Throughout the course of history, the question of suffering has been at the forefront of philosophy. Why do we suffer? Why disease, famine, and death? Why rape and murder? Why me? I don’t think I go too far in saying that our perspective on suffering is intimately tied to our understanding of God. “This world could not have been the work of an all-loving being, but that of a devil, who had brought creatures into existence in order to delight in the sight of their sufferings,” said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Thus, to have a faulty theology of suffering is to have a distorted view of God, man, sin, and ultimately the gospel.
Within nominal Christianity, a misunderstanding of suffering manifests in two extremes. Either there is a strong aversion to suffering of any kind (as demonstrated within the prosperity gospel movement) or there is a masochistic asceticism which seeks out suffering as either validation of one’s faith or contribution to one’s justification (as in the penance and mortification of the Roman Catholic church). In both cases, there exists a deep lack of understanding as to the nature of suffering─its origin, purpose, and meaning.
So, let’s start there. Where does suffering come from? To have a robust theology of suffering is to understand how suffering is intrinsically connected to sin. By this I do not mean that every instance of suffering in a person’s life has a direct, one-to-one link to a particular sin. (Though there are times when it is certainly the consequence of our personal sin or the sins of others.) Instead, we need to understand that suffering as a category of human experience is a result of the fall. As sin entered the world through Adam, so too did suffering. There would be no suffering without sin (Genesis 3:15-17; Romans 5:12-21). Consequently, our natural inclination to hate suffering should remind us to hate sin even more.
For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!Romans 5:17, NIV
Secondly, we need to remember that God is sovereign over all things, including our suffering. God has assured His people that He works all things for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). We should not believe that God is impotent to our cries because we experience hardship. Instead, we find comfort in the knowledge that trials and tragedies are meaningful precisely because God ordains them. While we may not be able to pinpoint in this life exactly what God is accomplishing through our suffering, we can be assured that He purposes all that comes to pass for His ultimate glory.
Then Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.Job 42:1-3, NIV
Then why do we suffer? Again, we need to curb our arrogance in shaking our fists at God, demanding answers. We saw how readily God refutes Job, reminding him of his ignorance on the inner workings of the world (Job 38:1-42:6). Yet, through His word, God has graciously given us a peek behind the curtain regarding His intentions for suffering. Christian affliction is intended to mature both the individual and the corporate body of Christ. The most obvious purpose is to teach us godliness, conforming us to the image of Christ (Romans 5:3-5), but suffering is also used to edify the body of Christ as a whole (Colossians 1:24-29; Ephesians 3:13; 2 Timothy 2:10).
Remember that Jesus, when confronting Saul on the road to Damascus, considered His people’s sufferings His own (Acts 9:4-5). And who better to sympathize with our suffering than the Man of Sorrows Himself (Isaiah 53; Hebrews 4:14-16)? When we face adversity, we would do well to remember that Christ not only suffered human temptation as we have but faced the full weight of God’s wrath─something a Christian will never endure (Hebrews 2:17-18). Through our suffering, God is reminding us to value Christ as our source of joy above all the temporal things of this world. In pointing us back to Christ, God is preparing us for eternal glory (Philippians 3:8-11; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
That is why, at one extreme, the prosperity gospel is so deadly. In its promise of “your best life now” it ignores the purposes God has for suffering. It assumes that all suffering, particularly illness, is the result of personal sin or indicative of a lack of faith. To the peddlers of this false teaching, faith is nothing more than a spiritual currency to access the blessings of God in the forms of health, wealth, and happiness. Their “theology” is all about manipulating God for personal gain. In its cause and effect nature, the prosperity gospel is closer to the principle of karma than to the biblical gospel.
Prosperity preachers have such an aversion to suffering that they believe any hardship is the fault of the one suffering. The nefariousness of the movement is that faith is demonstrated through donations, readily pocketed and exploited to bankroll the preachers’ lavish lifestyles. “Name it and claim it” Christianity twists the words of the Messiah. Instead of taking up our cross and dying to self, Word of Faith teachers make worldly comfort the greatest objective. (Read Amber’s post for an eye-opening personal account of its destructiveness.)
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?Luke 9:23-25, NIV
At the other extreme is a sort of Apostle Envy, the idea that suffering validates faith by its own merit. Ascetics may argue their abstention from earthly pleasures is a form of self-discipline─you’ll often hear this argument from self-flagellants─but at the heart of asceticism is the gnostic idea that what is material is bad and what is immaterial is good. In both natural asceticism (i.e. an austere lifestyle) and unnatural asceticism (i.e. mortification of flesh) there is a sanctimonious bent to inflict suffering on oneself in the name of spiritual enlightenment, ignoring the perfect and completed work of Christ (John 19:28-30).
It’s curious to note the crossover between asceticism and the prosperity gospel movement. Early 20th century evangelist, Smith Wigglesworth, promoted the idea of using physical violence as a method of healing, saying he was attacking the devil within the sick. Interestingly, the practice is not so far removed from the principles undergirding self-flagellation.
Both the aversion of the Word of Faith movement and asceticism in all its forms distort the message of the gospel, making it contingent on the works of man either explicitly or implicitly. In the prosperity gospel, these works of faith are exhibited through monetary donations for one to access the benefits of God. In ascetism, self-flagellation or self-inflicted destitution serve a similar function, intending to grant one entry to some higher plane of spirituality (e.g. the mysticism of the non-theistic Church of Body Modification). Within the Roman Catholic church, these ascetic methods take the forms of penance and mortification and are said to atone for sin, a clear violation of the true gospel which teaches we are justified by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Either way, the two extremes suffer from a lack of understanding on the nature and purpose of suffering, undermining the gospel in the process.
A final word: if you are a Christian, you should be extremely grateful that God uses suffering in this world for if He didn’t, none of us would be saved from our sin. Jesus endured more suffering than we will ever experience, and He did it on our behalf. That truth should bring us comfort in even the most difficult of times.
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”1 Peter 2:23-24, NIV
Recommended Reading: Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? by Ligon Duncan with J. Nicholas Reid