Monday, October 19, 2015

A Theology of Christian Suffering

Every Christian that desires to live godly in Christ Jesus can expect to be persecuted. While many Christians in western culture in general and in American culture in particular are in the middle of advocating religious freedom as if it were an inherent right, some of us understand the Christian Scripture provides a stark contrast to such thinking. Scripture nowhere implies that Christians in any culture ought to seek out political mechanisms by which to avoid the persecution promised not only by the NT writers but by Christ Himself. The purpose of this post then is to help you think better about what Scripture teaches about the value, benefit, and blessing of all suffering, especially the suffering produced by persecution. It should be noted that I operate on the presupposition that AD 70 did not, in any way, alter the NT teachings on Christian suffering and persecution. Eschatologically, I am a humble, historic-premillennialist. I admit that I hold that view with a very loose grip.

The Christian begins his theology of suffering with a study of Job. Job’s attitude toward suffering serves as a model attitude for all of us when things don’t go just as expected or worse, when tragedy strikes. When my dad’s first bought with cancer proved successful we all thanked God. But when the disease returned to prove fatal and my dad was snatched away at the young age of 58, who did we thank then? Who was there to thank? Recently, my Sunday school teacher was talking about the power of prayer. And in the middle of the hype that is War Room, the conversation seemed appropriate. He was leaning too far in the wrong direction in my view. And I could not resist asking the question, what happens when the baby dies? What happens when you bury your father at the young age of 58? What do you do with those thoughts of jealousy when others are still talking about their dads living into their 80s and your heart is breaking because you wish you could see and talk to your dad just one more time? Do we thank God for the time He graciously gave us and embrace the suffering with the understanding that God is working great things in our life? Or do we buy into the nonsense of the theology behind War Room and think that if we just pray, and pray hard enough and in the right way, it will all work out? Sometimes, the spouse leaves anyway. Sometimes the divorce happens no matter how hard you pray for reconciliation. Indeed, an unbiblical theology and philosophy of suffering can create far more pain than is necessary. To make sure your theology of suffering is informed by Scripture, begin with Job.

Jesus Christ Himself was also a man who was acquainted with suffering. God in the flesh came to His own and His own not only rejected Him, they conspired with the Roman pagans to murder Him. He was despised, rejected, and beaten all because He loved His own enough to tell them the truth. Not only does Jesus’ life provide the picture perfect model for suffering, His words promise that His followers will suffer as well. Jesus promised us that the world would hate us for His name’s sake. He promised us that they will slander us and say all sorts of things against us falsely. Indeed, we will be persecuted for His name’s sake because we are not better than our master. We are not above Christ. If Christ should suffer, be rejected, and murdered for the message of hope He brought, how shall His followers escape the same fate?

The apostle Paul was well-acquainted with suffering, writing a number of his letters while he was in prison and in the end, giving up his life for the gospel that had been placed in his charge. Paul prayed the Lord would ease his suffering at one point and it is revealed that God refused to answer that prayer. I know, some people like to say that God always answers prayer, its just that sometimes He says no. I really have little use for such nonsensical sayings. Jesus told us to always pray that God’s will would be done. And in that sense, God always says yes because God’s will is always accomplished. Christianity repudiates the very thought of a frustrated Deity. Such thinking is really the product of an ungodly rationalistic philosophy, not biblical Christianity. The suffering you are going through right now is the direct result of God’s eternal decree. What God used to bring it to pass may be of some interest but make no mistake about it, God is not sitting in heaven hoping the best for you cheering you on and hoping your prayers are just right and your faith is strong enough to see you through. God holds His own in the palm of His hand. There is no question as to whether or not they will endure and pass the test. To contrary to this is plainly ignorant in light of revealed Scripture. Let us think better of suffering, better of our Lord’s promise to keep us by His power.

Peter provides us with an excellent text on how we ought to think about suffering. First, Peter tells us in his fourth chapter NOT to be surprised by our trials. Christ suffered in the flesh and so shall we. That is Peter’s guidance. Not only that, Peter tells us to rejoice, in fact, he tells us to keep on rejoicing. Peter tells us if we are reviled for the name of Christ, we are blessed. We are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon us! How remarkable is that! We are NOT to be ashamed to suffer for the name of Christ. We are only to be ashamed if we suffer as an evil doer. Those who suffer for Christ’s sake entrust their souls to their faithful Creator in doing what is right.

Why then do we see numerous American Christians engaging in the sort of political activism that seems to think that Christians have a right to avoid the kind of suffering that is produced by persecution? We want our religious freedom and we want it right now! Think about that. Read Scripture and tell me where exactly in the text do the apostles ever even come close to implying that we ought to do whatever we can to force the governing authorities to grant us our right to freely worship Christ without the threat of persecution? The idea is completely missing from Scripture.

If you want to understand what our attitude should be regarding suffering, read Job, read about Joseph, read about Christ, read Paul, and read Peter. It is there alone that you will find the fodder that ought to inform your theology of suffering, not the American Constitution.

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