I was in the 10th grade when I had my first real brush with suffering. I was closer to my grandfather than most, partly because he was also my next door neighbor and I spent a great majority of my life at the house he shared with my grandmother.
He was only 60 and after going into a routine surgical biopsy, he never woke up. He was on life support and as we were making the decision to take him off, I had a melt down in the ICU bathroom where I cried out to God, expressing that surely He wasn’t going to allow this to happen. I was the good Christian boy, after all. I was walking with Him and sharing the Gospel with many schoolmates. It felt very much so like God and I had a business deal where I followed Him and obeyed, and He kept things like this from happening to me.
It felt very much so like God and I had a business deal where I followed Him and obeyed, and He kept things like this from happening to me.
Except, He didn’t. We pulled him off life support and watched the breath leave his chest, the red, blinking zero on the monitor signaling a new world that I wasn’t ready for. For the longest time I didn’t know what had happened or how to move forward with my relationship with God. I felt like He’d betrayed me—pulled the wool over my eyes.
Until one night I was reading an Oswald Chambers devotional (of course) and a line said:
“Until we can come face to face with the deepest, darkest fact of life without damaging our view of God’s character, we do not yet know Him.”
I immediately thought: “I must not really know Him, then.”
That started a long journey of learning what a biblical theology of suffering meant.
Not Everyone is Jabez
I grew up in the church, but I was completely unprepared for suffering when I encountered it in high school. I had just enough exposure to preachers on TV and Christian subculture that, without realizing it, a form of prosperity gospel had dripped into my subconscious. I don’t know if I would have said it outright, but I did believe that God and I were in a business relationship—and if I was walking with Him He would bless me and enlarge my territory and keep bad things from happening.
There are examples of people who love God having pretty great lives in the Bible. But I didn’t realize in high school that those people are actually the minority—not the expectation. Many faithful, God-fearing people had really difficult lives full of suffering (Paul and Jesus come to mind quickly).
Hebrews 11 is my favorite passage that totally blows the prosperity gospel to pieces. This great “Faith Hall of Fame” passage mentions so many who were faithful and their lives had very different outcomes. Verse 33 picks up and describes faithful people who:
“conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection.”
And then, literally in the middle of verse 35, the outcomes change drastically:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
The first time I actually heard this passage taught correctly, I was like, “What?! Are you kidding me? All were faithful, and the first group got these amazing things and the second group got the exact opposite?”
Put that in your prosperity pipe and smoke it.
Do Not Be Surprised
The default nature of human beings is works-based righteousness. We tend to naturally think of our relationship with God as a performance or a business deal. Add that onto the fact that a lot of very explicit prosperity gospel (and also more sneaky versions) has been taught in American evangelicalism and you get a perfect recipe for disenchantment.
Pastors, your churches are full of people that were exactly like me in the 10th grade. People who are not prepared for the waves of suffering that will crash into their lives. So we need to teach them, early and often, what the Bible actually says about suffering. Which is actually summed up fairly well in 1 Peter chapters 4 and 5.
“12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
– 1 Peter 4:12-13
“19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
– 1 Peter 4:19
“6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
– 1 Peter 5:6-11
I love the language of 1 Peter 4: “do not be surprised…as though some strange thing were happening to you.” When my grandfather died much earlier than we wanted him to, I though some strange thing was happening. I didn’t know that unexpected suffering is a normal part of living in a world ravished by sin and it’s effects on creation. I didn’t know that I was never promised a peachy life, so I have no right to grow bitter and resentful if God doesn’t give me the circumstances I want.
I didn’t fully realize that God had already proved His goodness towards me in the cross of Jesus, and that no circumstance that I ever encounter could change that. I didn’t know that Jesus is such a great reward that at the end it doesn’t really matter if you’re in the first group of Hebrews 11 or the second group—He is so valuable that any differences we experience on the way to Him will become inconsequential with time.
I didn’t fully realize that God had already proved His goodness towards me in the cross of Jesus, and that no circumstance that I ever encounter could change that.
I didn’t know any of this, and what I had heard evidently had not sunk in yet. I don’t think we can ever tire of teaching this—so pastors, church leaders, everyday ordinary Christians—let’s teach and disciple people in a healthy, biblical theology of suffering.
Published August 21, 2015