“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

“It is doubtful whether God can use any man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” A. W. Tozer

We live in a world that has a passion for comfort. To live a life with no problems and perfect health is almost a right. This attitude has slipped into the Church. Prosperity teachers and “name it, claim it” teachings have caused many to forget that at the center of Christianity is the cross of Jesus Christ.  He was called to suffer and so are we. It is through the cross that the glory of God was marvelously revealed. God does the same kind of thing in our lives. It is when we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” [2 Cor 6:10], that the all-satisfying beauty of Jesus shines forth most gloriously to the startled world that surrounds us.

A Theology of Suffering [Part One]

I was reminded of the loss of this key principle recently, when two missionary friends of mine told me of a seminar they attended on how to deal with stress and pressure in ministry. The reality is that our missionaries are under a great deal of pressure on their mission fields. They are in a totally different culture. The language is different. The foods are different. The climate is usually different. The comforts of home are often lacking. They daily see and experience very sad and heart wrenching conditions among the peoples with whom they work. They are separated from family and friends and the support we usually take for granted.  The work is many times found to be more tedious than glamorous. And, often their expectations of “success” simply do not come to fruition.

In this seminar, the conversation moved toward the struggles that the missionaries have with a “disappointment with God.” The instructor, a psychologist, explained that the stress level on the missionaries often lead to bouts with depression. He then advocated the use of prescription drugs to battle the effects of depression. Actually, he went further than that. He said, “Use the meds or throw your calling out the window.” I assume this is the same man who counseled last year’s attendees to “use your meds or lose your calling.” He went on to assert that 20% of our missionaries are using anti-depression medications to overcome their struggles with depression.

This discussion was of particular interest to one of my missionary friends. In the last few years, her father has died, her mother is suffering with terminal cancer and her brother has been falsely accused of wrong doing by corrupt officials. With all this weighing her down, she also has the ongoing responsibilities of being a wife, mother and a world-wide missionary. She was singled out by the psychologist as a likely candidate for depression and was counseled to consider meds. The instructor encouraged the husband to keep a close watch over her.

What was my pressured and harried friend’s response? She told me [my paraphrase], “Gary, I am right where God wants me. He is in control. Yes, I have my struggles, but his strength is sufficient. The problem with these people is that they have no theology of suffering.” She was right on. Our struggles do not necessarily mean that God is punishing us. Nor does it mean that he is ignoring us. He uses the pressures of life to show us just how powerful and glorious His grace is. In this world you will have trouble. But Christ has overcome the world [John 16:33]. As we “take heart” in the midst of suffering, He is glorified through us.         

Let me try to unwrap this theology of suffering by laying down some principles from God’s Word. I think they will help us to see how the crosses and losses are an essential part of God glorifying Himself in us.

First, it is God’s intention that his people live with deep joy in our hearts. God is a God of joy. He is fully satisfied and complete within His glorious being. He created us so that we could discover that glory and delight in the satisfaction that is found only in Him through Jesus Christ. Eternal life is not just living a never ending life, but an everlasting, rejoicing life. Ps 16:11 “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

Second, there is one who is an arch enemy of our joy. He roams about the earth seeking whom he may devour. [1 Peter 5:8] What does he want to eat? He wants to eat our faith. Why our faith? It is our faith that enables us to maintain our joy in Jesus in all situations. He and his lies come into our circumstances to deceive and destroy our faith and our joy in Jesus. He is a liar and murderer from the beginning.

Third, God has commanded us to find our joy in Him in all situations. Phil 4:4-5 “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice ! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near;” and, 1 Thess 5:16-18 “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Fourth, we know that our God is not a cruel and arbitrary God, who commands us to do that which is impossible or unloving. So, he must have a wonderful reason for such a command and also will provide us with the resources to actually go through every trying situation with rejoicing. [Romans 8:31-32]

Fifth, it is actively standing on the truth of Jesus’ words that enables us to withstand the enemy’s lies and remain victorious in the most powerful of storms. Matt 7:24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” We win the battle by putting God’s Word in our hearts by meditation and obedience.

Sixth, as Christ’s Body on earth, we need the prayers and ministry of others to help us take on the enemy and win the battle of faith and joy. 2 Corinthians 1:11 God is honored when we act like his family.

Finally, God is glorified when we demonstrate by our joy in suffering, that what we have found in him is so satisfying it is even better than living a long and pain free life. [Psalm 63:3]

Let me try to illustrate this life of Paul. In 2 Corinthians, Paul was going through some rough times. Here is how he described them in 2 Cor 1:8-9: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.”

I think you can see the depth of Paul’s suffering. He suffered from hardships. He was under great pressure. It was beyond his ability to endure. He despaired of life. He even felt the sentence of death. Don’t just pass over those words. The point is that this was not just a “downer” day. In fact, if he were to see a therapist today, his problem would most likely be diagnosed as “clinical depression.” He would be consigned to weeks of therapy and put on anti-depression drugs.

But Paul had another perspective. God was at work in the midst of those dark times. The pain and the pressure was not a sign that God had left but that He was very present and active in his life. He was not struggling with a “chemical imbalance” or a “disease” called depression. He was struggling with emotions that were a natural response to an extended time of pressure and pain. Here is his diagnosis of why he was going through suffering: 2 Cor 1:9 “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” Paul saw God was actively involved in the pain. He allowed these pressures to move Paul in to a higher level of trust and confidence in Christ. I think it was Mother Teresa who said, “You will know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you’ve got?” It is one thing to have something in our head. It is quite another to grasp it in our heart. God uses suffering to root and ground us in the reality of Christ’s all surpassing love that surpasses knowledge. [Ephesians 3:16-18].  

There are two questions that are crucial for us to ask if we are to win this battle of faith. The first is, “How can I get though this?” Maybe you think your problems are unique? Here is the God’s answer: 1 Cor 10:13 “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

Maybe you think you need more proof that God will actually give the help you need.  Rom 8:31-32 “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Maybe you think that your problems are so complex and extreme that there is no hope for you. 2 Cor 9:8 “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”

The second question goes to purpose. Why would God allow so much pain and suffering?  Here are three answers that come from Paul. 1] Verse 9-10: By experiencing his deliverance from the shadow of death, we are enabled to set our hope on the One who will continue to deliver us in the next challenges of life. The goal of faith is not comfort but confidence. The more grace we receive from Christ the more reasons we have to rejoice in Christ. 2] Verse 11: As the Body intercedes for us, our victory through the dark time becomes an occasion for the whole Church to join us in expressing thanksgiving to God. 3] Verse 12: And, finally, in the end we get to rejoice over the inner work of grace that God has accomplished in our lives, for his glory and our joy. [12]

I know this is a very hard teaching to accept and grab hold of, especially to those who have been counseled to take advantage of the many medications that are being marketed today. But stay with me on this. I believe that God wants to do a miracle of His grace in your life that no med can come close to providing. His grace always brings freedom and joy, with no dangerous side-effects.

Let me end this first installment of a Theology of Suffering by quoting from John Neuton, author of one of our favorite hymns, Amazing Grace, as he describes the convictions of a man and woman of faith: “And his faith upholds him under all trials, by assuring him that every dispensation is under the direction of his Lord; that chastisements are a token of his love; that the season, measure, and continuance of his sufferings, are appointed by Infinite Wisdom, and designed to work for his everlasting good; and that grace and strength shall be afforded him, according to his day.