We Seem to be Made to Suffer
My intent is for this blog to be spontaneous and just about whatever topic is on my mind lately. But there are a few posts I want to get out of the way first. These are just foundational ideas that inform my basic understanding of God and what he wants from us. "God is Love" is one of those foundational ideas. His (and our) relationship with suffering is another.
When I started teaching the adult Sunday morning Bible class at our little church, the first subject I wanted to tackle was John's Revelation. The fantastical, prophetic symbolism of the book had always captured my imagination, but I'd never studied it in depth. I had so many questions and wanted to develop an interpretation that made sense to me.
To help my study, I bought Craig S. Keener's volume in the excellent NIV Application Commentary series. It was my introduction to that set of commentaries, but I loved how each volume approaches Scripture the way I'd been taught in college. It looks at each passage through three different lenses: What was the original meaning of the text? What are the timeless principles suggested by that meaning? And how can we apply those principles in the contemporary church?
Without getting too deeply into Keener's understanding of Revelation, he basically believes that most of it describes events that happened in John's own day or shortly after. It doesn't make sense that John would write a book of nothing but End Times warnings, because that wouldn't have been helpful to his audience. It's not why John wrote the book.
John recorded his Revelation and sent it out to churches because there was a tremendous amount of suffering in the church at the time. Many of the church's leaders had been executed by Rome for their faith and John himself had been exiled for it. Pagan worship was so tied into Roman commerce that Christians had to make moral compromises just to keep their businesses going. And that's not even talking about their being shunned by neighbors, customers, families, and friends, which also happened. The church needed encouragement and Revelation provided it.
The theme of the book is that God is still in control. He's still sovereign, still in charge, and he still cares about his people. Suffering is not permanent. Evil will be completely defeated and punished. Good will triumph. Revelation has a lot of weeds to get caught in and no end of rabbit trails to chase (and it's fun and enlightening to do so), but its central message is simple to see and understand: The Good Guys Win.
What was so striking in this study though was that there was no promise that suffering would be relieved in the lifetimes of the current sufferers. If anything, it promises that things will get worse before they ultimately get better. It was almost as if suffering was an expected part of the Christian experience.
That last sentence seems like the most naive thought in the world to me now, but it was profound to me at the time. I'd grown up thinking that while God may not have promised me wealth and power, he certainly wanted me to be healthy and comfortable if only I obeyed him. But as our Bible class continued from Revelation to other books of the New Testament, I kept running into the theme of suffering over and over and over again. And it was never brought up in the context of teaching readers how to avoid it. It was always about how God comforts us through it.
Jesus himself promised suffering. In John 15:18-20, he warns his followers, "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." The early chapters of Acts of the Apostles are all about showing the continuity between Jesus' ministry and that of his disciples. In fact, I've come to understand the term "disciples" not just as followers, but as apprentices or trainees. Jesus always intended for this group of a hundred or so people to take over his work when he was gone physically. But that meant that they'd also receive the exact same reaction that he did.
Which is why he not only promised suffering for his people; he also made it part of the job description. He said, famously, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). It took me decades before I realized the significance of that. How serious he was. The cross as the symbol of ultimate suffering, carried by Jesus and his apprentices, voluntarily and sacrificially. It's a slap in the face to the idea that God promises or even wants me to be physically comfortable. But as God spiritually comforted Christ in his suffering, he also comforts our spirits in ours.