Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Simple Theology on Suffering {Part 1 of 2}

A Simple Theology on Suffering, Part 1

I wanted to share what God has been teaching me lately about suffering. Over the past month, the topic has surfaced again and again in books I'm reading, sermons, and personal Bible study. And, consequently, I think my entire view of life is being vastly altered. Let me try to sum up what I've learned in 7 pivotal thoughts about suffering.

But let's first define "suffering" in the general sense. Dictionary.com describes "to suffer" as to undergo or to feel pain or distress; to sustain injury, disadvantage or loss; and to endure pain, disability, death, etc., patiently or willingly. Suffering in the Christian life is not limited to one kind of situation or experience, and I don't even know that God sees different "levels" of suffering as we would tend to categorize them. For example, suffering in this fallen world may range from severe physical torture to bullying on the school ground to personal illness to weary days as a mother. I believe there is no limit to the range of circumstances and experiences that God may use as suffering in our lives.



#1. Suffering is . . . not meant to be avoided.

"He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows . . ." (Isaiah 53:3-4).

 "Join with me in suffering, like a good solider of Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:3).

As I've been pondering suffering, it occurred to me that in the Western world suffering can, many times, be avoided. I can contrive my life in such a way as to avoid (to the best of my ability) uncomfortable or unwelcome intruders to my peace and happiness. And yet, suffering is, according to Jesus and the apostles in the Epistles, not something to be avoided, but rather embraced. It is a part (dare I say, essential part) of the Christian life. Jesus Himself was a "man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering."

Oswald Chambers writes: "If we are going to live as disciples of Jesus, we have to remember that all noble things are difficult. The Christian life is gloriously difficult, but the difficulty of it does not make us faint and cave in, it rouses us up to overcome."

"Measure thy life by loss instead of gain;
Not by the wine drunk but by the wine poured forth;
For love's strength standeth in love's sacrifice,
And whoso suffers most hath most to give" (Ugo Bassi).

#2. Suffering is . . . for our character training.

 "And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character;
and character, hope" (Romans 5:2-4).

 "Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering"
(2 Thessalonians 1:4-5).

Elisabeth Elliot writes: "God has allowed in the lives of each of us some sort of loss, the withdrawal of something we valued, in order that we may learn to offer ourselves a little more willingly, to allow the touch of death on one more thing we have clutched so tightly, and thus know fullness and freedom and joy that much sooner. We're not naturally inclined to love God and seek His Kingdom. Trouble [and suffering] may help to incline us—that is, it may tip us over, put some pressure on us, lean us in the right direction."

This tipping over builds character in the life of a Christian—suffering is God's training ground. It is not meant to be endured passively, but rather one should be an active recipient, allowing God to shape, mold, and purify. The verses above note perseverance, faith, character, and hope—all outcomes of suffering. Even Jesus was impacted by what He suffered here on earth: "Jesus learned obedience by the things He suffered, not by the things which He enjoyed. In order to fit you . . . for His purposes both here and in eternity, He has lent you this sorrow. But He bears the heavier end of the Cross laid upon you!" (Elliot).

#3. Suffering is . . . our "calling" here on earth.

 ". . . But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example,
that you should follow in His steps" (1 Peter 2:20b-21).

 "Dear 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, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Perhaps (horrors! the thought!) suffering is our purpose while we spend these short years on earth. There is no greater example than our Lord Jesus Himself. We are to "follow in His steps" and "participate" in His sufferings. This is not strange. This is no surprise. This is our joy.

"But if impatient, thou let slip thy cross,
Thou wilt not find it in this world again,
Nor in another; here, and here alone,
Is given thee to suffer for God's sake.
In other worlds we shall more perfectly
Serve Him and love Him, praise Him, work for Him,
Grow near and nearer Him with all delight;
But then we shall not any more be called
To suffer, which is our appointment here.
Canst thou not suffer then one hour,--or two?" (Ugo Bassi, underline emphasis mine).

{Part 2 here}

Notes:
All quotes from Elisabeth Elliot (1926 - ) and Ugo Bassi (1800 - 1849) from Keep a Quiet Heart by Elisabeth Elliot.
All quotes from Elizabeth Prentiss (1818 - 1878) from More Love to Thee: The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss by George Lewis Prentiss.
All quotes from Oswald Chambers (1874 - 1917) from My Utmost for His Highest by the same.

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