Surprised by Suffering

The Christian radio station in Madison, WI has as its advertising slogan, “Always positive, encouraging and safe for the family.” I find this interesting since following Jesus guarantees none of those things. In fact to suggest the life of the believer will always be positive, encouraging and safe for the family is a dangerous maligning of the faith.

The suffering of the righteous is a theme that runs throughout Scripture. The book of Job is dedicated to the topic and the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and many of Paul’s letters are punctuated with the challenge of suffering. Jesus himself was described by Isaiah as a "man of suffering” (Is. 53:3) or sorrows, and he promised his followers that they would experience suffering (Matt 20:23). Then why are we surprised by suffering?

We are surprised by suffering, at least in part, because of a toxic diet of sufferless Christianity we are fed. Whether stated outright or only implied, the notion that if we follow Jesus life will always be positive, encouraging and safe for the family is a lie.

I have a Bible dictionary – the Unger’s Bible Dictionary – which boasts over 6,700 entries on even obscure words that show up in Scripture. There is an entry, for instance, on the word “sulfur,” but there is not a single entry for the word, “suffer.” It’s as if, at least from the perspective of the American theologians in the 50’s who wrote the Unger’s Bible Dictionary, that the Bible has nothing to say on suffering.

As I help university students come alongside the marginalized and those under the boot of injustice there are invariably some who experience a crisis of faith. It is not uncommon for our students to grow to love children living under crushing circumstances, hear about or see believers and unbelievers alike undergo unspeakable atrocities, or to see Christian workers serving in desolate places face hostility toward their efforts or secondary trauma from living and working in traumatic conditions. The students ask, “How can all that I have learned about the goodness of God and the abundant life of his followers be reconciled with what I have seen and experienced?”

Christianity in the west has been sold the notion that following Jesus is always positive, encouraging and safe for the family. But following a man who was executed as a criminal is not such a benign prospect. His invitation for  us to pursue him and establish his kingdom in the desolate places is bound to either get us into trouble, or mixed up with suffering people and, as a result, find ourselves experiencing suffering and hardship ourselves.

I just returned from a summit in Bangkok put on by the International Society for Urban Mission. Men and women who live and serve in some of the most excruciating poverty the world has to offer gathered to learn from one another and to plot goodness together. One British man, Richard, and his Thai wife work with impoverished women coming out of the sex industry in Bangkok. They share the love of Christ with their friends who are sex workers and help some of them to get an education and find alternative employment.

One of their former sex worker friends has a three-year-old daughter who was recently in an accident. Her skull was crushed on one side and she has lost much of her motor function and speech. The mother is not in a place to care for her daughter who requires a great deal of attention, so Richard and his wife took the child into their home just this past Christmas. The Advent of Christ has very personal meaning for them now. They need him more desperately than they ever have.

Richard looks to be about 45 years old. The kind of commitment he and his wife have undertaken is a sign of hope to me in the midst of suffering. Richard and his family face a long and difficult road loving and raising this little girl. No doubt new joys along with new heartaches will visit them in the coming years as a result of the radical and costly decision to welcome this special needs child. As followers of the Suffering Servant Richard says he and his wife felt they could do no less than to care for this child. This sort of story is often true of my friends who live and serve among desperate people and open themselves and their homes to the suffering.

When we decide to mix ourselves up in the lives of the desperate we may begin to address our malnourished theology of suffering. Perhaps then we will not be so surprised by suffering.

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