theology of suffering, but that assumption just wasn’t accurate.
I was also thinking that’s it sort of like a bomb or storm shelter. Even though one may exist and everyone knows there’s one there, if it isn’t talked about fairly regularly, descended into, and hands on familiarity with the lay-out experienced somewhat regularly, when the storm or bomb hits, especially when it’s dark and light isn’t available, the comfort it can and should bring may not be accessible at crunch time.
Generally speaking I think our “theology of blessing” is so well ingrained in 21st century American Christianity that even bringing up the topic of a “theology of suffering” seems—to some—to be crazy… or at least alarmist. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not one who thinks that this discussion is crazy or alarmist, but there are those who take a Isaiah 56:12 approach to church life in the foreseeable future…
Or perhaps we hear the bell begin to toll for suffering and persecution, and we take Hezekiah’s approach… “Sure Isaiah, the Babylonians are going to come here and overtake us, but as you’ve said, that’ll be a generation or two down from me. At least there will be peace in my day.” (my paraphrase of the last portion of Isaiah 39)
I began teaching through 2 Corinthians at CCEsco a few weeks ago. In chapter 1 Paul makes clear that the God of all comforts comforted him in the midst of God ordained suffering. Again in chapter 12 he reveals God as the originator of his afflicting thorn. Our theology of blessing is so much a part of our lives that many have a hard time imagining that suffering could come from anywhere other than the devil himself, or that God would actually use it for His glory and our ultimate good.
All that to say, when I do talk about topics such as this I get a lot of blank stares from people who I get the feeling think I’m giving my opinion and not the truth of the scriptures.
This post is so uncharacteristic of you.
There are people each week in our congregations who do suffer deeply – not the persecution type suffering, but the ‘my world as I know it is falling apart’ type of suffering. Americans are not immune from bone crushing, soul numbing suffering. The death of a child, the break-up of a marriage, homelessness – the pain of this is no different here than in a third world country. On further thought, there are many saints in each of our congregations who have been matured and sanctified through seasons of intense suffering. Let’s not be too dismissive of the American experience.
I am concerned though that we will likely begin to see a suffering on a different level in our day. To be honest, for purely selfish reasons, I pray it doesn’t happen. And not because I wouldn’t be willing to suffer for the name of Christ, but because I don’t want to see my family and my brothers and sisters endure such hardship. But, the sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us. I certainly look forward to the great salvation on the other side of any suffering we may see.
Amen Tim, my sentiments exactly. I see a lot of suffering amongst people here in my own life and church. Pain is pain and we all need the grace and mercy of God to bear up under it and hopefully bear with those who are undergoing in it. I am thankful that we know God, who is merciful, present and gracious and in all things, His grace is sufficient.
For me, a key element to endurance and perseverance is walking the way of the Cross (Mt 16:24, et al). This basic element of self-denial is much easier to relate to, along with the exhortations, encouragements & promises of enduring suffering, for those going through it, than the average believer in America for the reasons you put forth, Jeff.
If my priority is self-denial (in an non-buddhist way), and taking up my cross to follow Jesus, then suffering doesn’t seem unusual. When I was diagnosed with prostrate cancer (low risk), the typical question was, “why did this happen to you pastor?” My response & thought, “why not? Why should I expect to be untouched by what others are affected by?”
The concept of suffering and self-denial is so counter to American culture, which is almost a belief that it’s our right not to suffer. Think of how much money is spent on insurances of all kinds & efforts to have a risk-free life. I’m always reminded of this when going back & forth to the Philippines (or Thailand or fill-in the blank) and the US. We (Americans) are not just obsessed with consuming things, but always with safety, risk avoidance, comfort, etc.
I think a good theology of suffering needs to be practical & useful in every day life, so that it’s an integrated part of our teaching and example as leaders.