What is a Theology of Suffering and why do we Need one?

We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them- 1st Thessalonians 3:2-3 NIV

 There are three fundamental truths Christians must embrace in order to be holy, healthy and honest:

 Life is hard.

God is good even when life is hard.

When life is hard it doesn’t feel like God is good.

 Most Christians readily agree with truths one and three. However, many Christians (including myself), struggle to fully embrace truth two. This is backed up by an increasing number of Christians who have “deconstructed” their faith in an emotional moment and then turned their backs on God because life got hard or other Christians disappointed them.

 There are some who walk away from Christianity who are spiritual snowflakes. These folks truly believe an unkind comment on social media is a brutal form of persecution.  Deep down in their heart-of-hearts they think God is lucky to have them on His team and they are too special to suffer. When life gets just a little bit tougher than they are comfortable with they melt under the heat of adversity, get miffed at God and stop being Christians. Spiritual snowflakes are easy to spot:they tend to carry their snow-flakiness into other areas of their lives including relationships. They’re quick to take offense and get their feelings hurt. They readily abandon anything that challenges them in any way.

 Then,

 There are individuals who turn their backs on God after experiencing legitimately horrific situations. They lost a child or had a loved-one murdered or lived through horrible abuse or a genocidal massacre. The folks in this category all came up against a situation they couldn’t find a reasonable answer for and they simply determined they could not live the Christian life without that answer. So, they turned away from God either in anger or unbelief.

 The two groups are vastly different in nearly every way and one group is far more worthy of  compassion than the other. However, both groups share a common problem that has become endemic in Christianity.  

 They lack a theology of suffering.  

 Theology is not just for bookworm-y types of Christians. Theology is the most practical thing in the world. It is one-hundred-percent necessary to survive this life with our faith intact. Theology explains life and how God uses the stuff of life to accomplish His purposes in our lives.  Every believer in Jesus must have a solid theological grid to view life through; if they don’t they will never be able to effectively explain to themselves and others why they are experiencing the things they are experiencing.  

  One reason Christians lack theology in this area is because life is easier now than it has ever been before in human history.

 Think about it:

 Thanks to the miracle of central heat and air no one is ever too hot or too cold, unless, of course, they are freely participating in an activity that demands they be too hot or too cold. Just a hundred-years ago, most people spent the majority of their lives in a state of perpetual discomfort. Today, it is unheard of for people in the Western world to experience hunger unless they are attempting to lose weight. Even just a hundred years ago famine was still a reality even for much of the “developed” world. Illnesses that once wiped-out large portions of the human population have been controlled or eradicated with drugs, surgery and public health programs. It wasn’t that long ago when it was simply accepted fact that most mothers would not see all their children live to adulthood.

 This progress is undeniably awesome. However, improved living conditions have raised our expectations for happiness to a level that cannot always be met. Truth-be-told most of us (including me) feel entitled to be comfortable, healthy, happy and entertained all of the time. We tend to get a bit cranky with God when life is anything less than perfectly pleasant.

 A couple of theological facts:

 First, we live in a fallen world that is not fully redeemed (Romans 8:19-22). This simply means that no matter how good humans get at making the world a comfortable place to live we will never be completely free of adversity and tragedy (John 16:33). Secondly, Christians probably experience more difficulty and hardship than non-Christians. This is because God is relentlessly working to conform us into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29, 2nd Corinthians 3:18).  This is no easy task and apparently it requires some hardship to get the job done (James 1:2, 1st Peter 1:6-7, Revelation 2:9-10).  Furthermore, we have an enemy who is personally invested in seeing our faith in God crumble (1st Peter 1:8, Job 1:6-8, 1st Thessalonians 2:18). On top of all of that life is full of tests (Luke 4:1, 2nd Corinthians 13:5, 1st Thessalonians 2:4, Hebrews 11:17, James 1:12). God does not test us so He can find out where we are at. He already knows everything there is to know about us. However, God sometimes allows us to be tested so we will know where we’re at so we can make changes that lead to growth.

 Finally,

 In order to develop a theology that takes us through the tough stuff of life we must change HOW we view the Christian life: Someday we will dwell in heaven. When we get there there will be no more tears, sickness, longing, pain or evil (Revelation 21:1-7). Life will be perfect and we will be perfect. We aren’t there yet. At this point in the story we are soldiers in a war living an in-between (Philippians 2:25, 2nd Timothy 2:3-4, Philemon 1:1-2) where we are fighting for the hearts and minds of our fellow human beings (Ephesians 6:10-20) and our own growth. Wars are messy and painful.  In order to survive the war we must treat God as our source of safety and run to Him in times of trouble, suffering and difficulty instead of away from Him (Proverbs 18:10, 1st Peter 5:7). 

 

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