It is time for Western Christians to develop a theology of suffering:
I have often written on this theme, but when I did a quick search recently, I could find no article with this exact title. So here it is. My point is simple: Christians – certainly Western Christians – are in desperate need of developing a theology of suffering. That is, we need to think long and hard – and biblically – about all that suffering means, and how it fits into God’s purposes.
While I am the first to admit that I do not like suffering, it is part and parcel of life in a fallen world, so it is imperative that our Christian worldview fully comes to grips with all this. Far too many believers do not want to think about it at all. Indeed, entire theologies exist to either downplay suffering or present it in quite unbiblical terms.
The health and wealth gospel is a clear case in point, with its view that Christians should never suffer – at least in terms of poverty and sickness – and that it is just sin in your life, or a lack of faith, that is causing you to suffer (although they do admit that persecution is the one sort of suffering we might experience).
But many Christians for various other reasons might be aghast at the very notion of suffering as a key part of the biblical worldview and the Christian life. I recently wrote a piece about two saints known for their lives of suffering – but who also had great joy in Christ: Elisabeth Elliot and Joni Eareckson Tada. In it I said this:
Some years ago I met a pastor I knew and I said I was available to preach at his church if he was interested. I mentioned that I had just finished a sermon on ‘Lessons on Suffering from the Book of Job’. His response was to laugh and wonder why any Christian would be interested in that. That took me by surprise. Has he never suffered? Is his congregation free of those who suffer? Hmm, he might not be cut out for the Fellowship of the Broken Heart. billmuehlenberg.com/2021/04/28/the-fellowship-of-the-broken-heart/
We expect the world to want nothing to do with the place and purpose of suffering, but Christians should know better. Scripture so very often speaks of the very real positive benefits of suffering. Thus I believe there is a need to include a theology of suffering in our systematic theologies, in our textbooks, in our Bible colleges, in our seminaries, and in our churches.
It was certainly a basic part of discipleship in the early church. As Gene Green says, commenting on Paul’s remarks about how believers were destined to suffer (1 Thessalonians 3:4): “Part of the basic catechism for new believers was instruction concerning the suffering they were going to endure.”
How many churches today introduce this subject to new disciples? Green offers this contrast: “The theology of suffering was a centerpiece in early Christian teaching, unlike many muddled modern theologies that promise prosperity and the absence of trouble as the fruits of true faith.”
Thus we need to regain this understanding of the centrality of suffering. Obviously a full-orbed theology of suffering would be the stuff of an entire library of books, not just a brief article. There are so many major themes one could discuss, including: God’s presence with us in our suffering; our suffering God; suffering and glory; purposes of suffering; and suffering and joy. Let me look at just one other main theme.
Union with Christ and his suffering
The broader issue of the believer’s union with Christ, especially as developed by Paul, is a very large topic indeed. One crucial aspect of this is our union with the sufferings of Christ. Some of the key passages on this are these:
Philippians 3:10-11 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
2 Corinthians 1:5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
2 Corinthians 4:10-11 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.
Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
1 Peter 4:12-13 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
1 Peter 5:1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed.
At the outset it must be said that these and similar passages are profoundly theological but also deeply puzzling. They contain rich spiritual truths, but they are also the subject of much controversy. Just what does it mean to share in Christ’s suffering? How do we understand a lack in Christ’s suffering? How do we carry in us the death of Jesus?
Let me just focus on the Philippians’ text as it nicely summarises the thought in the other passages. Identification with Christ, or union with Christ, is obviously a major concept lying behind these passages. We do somehow share in the sufferings and death of Christ. The whole of the Christian life is identification with Christ, as practices such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper portray.
How this is exactly to be understood is not always all that clear. As Moises Silva says of this passage, “there is a profound mystery in these words”. But Peter O’Brien seems to be on the right track when he argues that the thoughts here have to do with union with Christ, and the phrases used comprise a “metaphor of incorporation,” something found throughout the Pauline writings.
We should say at the outset that this fellowship in his sufferings does not mean that Paul or believers somehow contribute to the saving work of Christ. As James Montgomery Boice reminds us:
This does not mean that Paul wished to suffer for human sin, for only Jesus Christ could do that. He alone suffered innocently and therefore for others. Paul wished to join in Christ’s suffering in a different sense. He wished to stand with Christ in such an indivisible union that when the abuses and persecution that Christ suffered also fell on him, as he knew they would, he could receive them as Jesus did. He wanted to react like Jesus, for he knew that abuse received like this would actually draw him closer to his Lord. Such suffering will always come to the Christian.
Or as Alec Motyer comments:
To be made like Christ, to enter into intimate union with him, to know him, necessarily involves the same experiences, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. How surprised we often are when (as we say) life brings its trials to us! But what did we expect? Do we want to be made like Christ or not? Christlikeness must lead to Calvary. We must be ready for—and we cannot hope to avoid—the downward path of the Crucified.
Markus Bockmuehl puts it this way:
Paul wants to participate in Christ’s sufferings. This theme was already anticipated in Phil. 1.29f., and it features significantly in other letters…. For Paul, the participation in Christ’s sufferings is an important dimension of being united with him. Fellowship (koinonia) in his sufferings means an active sharing, as in the two previous uses of the term (1.5; 2.1)…. God’s power in the resurrection of Christ is equally relevant to the apostle’s present suffering and to his own future resurrection…. To have a share in Easter Sunday means to have a share in Good Friday – and vice versa.
One final comment, this from R. Kent Hughes:
The spiritual reality is this: suffering is the lot of every true believer, a fact that Paul referenced frequently….
Most significantly, the apostle told the Philippians explicitly in 1:29, “For it has been granted [literally, graced] to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Suffering for Christ then is a divine gift. It is a sign of sacred intimacy with Christ….
The fellowship of Christ’s sufferings moves the believer beyond the role of beneficiary of Christ’s death to a sharer in his sufferings (cf. Colossians 1:24). The suffering that comes to a Christian (as a Christian) is not a sign of God’s neglect but rather proof that grace is at work in his or her life — sacred intimacy.
There is breathtaking beauty here — namely, that the more a believer becomes like Christ, the more he or she will suffer. Simply put, the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings is the fellowship of elevated souls who are growing in their knowledge of Christ. It is a fellowship of continual resurrection and the display of God’s power. It is a fellowship of ascent.
But so many in the church today seem to think that participation with Christ means only Easter Sunday, only participation in aspects of resurrection and glory. They forget that it is a package deal: suffering and death are the necessary twin of resurrection and glory. These passages collectively make the strong case that these two aspects belong together and cannot be separated.
Thus suffering is not something to be avoided, but in fact something to be welcomed and embraced. For to suffer on behalf of Christ is to somehow share with Him in his ministry. As Linda Belleville said about the 2 Cor. 1:5 passage:
“This is a given of the Christian life, as it was a given in Christ’s life. . . . [To] identify with Christ is to identify with the suffering that was an essential part of his earthly ministry. . . . Suffering overflowed into Christ’s life; suffering overflows into ours.”
And this is a part of a biblical theology of suffering.