Why Won’t Christians Talk About This?
We seem not to want to talk about suffering much:
All of us can tend to be all rather quiet about certain issues. For example, we fully expect the world to remain silent about various things – especially things the militants and radicals have told us we are not allowed to talk about. You can get away with murder – quite literally – when you push this sort of out of sight out of mind campaign.
Thus we are not supposed to talk about the sanctity of life for the unborn – resulting in millions of them being slaughtered each year. We are certainly not allowed to speak about ex-homosexuals: they too are another invisible group of people.
But sadly Christians can be like this as well. Some things you seem to hear about very rarely in contemporary Western Christianity. Things like sin and judgment to come are obvious examples. But here I wish to speak about the dreaded ‘S’ and ‘A’ words: suffering and affliction.
It is quite odd that we hear so little about these matters. After all, we all suffer. Sure, we don’t want to suffer – I certainly don’t. But such a universal experience is often swept under the carpet in too many churches and Christian circles.
But that goes against Scripture and church history where these matters have always been discussed. The Bible even has entire books devoted to these issues. Think of Job and Lamentations for example. There would be many hundreds of passages that speak to this. If God takes it so seriously, why don’t we?
And most Christians throughout church history have spoken and written on this topic extensively. So why do we not do the same today? Part of the problem is a fake gospel being pushed in the West. The idea that Christians should always be healthy and wealthy and happy and have their best life now will certainly fill churches, sell books, and make the false prophets pushing this baloney celebrity pastors and teachers.
But as I say, Scripture and most of church history give us a much different story. Both not only speak to this all the time, but affliction was even welcomed and seen as coming from the good and wise hand of God. Sure, you do not go out of your way looking for suffering, but when it comes, you should try to see just how much God is involved in it, and why he is allowing it.
The psalmist constantly spoke to this, especially emphasising the educative and remedial aspects of suffering. Just three verses from Psalm 119 can be mentioned here:
Psalm 119:67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
Psalm 119:71 It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
Psalm 119:75 I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
And the great majority of Christians over the centuries have also echoed these themes. The Puritans certainly did. I have written before about some of them in this regard. One of the classic Puritan works for example is The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. I discussed that amazing book here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/11/a-bruised-reed/
Another Puritan classic worth being aware of is the 1652 A Treatise on Affliction by the English clergyman and member of the Westminster Assembly Thomas Case (1598–1682). A smaller edited version of it called When Christians Suffer was put out by Banner of Truth in 2009.
The Puritans were known as ‘doctors of the soul’ since their experiential Christianity and pastoral theology went so far and so deep. They are hard to improve upon in this area, and Case is no exception. Let me simply offer some choice quotes from this important work.
“We are great strangers to the cross, and when we suffer we either despise the chastisement of the Lord or we faint when we are rebuked by him.”
“In prosperity we are full of our own will, and usually we give God counsel when God looks for obedience. We tell God how it might have been better, and we dispute our cross when we should take it up.”
“David was sent into the school of affliction to learn the statutes of God. Through correction the people of God learn to read the word more abundantly.”
“The purest acts of faith are put forth in the dark! Faith is at its greatest strength when it cannot see, for it has nothing to stay itself upon but God. Man must first see the insufficiency of what he sees before he can believe in all sufficiency of him that is invisible.”
“We discover more of God through afflictions than by many sermons. In the word we hear of God, but in afflictions we see God.”
“There is an infinite fullness in Jesus Christ. There never was a king anointed with such power. There was never a prophet with such wisdom. There was never a priest with such grace and righteousness. God did not give his Spirit by measure to him (John 3:34). It is infinite fullness which fills Jesus Christ as mediator that we might of his fullness receive grace for grace. But we do not always have a capacity to receive or to see that fullness. The reason is that we fill ourselves so much with the world in our prosperity. We seek the pleasures and profits of the world, and have no room for Christ.”
“Affliction is a calamity of God’s making (Amos 3:6). God has so tempered the nature of it and directs it by divine skill, to make it fit and disposed to serve and promote his own gracious designs in the children of promise.”
“Affliction is God’s forge where he softens the iron heart. You cannot work with iron while it remains cold and hard. Put it into the fire, and make it red-hot there, and you may stamp upon it any figure or impression you please. Melted vessels are impressionable to any form. So it is with the heart of man. By nature it is cold and hard, and this is much increased by prosperity and the longsuffering of God towards sinners. The furnace makes the soul pliable to God’s counsel.”
“And note, though the Scriptures say that those whom the Lord loves he corrects, it does not say whoever receives correction is a son. Scripture ties chastening to sonship, but not sonship to chastening. Some are chastened, but all that are chastened are not therefore, sons.”
“It is sad when men come out of affliction the same as when they went in; when affliction leaves them as it found them; ignorant, proud, insensible to sin, uncaring about suffering brethren, worldly, impatient, unsavoury, a stranger to Christ, a stranger to their own hearts, and unconcerned about eternity.”
“Behold I show you a mystery: sin brought affliction into the world, and God makes affliction to carry sin out of the world. Persecution is but the pruning of Christ’s vine. The almond tree is said to be made fruitful by driving nails into it and letting out a noxious gum that hinders the fruitfulness. God never intended more good to his children than when he seems to deal most severely with them. God would rather fetch blood than lose a soul.”
“God does not give a blow, nor draw one drop of blood more than necessary. ‘In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials’ (1 Pet. 1:6). If there is heaviness, there is need for it. If the heaviness continues long, there I need of it.”
“It is a great mistake and folly of men that they make more haste to get their afflictions removed than sanctified. Learning our lesson is the shortest way to deliverance. That is God’s method.”
“God has consecrated your sufferings by his teaching. You have become a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Your soul now resembles God, holy as he is holy. God has changed the very nature of affliction; he has turned your water into wine; a prison, a bed of sickness, into a school, into a temple in which he has taught you that you share his image.”
These are just a few of the passages from the condensed version of his treatise as put out by Banner of Truth. So much more is said by Case on this topic. But it is hoped that you might be inspired to check out his writings further, along with some of the other great Puritans.
14 Replies to “Why Won’t Christians Talk About This?”
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right. 1 Peter 4:12-18
This can be a very uncomfortable scripture to read it all depends on how much you want to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Yes a key passage Julia.
One of the best devotional writers on the topic of suffering is Lettie Cowman. Her famous book, Streams In The Desert, sustained me during the most difficult years of my life.
Thanks Bill, I agree with the general thrust of your article and loved the quotes from the puritan Thomas Chase. However, I did wonder how you could ascertain how many churches and Christians in the West don’t talk about suffering and affliction? I belong to a church which certainly does and has quite a few members, mostly older people, who have experienced suffering themselves as well as their loved ones. Our pastor certainly doesn’t support the so called “health and wealth ” message and is very balanced and compassionate in his preaching.
The younger members are most understanding of the issue of suffering and give support where necessary.
Maybe you could’ve had a different title to your article?
Thanks Graham. But of course I nowhere said that there are NO churches or Christians that are talking about suffering. And I did not “ascertain” or quantify anything. I simply made some general remarks about the condition of the Western church, based in part on 50 years of experience as a Christian, and having been involved in dozens – even hundreds – of churches in many nations over the years in various ways. It is also my main Christian calling to try to be a careful observer of what is happening in the West, including in Western churches. That understanding is amplified in various ways, including listening to and reading countless others who are also keen observers of what is happening in our culture. That is why this site is called CultureWatch!
My experience is limited, as is yours. It is great that your church is discussing this. Does that mean they all are? Of course not. But given how many of the largest and most popular churches in the West ARE pushing things like the health and wealth gospel, and given how many millions of believers ARE fully following such things, we can safely and correctly say that far too many believers are certainly being mislead here. Indeed, I wrote an 186,000 word PhD thesis on this very issue, so perhaps I know a little bit about such matters! But I think most people fully understood the main point of this article – so there really is no need to change my title thanks.
I too suffer but I know God has a purpose for it. So I suffer with gladness knowing I am being refined. Some spend much of their lives or the whole life in the refining fires of suffering yet God has some great for those whom he works on for so long. I remember something from my namesake in the Bible he had a thorn in his side, whatever it was we don’t really know as we aren’t told, he ask God to take it away and the 3rd time he heard my grace is sufficient. I take comfort in that. My suffering my be long and painful but his grace is sufficient. I’m very familiar with suffering given my life so I hope it means something great awaits me.
No-one wants to suffer but sometimes you look at great men who went through great pain and you have to wonder would they be the same great men WITHOUT the great pain? Even secular. As a Batman fan I see how it was the tragedy of losing his parents to criminals that made him the great crime fighter he was. Pain can cripple you or can motivate you, refine you and push you to be better. If this can be true for the NON Christian world how much more so for Christians??
Thanks for that Paul.
@ Paul Wilson, I could say “ditto” to your comment and now I can see the fruit of what I have been through in that God has equipped me to comfort those in need of comfort with the comfort I have received. 2 Corinthians 1:4. Nothing ever goes to waste in God’s economy, He uses everything to draw people to Himself.
Like you I know that nothing comes my way which God cannot use for my good and the good of those with whom I will come into contact. I am also mindful that suffering does not necessarily mean just physical, it can be mental as well.
May the Lord continue to keep all those who suffer in the centre of His palm and may He continue to comfort us in our afflictions knowing that this life is nothing in terms of time compared to the life we will be leading very soon now. May we all hang on to that, Jesus is coming for His Bride so very soon now, what is going on in the world prior to the Tribulation has a shelf-life and we are coming to the end of it.
I was astounded to see a daughter of Brian Houston, herself a pastor, described in newspaper social pages recently as “Hillsong heiress”. Since when does a church have heirs?
Houston of course is now on the outer, but has become a multi-millionaire out of Hillsong. Pentecostal churches are an embarrassment to Christianity. They make us all look like victims of a massive hoax or scam.
Thanks Maria. Although I know of many Pentecostal churches that are simply promoting biblical Christianity and are not jumping on board the health and wealth gospel and other aberrant teachings.
I think the biggest problem the Pentecostals have is SOME are very over emphasis on tongues and how many times we have seen false prophesies or false healings and spiritual abuses. Yes there are spiritual abuses elsewhere but these seem to many more grievous and several people know someone hurt by a Pentecostal or charismatic church because of the large numbers in that community. Some so bad they can’t even open their Bibles with feeling the pain. With and estimated, by their numbers, billion worldwide they certainly have visibility. Even at half that they have visibility and that can make them who people think of when they think of Christians and it can be who you first encounter. If it is a bad encounter it make all Christians look bad especially when any other denomination is very small comparatively. I know they are a favorite “whipping boy” for Christianity but even Dr Brown talk of the abuses of the spirit so in many cases the reputation is self inflicted.
Thank you, Bill, for your comment about Pentecostal churches, I hate it when somebody uses an absolute to try to prove a point. As you say there are many Pentecostal churches which serve God beautifully.
There is only one absolute by the way and that is “you must be born again”!
Although there are many absolutes. God is an absolute, as is his Word. As to Christian duties, there are various absolutes, eg., loving God with all our being, and loving our neighbour as ourself, etc.