There is a strain of Christianity that promises material blessing as a sign of God’s favor: cars, homes, bank accounts, etc. Given the economic downturn over the last few years, this strain should strain all credibility. Did God decide to withhold 30 to 40 percent of his favor across whole neighborhoods as their housing values plummeted?
God clearly promises blessings in Scripture, even material ones, but if these are our focus we’ve narrowed in on the smallest part of his love and grace to us. It also says something about our shallow understanding of suffering and its place in our spirituality.
Nobody likes suffering, but if Christ himself learned obedience through the things he suffered (Heb 5.8), how much more do we stand to learn? Christ only comes with a cross. His crown only comes with thorns. Accessing his life only comes with dying — dying to sin, dying to self, dying to delusion, dying to vain ambitions, dying to anything that distracts from a life of witness to Christ.
Suffering is not alien to the Christian experience. It is a key component of the Christian experience. To say otherwise is to ignore endless passages of Scripture (e.g., two thirds of the psalter) and deny the testimonies of our brothers and sisters throughout the entire history of the church, and even those living today outside the so-called developed world.
Visit rural Uganda and tell me with straight face that God wants us to experience a life of ease and wealth, that he’s concerned about what kind of car we drive. It’s offensive to contemplate. More offensive to contemplate: say it in the face of the martyrs’ families in Nigeria who don’t even pray that their persecutors would stop, only that they would be able stand when their time comes. We’re not even worthy to suffer for Christ like that.Our life in Christ is not about ease. It’s not about comfort or security or the trappings of wealth. God may bless some with those things. Praise him for it. But God is far more concerned about whether we love him and our neighbor in whatever station we may be. He’s concerned about a life lived in witness to his love.
Any theology that leaves little room for suffering is a suspect theology. If Jesus himself experienced pain, loneliness, frustration, etc., then we should be ready for the same. If the apostles and the early Christians were willing to lay down their lives, certainly we should not expect uninterrupted peace and tranquility.
The disruption may in fact be central to our sanctification. What if, for instance, you struggle with a sin over which you can’t seem to get victory: greed, lust, anxiety, anger, doubt? That’s your cross to bear. And a good theology will illumine the struggle; it will sanctify the suffering so that we can see it as God’s tool to shape us into the image of his Son. Rather than fleeing suffering, (preaching to myself here) we should welcome the chance to grow because that’s why God permits and even sends it. Our best life includes our current struggles and setbacks, and God wouldn’t have it any other way.
There’s pathology afoot in any other view. A theology with no room for suffering forces us to hide our failures and our faults, even from ourselves, maybe even from God. Of course such a maneuver is bound to fail as well, and then we stand alone with our sin, condemned by our very existence.
Instead we should remember that God uses our sufferings to sanctify and save. We stand in the arms of a loving, forgiving savior who helps us bear the weight and keep going.