March 13, 2014

Suffering Pays Eternity’s Bills I: There Is Victory In Suffering

I am pretty sure an entire segment within the modern American church has missed the boat on the idea of Christian suffering and its need (literally, its requirement) in true Christianity. It is a biblical concept that transcends denomination. It is in fact, a very real Scriptural concept. In addition...God’s people will be maligned by the world system. Yes, the world really will be out to get you at times. The Bible says it and shows it and so do the tomes of history since time immemorial.

The idea of the need for Christian suffering has been nearly abandoned in Christian circles nowadays. Therefore it is not surprising that it is unknown to many theologians and laity alike. The question therefore stands out: What is it and how does it apply to us as Christians?

Suffering as as normal circumstance in a believer's life is a legitimate principle found in Scripture. It is not raised to the level of doctrine or quantified as orthodoxy but its truth remains self-evident from the text of Scripture. What it means to us is this…it is at the very heart of ministry. Since every Christian is called to ministry, it needs to be in the life of every Christian. There are examples of it throughout Scripture. It is in Moses' often difficult circumstances of dealing with a stiff-necked people for over 40 years in a wilderness. We see it in Jeremiah's struggles as he confronted malicious, backbiting prophets. We see it in Stephen’s stoning. We especially see it in John’s narration of swallowing of the scroll of the Word of God and in the suffering and persecution of the churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 1-3 in the Apocalypse. Lastly we see it in Paul’s suffering and in Jesus’ following exhortation in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew 16:21-24 ~ "From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to You!" Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me."

In this passage above we see that Jesus is quite aware of the fact that preaching of the Gospel and spreading of the Kingdom of God entails resistance and suffering. Therefore suffering and demeaning will be intrinsic to the Christian walk. Furthermore, it most likely isn’t a Christian walk if suffering is not involved. In other words: The poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom (Matthew 5:3), mourners will be comforted (Matthew 5:4) and the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Without misery and suffering…there is little productive or useful ministry. A Christian message without the understanding that pain is involved produces little or no sanctification. A message that doesn’t require humility and repentance…does not save.

We know for a fact that Jesus understood that He had to suffer we He responded to Peter after their turn towards Jerusalem in the moribund trek to Jesus’ Crucifixion.

Matthew 16:21-23 ~ From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Here is Peter essentially telling Jesus, “You won’t suffer.” Jesus' rebuke in the modern vernacular is, “Shut up, you have no idea what you’re talking about!” Jesus knew for a fact that a ministry without suffering is essentially satanic and says so, “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus understood and lived out the principle of suffering well… right down to His Crucifixion and death on the Cross.

So why don’t we see it nowadays in our churches? Why is it invisible to all but a few?

Well, there are multiple reasons and many reside right within your church and mine. The other reasons actually reside within our seminaries, Bible Colleges and even within our flawed worldview and operating philosophies of our ministries. If they are absent from the foundational building blocks of our churches…they will be conspicuously absent from the entire body both leaders and laity alike. Some of the reasons for suffering and trial being absent in our churches are as follows.

(1) People are not taught the concept properly to begin with. The principle of suffering in the Christian walk to perpetuate one’s ministry is often buried inside other philosophical ideas. In truth, a theology of suffering as a Christian doesn't pay the church/school bills and drives people away in fear. So it is rarely preached and understood even less. Many pastors avoid preaching pain and suffering. Literally, many leader pastors “have a business to run” and paychecks to cut for ministry employees. The message of suffering dramatically affects Christian outreach. Many church leaders fear that a slogan for the church that says, “Come join us, you’ll suffer” will send people running for the doors with their hair on fire. People have been conditioned in American society to expect immediate returns and a quick return to normality or health. Any type of prolonged suffering and strife is viewed as a profound negative and avoided like a disease. What is sad is suffering is usually the tool God uses to make you more holy, like Him.

 (2) It is buried under a Prosperity Gospel-like glaze or Theology of Glory. God has paid the entire price for our salvation (which is true) so we should expect only good things as Christians (not true)…and this couldn’t be any farther from the truth. It is exactly because the price has been paid for us by Jesus Christ on the Cross that we are so vehemently attacked and hated by the world system. This type of Prosperity Gospel or Health and Wealth preaching attributes any sign of suffering or pain as a failure of faith, not a success (as the Bible clearly points out many times over in its narrative). Therefore suffering, poverty and weakness are frowned upon in many American Christian circles. Because suffering is viewed purely as a negative instead of a positive step in sanctifying a believer and making them more holy, it is avoided or denied outright. Why suffer in this life? God has promised us everything we can ask for, right? Ask and it will be given. *Cough* Yeah, okay.

3) Many pastors and minsters are all about themselves and in it for personal gain. They are in ministry about recognition, accomplishment and honor or the position. Dare I say they are almost Pharisaical in their zeal for self-promotion (Mark Driscoll ring any bells?) Because they do not live out the life, they are hardly in a position to exemplify it, therefore in no position to teach and preach it without being insanely hypocritical. Their pride prevents this principle from being lived out or disseminated to the laity by example. In this type of vain pursuit by some pastors one can hardly embody meekness and humility. Instead shameless self-promotion comes to the front.

(4) I believe our theological education systems in the seminaries and Bible colleges purposely remove it because of its lack of appeal. Who really wants a 3 credit course on suffering and death as a path to success? The bottom line is this: Schools run on money. Even seminaries and Bible colleges need to sell a good that pays the electric bill. Suffering doesn’t pay the world’s pays eternity’s bills. Therefore, it is low on the list of priorities in educational curriculum development. Ironically, it is at the top in spiritual development in God’s curriculum. There are few seminaries outside of Westminster and isolated Bible Colleges (including my own) that I am aware of that really teach this concept. Instead of teaching what will be truly practical, many schools teach what is merely academic and often times only theory…and we all know how well theory works on in the real world, don’t we?

6) It is also brutally clear from personal experience with both elders and laity that many leaders in church are clueless what true Christ-centered discipleship looks like outside of a "how-to feel-good" manual published by Thomas Nelson, Bethany House or Zondervan. Few have lived the suffering for themselves and if they did…they learned nothing from it. Westernized and Americanized discipleship is like a leisure chair and requires no effort other than telling people how you feel and why the truth of Scripture hurts your feelings. Meanwhile our Middle Eastern and Far Eastern brethren are being jailed or burned alive for their convictions. We just don’t get it over here in America…we’re too pampered and have gone soft. We’ve had it easy for too long. Persecution builds a stronger conviction and lets people know what beliefs are worth dying for.

We must fully understand that the Apostles of Christ and Jesus’ disciples left everything behind to follow Jesus. They left their families and jobs and everything of value to follow Christ. Most all that lead the church and attend a church have the basic necessities of life. All have shelter, food and clothing. Most have computers, phones, Internet access, and compensation of some sort for employment rendered. There are sacrifices for ministry but for the most part they pale in comparison to ages past.

(7) The “God-as-cosmic-vending-machine” has won the day in the evangelical mind. We want to believe that because we have become Christian, we somehow deserve better. Because we’re American Christians we really deserve to be treated like kings. Because of this, if we are not happy or not prosperous, it appears as if God is not happy with us. Many are literally expecting God to come down to their level and conform to their ideas of him and if this doesn’t happen, He isn’t listening or somehow doesn’t care. This just isn’t true. We’re missing God in the small things….in the suffering itself and what it teaches.

Because of our warped perception of God and suffering in our lives we literally have it backwards. The Church often dwells solely on the “positive” aspects of God’s character instead of giving a balanced view and what we ultimately end up with is a happy, loving, jovial, gregarious Jesus/God. We then only get half the picture by leaving out his anger, wrath and justice. We overly focus on Fruits of the Spirit that people are devoid of. Because of this we fail to mention what is often taking the fruits place in a believer’s life. It is fruits of the flesh and entrenched sins. We therefore systematically cordon-off and compartmentalize what we want to see and have ignored the rest to the detriment of the believer and the Church at-large.

When suffering comes to this type of Christian with this mindset, the results are devastating. The believer feels as if they have not had enough faith, didn’t pray enough or weren’t pious enough. Somehow they failed God. Many end up leaving the Church completely and being devoured by the world system.

(8) As a whole the majority of the American Evangelical church has promoted a very shallow understanding of the relationship between the suffering and the Gospel. When we as believers do no link suffering to the Gospel we cannot possibly see the benefit of comfort that comes from the security within the Gospel and what Christ did for us suffering on the Cross. This misunderstanding goes all the way back to the time when Jesus walked the earth after the Resurrection. The disciples initially believed Jesus had failed because He had suffered and died. It was in Jesus’ suffering and death that he won…just the opposite. Suffering was integral to the Gospel of Salvation itself.  Unless something or someone dies, it cannot or they cannot be born again. This fact...that suffering was intrinsic to the Gospel so blinded the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, it took Jesus explaining it to them on the walk for them to recognize Him for who He was and what He had done.

Luke24:24-27 ~ “Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Part of the Gospel message...our Gospel message is the suffering. God gives us the ability to be preachers of His word and teachers of His knowledge in theology. He even allows us this ability in our suffering and it is often in our suffering that we learn the most with which to teach and lift others. As Hebrews said of Jesus..."...He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him..."

A large majority of our ability to preach this specific fact comes through our acceptance and endurance of said suffering including the persecution for having preached it. The validity and "street cred" that suffering gives us as humans adds to the validity of what we preach. All of this comes from God. The Gospel, our suffering or allowance to suffer...and the sanctification that comes through the suffering.

[Continued In Next Post]

[Synopsis for Part II: The actual praxis / practice of suffering and its purpose(s)]


Kyle Ward said...

Thank you for this post. It really is comforting to know that suffering is necessary in the life of a believer and that He uses it for his glory and my ultimate good. In fact, I came to faith in Christ because of my disability

Andy Pierson said...

Glad you took something useful away from this post Kyle. I am going through what amounts to the most intense and prolonged spiritual battle in my life and I have seen some real doozies in my time. I needed to make sense of it all so I put it down in writing. You are welcome back any time. God bless you.

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