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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6 Replies to “Suffering, Scripture, and False Gospels”

  1. Thank you, Bill, for showing the clarity of Scripture.
    “If we have died with HIM, WE SHALL ALSO LIVE WITH him. If we endure, we shall also reign with HIM.” 2 Timothy 2:11,12
    Bill, is this why many ‘believers’ never die to self, know little of the incomparable life of Christ, and are tricked and are licked in everyday living? Our pulpit preaching could rectify many of these gross defects.
    There are studies on my web site CHRISTIAN FAMILY BIBLE STUDIES.
    Harrold Steward

  2. The Bible is clear that whole hearted followers of Jesus must suffer many things. Here is a list from Paul, listing some of the many things that caused him to be weak in body.

    2Co 11:23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.
    2Co 11:24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
    2Co 11:25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;
    2Co 11:26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;
    2Co 11:27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
    2Co 11:28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.
    2Co 11:29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?
    2Co 11:30 If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.
    2Co 11:31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.

    It was no wonder that Paul was weak in his body with all the things that he suffered. But sickness was not the cause of his suffering or weakness, nor would he glory in such a thing.
    Sickness in many cases is a work of the devil, and God does not want us glorying in the devils work, especially considering he defeated sickness on the cross. The Bible does not say “by His stripes you won’t suffer shipwreck and beatings etc., but it does say, “by His stripes we are healed”.

    To glory in something that Jesus always destroyed would be weird, not for me thanks.
    Hey I do believe a lot of the prosperity preaching is out of balance and off the wall, agree on that one mate. Love your work Bill, many blessings.

    Daniel Hagen

  3. Good article Bill. The whole circus could be reduced if only people would do their own Bible study and test everything their teachers tell them, just like the Bereans you have mentioned before.

    Lindsay Smail

  4. Hi Daniel

    I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation of Isaiah 53.5. Most scholars that I have read interpret it to mean spiritual healing, that is the healing of our relationship with God, and not physical healing. Check the following from Matthew Henry’s Commentary:

    Dave Hunt also gave a good explanation along those lines. If I find it I’ll post it. (Feel free to disagree with me, of course!)

    Mick Koster

  5. As you said Bill, the people who say such things must have never suffered in their lives. Suffering is not something we actively seek but it is just there, part of everyone’s life, really.
    Considering that humanity has through the first act of disobedience and through all the other ones since invited evil to be Lord and master of this world, I am not sure how can demand that no suffering should fall on us who deserve it when Jesus, the one who did not carried it without complaint even unto death?
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  6. Thanks Mick, Matthew has got a good commentary on this too…….
    Mat 8:16 When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick:
    Mat 8:17 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.

    Bless you bro and much love, (actually Bill has some quite challenging articles on this subject.)

    Daniel Hagen

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