Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thoughts on Suffering

As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, my thoughts turn to the issue of suffering. I was reading a book today that contains excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings related to Easter and Christ’s passion. Let me share a couple of them with you.

“It is not the religious act that makes a Christian, but the sharing in God’s suffering in earthly life.”

“It is good to learn early on that suffering and God are no contradiction, but much more a necessary unity….I think that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this manner gives peace and rest, and a strong and courageous heart.”

I think there are two mistakes we can make in our thinking about and approach to suffering. The first, much less common among Americans, is to see suffering as essential to the redemption process and therefore to seek it out. According to this perspective, “the more suffering, the more refined and therefore more holy I will become.” This mindset often expresses itself in a very ascetic approach to life. Pleasure, being the absence of suffering, should be avoided as ungodly. I know a few people who seem to think and live this way and have certain tendencies in this direction myself.

The other error in thinking about suffering, much more common among Americans (and not only), views suffering as a sign that God’s favor is lacking. A person who experiences suffering obviously does not have a proper relationship with God, because God would never allow his children to suffer. Job’s friends expressed basically this mindset. It also lies behind the prosperity gospel, which proclaims that God wants to bless his children and that a person who is not experiencing this blessing (i.e. suffering in some manner) must not be in proper relationship with God.

One of these days I want to do a thorough study on the biblical perspective on suffering. At this point in my life though, what I see from the Scriptures, what I have experienced in my life and what I see in the lives of others is this: God does allow his children to suffer and uses this suffering for the purpose of refining them. However, we’re not to seek after suffering as if the more of it we can find the more holy we will become. I believe C.S. Lewis commented on this, perhaps in his book The Problem of Pain. Unfortunately I don’t have my copy handy for reference. I do know that the Scriptures speak quite clearly to this issue. Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:12 and 14:

“My friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you….But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ.”

Paul echoes this in Philippians, when he wrote:

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

If we have a proper understanding of suffering, we will be better prepared to face it. If we believe that God would never allow his children to suffer, then our faith in God’s goodness may be shaken when we do encounter suffering. On the other hand, if we deliberately seek out suffering, we may become embittered and forget that God truly is good and merciful and he desires good for his children. But if we recognize that God does allow and use suffering, we will not be surprised when it comes our way and will be able to look to him to lead us through it. This is not to say that the suffering will be easy to endure. It may in fact be quite difficult. But in spite of that we can remember that God can and will use it to shape and refine us to his glory. At the same time, when we have opportunity to enjoy the pleasant things of life, we will not feel that we are somehow unholy, because we know that God also gives his children good things.

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