A Theology of Suffering

Some of the best advice I have ever heard for the modern day Church is this: “We had better develop our theology of suffering, because it’s not going away.” It seems like the Church really does not expect to suffer. We’re still shocked by it, disappointed in God over it, and personally offended…yet it was promised over and over in the Bible. Living in safe and sweet America hasn’t truly done us any favors spiritually. (But I am not saying I’m not grateful still.) I am so guilty of this. The first time I really suffered, it took counseling for me to unwrap my shock, indignation, and what felt like betrayal from God.

But something has been rolling around in my mind lately and I think I can finally articulate it, not that its anything new or rocket science status…For believers who really are trying to know and follow God personally, I think the thing that makes suffering really sting is that we do not believe it came from God. I know when I am suffering all I can think about is “how to get back in God’s will.” I want to RUN, conquer, win! I want no obstacles holding me back from a glorious life in Him, but that glorious life in Him isn’t necessarily going to be found in the physical realm or in things leveling out, calming down, or getting easier. Instead of promising that picture we have in our minds of what “living in God’s will” would look like, we are promised the cross. The cross comes in the form of suffering, and the suffering comes in the form of: dreams that do not come true, disappointments, failure, disease, tragedies…
Accepting the cross and not scorning its shame is a Key. It is sharing in the sufferings of Christ which He said we will have opportunity to do, and He is inviting us to not only share in those sufferings, He is inviting us to follow His example in the way He bore up under those sufferings. He knew He was in the perfect middle of the will of His Father; at different times, he felt the humility, the joy, and the abandonment, but He always could hold on to knowing He was in His Father’s will. Whether you’re suffering because you are sick on the mission field or suffering because you can’t get a good job, when you live trusting in the Lord with all your heart, your suffering gets to accomplish a great work in you! You’re in God’s will! All those verses about suffering producing perseverance, character, and faith apply to you! I believe God’s will is all about who you are right where you are. If you are connected to Him right here and now, there’s no where else you’re supposed to be. If jobs or locations or whatever need to change, you can bet those details will happen without a whole lot of hoopla. So…
Tonight, Selah (my 6 yr old) was really tired, and she said, “Life is so hard! I wish it was worth it. I wish we could just visit Heaven sometimes!” Now, let me backtrack a little. She said this because honestly, we have exposed her to a lot of suffering. She is my daughter, so it’s inevitable. If she’s going to be around me much, she is going to know about the persecuted church, what is going on in these countries, the drought/war/famine in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia…but also, because she experienced adopting a little sis from Ethiopia, went through the same agony/learning experience we did, has a grandmother who suffers greatly in and out of the hospital, and we spend a good deal of time with people at the nursing home since her great grandfather lives there. She is exposed. Of course, she also thinks the fact that her finger was pricked at the doctor today is a national emergency, and we are very careful what images/language we allow her to see and hear regarding these things, but my point is this: Suffering is not going away. We can only protect ourselves and our kids so much, and we should only protect ourselves and our kids so much.
I preached a little sermon to Selah in Kroger when she said she wishes this life was worth it. She wanted to know why we even had to be here on earth if we were just here to fellowship with God and point others to His love. She said, “Why couldn’t God just keep us all in Heaven and we wouldn’t have to go through all this?” Good questions, sweet Selah. I don’t know it all. But I am happy that I have truth to tell her. Truth about what she can see–I’m not sugarcoating the realities of suffering–and truth about what she cannot yet see–that our God is in control, that we are called to sacrificially show compassion around the world, and that King Jesus will come back someday. And when He does, we will see His very appropriate vengeance released that He has held back all this time. Read Isaiah! Read Revelation! We must develop and teach a theology of suffering from God’s Word, not an American version of it that says it is God’s job to keep us housed and fed and healthy. It doesn’t matter what we like or what we wish were true.
The Beloved is being prepared for her Bridegroom, and this will come through the refining fire of suffering…in all shapes and sizes. We’ve got to see it for what it is and prepare our children for their refining fire, too. We kind of have to…grow up and stop skirting around it, closing our eyes and hoping it won’t be there when we open them. Come Lord Jesus, and help us through Your Spirit until You do!

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