Needed: A Theology of Suffering

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.

[1749 words]

10 Replies to “Needed: A Theology of Suffering”

  1. This is an unpleasant lesson to learn but it is an integral part of the gospel and believing in Jesus. Thank you for writing the truth about the reality of being a fair dinkum Christian. We must be prepared to endure suffering, if that is the Lord’s will, so that we can be strengthened in faith and run our race to the end.

  2. One of the crucial heart dispositions of the Reformation was Crux Sola est nostra theologia…..The Cross Alone is our Theology. Anything else was a Theology of glory… meaning a man centred theology without the Cross. This sums up Western Churchianity, it is bottom line a theology of man centred glory. It is therefore as Michael Horton argued Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a Christless Christianity. The Apostle Paul spoke of ‘ Another Jesus’ and that’s what you are presented with in most churches in paganised western culture as well as paganised Christianity.
    If we are in union with the real Jesus Christ, we will suffer, period. Hopefully this current global crisis will reveal the wood, hay and straw that the Western Church has been building with.

    And those hidden ones who have built with precious stones, silver and gold will emerge to shine as lights in a crooked and perverse generation. As Bonhoeffer said, when Jesus says Follow Me, he is saying ‘ Come and die’. The way is Narrow and there are few who enter in….to submit to the derp work of the Cross in sanctification.

  3. Good article Bill. Yes, the church has done a poor job of explaining how believers are to appropriate suffering in their lives. Wrongly understood, suffering seems meaningless. However, we know that God can do wonderful things through our sufferings. I am reading John Ridley’s “Milestones of Mercy” at the moment and he certainly suffered for the sake of the Gospel. As he came to understand, you cannot offer God something which costs you nothing.

  4. Dear Bill,
    All I can say is wow, you really have something we all need to grasp here. As always, beautifully written, wonderful references and absolutely Bible based.
    Prayer and continuous prayer I am going to need to approach such a life as you write about, it is coming.
    May God continue to reveal Himself to you Bill, as you share with us,
    Mark Bryant

  5. Ah yes, the problem of pain and suffering after the Fall of Man, the first act of disobedience to the Patriarchy and Lordship of God, the corruption of man and the created order that has divided the world ever since. The Theology of Suffering must also include the root cause of pain and suffering as well as the Atonement Theology to reconcile ourselves to be increasingly obedient to God in thought, word and deed in what we do and do not do aspiring to and acquiring the virtuous life in humble servitude to God, to hear “Welcome, my good and faithful servant”.

  6. Indeed! My Men’s Group came across the book “Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Set’s You Free” in 2014. When I first saw the title, I guffawed – it was really all that I needed! If anything, the subhead “ruins” it by giving it a gimmicky taunt.

    Our sufferings are VERY REAL – and we do not embrace it to be FREE of whatever it is that causes us to suffering – but to be FREE of our regard of it for the sake of Christ.

    Our path since the small gate entry of “Glorious Ruin” has led us through the the topic of suffering through such writers as Thomas Kempis, San Juan de la Cruz, Martin Luther, John Owen, Thomas Boston, John Bunyan, Johann & Christophe Blumhardt, CS Lewis and others as we have come to the understanding of the place of suffering in theology. In particular, Martin Luther’s arguments on the Theology of Glory vs The Theology of the Cross were very helpful in the beginning of our study – summarized here: [https://mbird.com/2009/06/theologian-of-glory-vs-theologian-of/]

    (NOTE: we did not get into the stumblings of the various authors) as per Thomas Kempis advice, “Likewise we ought to read simple and devout books as willingly as learned and profound ones. We ought not to be swayed by the authority of the writer, whether he be a great literary light or an insignificant person, but by our love of simple truth. We ought not to ask who is speaking, but mark what is said. Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord remains forever. God speaks to us in many ways without regard for persons.”

  7. True we want the garden tomb but not Calvary the resurrection but not the cross the joy but not the pain. For instance how many Christians and churches celebrate, truly celebrate, good Friday??? (though by all timing it would’ve had to have been a Thursday). We love to celebrate Easter the pageantry the victory over the grave the majesty but we don’t want to celebrate the crucifixion. The death of the Lord offends us the thought of Jesus bloodied maimed and nailed to a wooden cross. It vile to us we turn away from it. We don’t want to think of such things. Give us sweet images to contemplate on. Without the cross there is no resurrection no Easter without good Friday. No eternal life without first death. The symbol of Christianity IS the CROSS not the open tomb. It is the suffering that marks the Christian life not the joy. We take up our CROSS and follow him not our tomb.

    some say they would have protected the Jews are gone to the chambers with or would stand with their brethren in (insert country name) and be beaten and killed for the faith. Well soon we will see who is being honest and who is writing checks they can’t cash. It is easy to say I would stand and be beaten when you live in modest luxury it is another to actually do that when the time comes. Many mouths write checks the spirits won’t cash. We are brave in the flesh when much is between us and danger but far too often our fleshy weakness is exposed when nothing stands between us and danger.

    Soon we will be an underground church it is high time we learned what that REALLY means. My advice if you aren’t going to be crucified but beheaded FACE THE BLADE. Face death square in the face and laugh at it as it comes toward you as it has NO power over you! You are Jesus’ so no matter what they do do NOT be afraid.

  8. So true! I know of a church that teaches that we participate in Christ’s offering by suffering for our own sin. So thankful that He suffered for our sin once and for all! Yet we participate with Him by suffering with Him and for Him and for others.

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