Suffering, Scripture, and False Gospels

It goes without saying that suffering is a major part of life. No one denies this. Yet there are some Christians and some theologies which assure us that believers at least need not suffer. They may allow persecution as a form of suffering, but that is about it. They argue that the believer is a child of the King and therefore need not suffer, at least by being poor or ill.

Known as the Health and Wealth Gospel, or the Prosperity Gospel, or the Word of Faith movement, or Name It and Claim It theology, such teachings have enthralled and captivated millions of believers. Plenty of big time Christian leaders are pushing these ideas, and I have written about this often on this site.

And as I have often said before, we need to develop a theology of suffering. This is because suffering is a rich and wonderful theme in Scripture. The Bible is full of the topic, and it often encourages us not to run away from suffering, but to embrace it.

Suffering can be used for many good and worthwhile purposes. It especially can act as a refiner’s fire to purge us of self and sin and make us more Christ-like. The soul-developing use of suffering has been discussed by believers for the past two millennia.

The clear impression gained from the biblical data is that God can substantially redeem evil and suffering. As Augustine remarked centuries ago, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil at all”. Or as Paul Billheimer wrote in his important 1977 volume, Don’t Waste Your Sorrows:

“Rank in heaven will be determined … by the depth and quality of our love. Earth, with its sorrow, heartbreak, disappointments and pain, is the only place, and this life is the only time, when such love can be developed. This love is the legal tender of heaven. It can be developed only in the school of suffering.”

The truth is, suffering is not always something to be avoided or to be rejected. Suffering has many purposes in our lives, and we serve a God who is thoroughly familiar with suffering. He is quite able to interweave our suffering into his divine purposes. As Jerry Bridges expresses it,

“God’s sovereignty over people does not mean we do not experience pain and suffering. It means that God is in control of our pain and suffering, and that he has in mind a beneficial purpose for it. There is no such thing as pain without a purpose for the child of God. We may be sure that however irrational and inexplicable it seems to us, all pain has a purpose.”

The Health and Wealth Gospel seems to miss much of the depth and mystery of the Christian life when it seeks to eliminate suffering in all (or most) of its forms from the Christian experience. But the biblical data presents a better way. Michael Horton offers this helpful evaluation:

“The biblical gospel offers freedom from sin, not sinlessness, liberation from guilt, not from sin-consciousness, salvation from spiritual, not material, poverty. It offers peace with God won by Christ’s bloody sacrifice – not success won by our incessant ‘decrees’. It promises salvation from God’s wrath, not freedom from the unhappiness common to all humanity from time to time. And it hides us – in the midst of our pain and grief – in the wounds of Christ, who has made us worthy to share in His suffering.”

A truly biblical theology must take into account the totality of revelation, and not pick and choose those aspects which fit our cultural sensitivities. The Health and Wealth Gospel may be a comforting word for a comfortable Western audience, but it seriously ignores or distorts the full biblical message, a very large part of which centres on the nature and function of suffering.

As I just wrote in another article, the ultimate answer to suffering is the crucifixion and resurrection. We can bear suffering because God, who became man, bore suffering. God suffered for us, and we, in turn, are called to suffer for him. No easy believism here. No escapism here. Just the simple testimony of the biblical record.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:2 that he “resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” And he concludes his letter to the Galatians by reminding them of the fundamental nature of the cross: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14).

“The cross,” as J. Louis Martyn says about this passage, “is the watershed event for the whole of the cosmos, affecting everything after it”. That is the real perspective which all believers should take in their walk and ministry. And it is how we should view suffering as well.

As Ben Witherington says of the Galatians text, “the most fundamental thing Paul wants his audience to understand and embrace is not the experience of the Spirit or even justification but rather the cross. . . . The message of the cross and the cruciform pattern of Christian life are non-negotiables for this apostle.”

It is in the light of the cross that all of life must be viewed, including the vexing issue of suffering and evil. The cross has changed things forever, and assures us that a new order is coming. Things will not remain as they now are.

Philosopher Eleonore Stump once described the problem of evil this way: “The crust of the earth is soaked with the tears of suffering.” Alistair McGrath provides the fitting rejoinder, “the suffering of the world affects God. It grieves him. The pages of history are stained with the tears of God”.

And to both of these quotes, one must recall one of the final passages found in the New Testament: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

That is our ultimate hope. Yes one day all suffering will disappear, but for now God allows it for many reasons – often for our good. Therefore, as Billheimer said, don’t waste your sorrows.

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