This Is a Good Time to Bolster Your Theology of Suffering

If you’ve been reading the economic news, you’ve been seeing the same things I have. Much of the forecasting is dire, and the numbers right now are beyond disturbing.1  There’s a wide range of predictions, and even the best-case scenarios aren’t fun to think about.

Like many of you, I’m more afraid of poverty than I am of COVID-19. This could be temporary. Nobody close to me has developed the disease. People close to me have lost their jobs.

This fear doesn’t make me less supportive of government rules aimed at slowing the disease, though. I don’t believe there ever was a non-catastrophic path through this. It was going to be a disaster, no matter what, and better decisions here and there would only have made it a slightly smaller disaster.2

So we have entered a time of suffering, and it might get a lot worse before it gets better. What that means for me is that I need to stir myself up by way of reminder (2 Pet. 1:13, 3:1). Maybe some of you will find these meditations helpful too.

Uncertainties and certainties

The platitude says fear of the unknown is the worst fear. I’m not so sure. Some things I fear only because they are known. I’ve experienced them before and dread going there again. Being unemployed is one of them.

But whether that will happen is an unknown. Whether we’ll be unable to buy meat at the store in a few months is an unknown. Whether I’ll lose my health plan and my family will have to choose between medication and food or clothing is an unknown. (One of us was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes literally yesterday … and two of us were already asthmatic).

Writing to a friend recently, I had keyed in the phrase, “nothing is certain in life.” I edited myself, because that’s not even close to true. For Christians, heaps of things are certain. Here, and in part 2, I’ll focus on seven certainties that relate to suffering.

Seven certain things in the life of a believer

1. Our suffering is never meaningless.

There are Psalms that seem to promise nothing bad will ever happen to God’s own. Psalm 34:19, 121:33, and 91:3 come to mind. I’ve seen these and others quoted with applications like, “See, you’re not going to get sick/lose your job!”

But the voice of Scripture as a whole is clear that we shouldn’t read these Psalms that way. Even in Psalms most of the protection passages emphasize God’s presence with us in trouble and His commitment to bring us through it. Two beautiful examples:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (ESV, Ps 23:4)

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. (Ps 138:7)

For those “in Christ” (Rom. 8:1), there is no certainty that we’ll be spared suffering. What we are spared, in every single case, without fail, is random, meaningless, pointless suffering. Whole books have been written on the purposes of suffering in the lives of believers. As Elizabeth Elliot put it, in the title of her last book, Suffering Is Never for Nothing.3

Every single thing God brings into my life and yours is, in fact, bursting with purpose. Suffering is no exception.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11, emphasis added)

who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:5–7)

2. Our suffering is never solitary.

In tough times, it’s easy to feel—maybe without noticing—that God is not really personally interested. In my own case, and maybe in yours, this has been a self-inflicted loneliness that grows out of responding to grief with stoicism rather than godly, deeply personal, joy.

There’s a difference. Stoically hanging in there, because we know intellectually that what we’re going through is really pretty ordinary and small, is admirable in some ways. But maybe using faith like an ice pack to freeze out the pain isn’t really the biblical strategy. Maybe we’re supposed to go ahead and hurt but learn to choose joy at the same time.

I can’t claim to have learned to do that yet, but Paul knew how. In the NT book that mentions joy and rejoicing more than any other, we find some remarkable statements. Speaking of whether he was going to live through his current predicament or be killed, he wrote:

I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Php 1:23–24, emphasis added)

Later, we read,

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Php 1:29–30)

Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. (Php 2:27)

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. (Php 3:17–18)

We’re not supposed to try to deal with suffering by not feeling it. Among other things, that forfeits the opportunity to weep in it, and through it, along with the community of redeemed sufferers who have gone before us—along with the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3, but note Luke 10:21, Heb. 12:2) who said “My soul is troubled” (John 12:27), who said He didn’t want to deal with it alone.

Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” (Mt 26:38)

Our suffering is never solitary, not only because we’re in such good company (the best!), but because Father, Son, and Spirit are more than just aware of it—they’re intimately involved in our suffering, whether now or in the future.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Lk 12:6–7)

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. 3 You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. 7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! …. 17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. (Psalm 139:1–8, 17-18)

In a section on the pain of living in a cursed world, Paul wrote of the Holy Spirit:

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Rom 8:23–26)

In our sufferings, we can be certain: God is close to us—extremely close—every single painful moment of it.

(Next: five more certainties. Photo by Peter Aloisio from FreeImages.)

Notes

1 It’s interesting that we aren’t (yet) seeing passionate theorizing that the economic projections are wrong and that the number of jobless people is being intentionally inflated, like we’ve been seeing in reference to COVID-19 projections and counts.

2 I realize many feel a strong need to assign blame. I’d like to confront that, but I don’t think I’m even close to understanding it yet. Certainly humans in leadership have made, and will continue to make, mistakes in response to the situation. How could it be otherwise? This is very different from concocting narratives of vilification for the whole thing. I don’t understand the appeal of that at all.

3 I’m supposed to tell you that’s a paid link. So there you go.

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