If you like your religious faith shallow and thought out for you without you being required to use your brain for any aspect — in other words, you require a manmade religion — you’re not going to hang around in church long.
The Christian faith is a lot of things, but shallow and neatly systematic it is not. Rather, it’s historical and complex and true. It is true to life. And it has been revealed to us in such a way that we are required to put our thinking caps on and engage the brain in order to appreciate what we have been given and how it all fits together.
Take suffering, for example.
A recent critic of the Christian faith — these Christopher Hitchens and Bishop James Pikes have always been with us, so don’t let the latest “smarter than God” genius upset you — says the fatal flaw to our theology is suffering. We’re told that the Bible does not adequately answer the question of suffering and pain in the world.
You read that and shake your head. Scores of books from Christian writers pour off the press every year dealing with just that subject, particularly after disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.
But even if we ignore those books, we’re faced by the fact that the Bible deals with suffering from one end to the other. It’s almost correct to say that human suffering is “the” constant theme of the Bible, it’s so prevalent throughout.
The history of Jews is a story of suffering. The Book of Job is devoted entirely to this subject. The sermons of Jesus are saturated with examples and instructions concerning suffering. His very life and death illustrate the subject better than any textbook. That’s why, when comforting the Lord’s harassed people, Peter thought of just that.
The Apostle Peter writes to suffering believers,
“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,
“Who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth,
“And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously;
“And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you have been healed;
“For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” (I Peter 2:21-25)
If we had nothing else in the Bible on the subject of suffering than this single passage, we could conclude several things:
—Suffering is the lot of God’s Best in this world.
—There is a right way and a wrong way to bear up in suffering.
—We are to emulate Jesus. One of the many reasons Jesus was allowed to suffer in this world was to provide us with a pattern, an example. Here’s how it’s done.
—God always has His purposes for the suffering of His beloved.
—Our task when suffering is to commit ourselves to Him, trusting that He will “judge righteously.”
C. S. Lewis called it “pain.” The Scripture generally calls it “suffering” or “tribulation.” We experience it as “conflict.”
It’s no fun, I’ll tell you that.
But when done right, our suffering/pain/conflict can produce marvelous results. “Fixing our eyes on Jesus … who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame … ” (Hebrews 12:2) See that? There was joy on the other side of the cross. To get there, He “endured.”
I’ve made a little list of what believers may expect regarding pain and suffering and conflict in this life. See what you think.
1) It will come. “Through many tribulations we enter the kingdom,” the first generation of believers told the second. (Acts 14:22)
Before Jesus walked out into the night to face the appointment with His executioners, the last words to His followers were these: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
2) It will come when you least expect it.
3) It will come in unexpected ways.
4) It will come when you are tired and thus weak.
5) Many of the faithful will not recognize the suffering for what it is.
6) Some of the Lord’s best will even deny that it exists.
7) Left untreated and unaddressed, this conflict/opposition/suffering will wound the congregation severely.
8) Treated properly and promptly, the suffering will honor Christ, strengthen the faithful, stun the enemy and impress the watching world.
9) God will be there.