In past weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a right (and realistic) attitude to suffering.
I don’t want to be godly only when things are going as I want or expect, or it may only be self-worship disguised as love for God!
With God’s help I want to remain a faithful and loving disciple when life gets tough; when disappointments hit, and the brokenness of the world makes itself known.
One of the things I’ve noticed about myself is that when things don’t go my way, a victim mentality quickly surfaces. I feel justified as I moan to God about anything and everything, from the state of the world, to the struggles I am facing that day.
But am I not forgetting something? I am not a victim, I am the perpetrator!
As I re-examine my theology, I remember that the creation that I live in, and am a part of, is under a curse. We have been subjected to the frustration of a fallen world, because we have rebelled against our maker.
I know the story of Genesis 3 well, but conveniently I often forget that I, along with the entire human race follow in that rebellion, as 1 Corinthians 15 puts it “In Adam all sinned”. And so when I suffer, I am quick to point the finger at God.
I forget that I am to blame. My rebellion against my maker merits punishment; we rightly deserve the curse of sin and death! Somewhere along the line I have slipped into an unhelpful attitude towards my salvation. I forget that my sins are deserving of death and so once rescued, I turn on my rescuer and demand that he explain to me why I must face suffering. Does he not love me? What have I done to deserve this or that pain…and I list them one by one.
(Its seems stark and ugly when I write it down like that!)
I know that many factors contribute to this attitude, including a right recognition of the wrongness of a world that was meant to be perfect. But I can’t ignore that I am to blame, not him. The turmoil and brokenness that I see in the world is caused by the rebellion of humanity who refuse to worship and obey our holy and perfect creator God.
This is really important to acknowledge –although it’s a truth that meets great resistance in the human heart. (Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the Serpent, remember?)
It’s important for several reasons:
It will inform and correct our expectations of life in a fallen world
Unlike the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ that is preached in some places, the Bible is clear that those who follow in Christ’s footsteps will face suffering.(2 Timothy 3:12) This might be in the form of direct persecution for faith, or simply falling prey to the brokenness of the world – natural disasters, illness, bereavement. We can expect that in some way we will suffer. In my eagerness to speak of the good news of the gospel, I often forget when I am teaching others, to remind them that we continue to live in a world under a curse, a creation that groans for the fulfilment of its redemption. And I don’t prepare them adequately for the suffering they may face, before they reach heaven!
It will inform our response when we face suffering
We will not be surprised to face suffering as God’s redeemed children in a world that waits to be renewed. We will not be confused that we suffer the effects of sin, despite being saved from it. We will – by God’s grace – continue to trust him through it, and with his help we will remember not to blame him for it.
Our experience of suffering will not affect our certainty that we are loved by God, and we will not believe that it jeopardises our future won by Christ.
It should cause us to know our hope.
The knowledge that suffering will come, should not cause us to despair or live in denial. Instead it should call us to be clear about the hope that scripture holds out to us.
We should do our best to make sure that we know the promises of God, and the hope that we look forward to. What a comfort it is in bleak times to hold on to scriptures like Revelation 21 that remind us of the certain future that we wait for, the kingdom where Jesus Christ sits on the throne, and wipes away every tear, abolishing sin and death forever!
Yet we can rob ourselves of this hope and strength, if we refuse to acknowledge that we are not victims – deserving of a good life here and now, cheated by a vindictive God, but pardoned sinners, rescued and redeemed from the destruction of our own making!
It’s not popular teaching, but it is vital, because without it, our victim mentality will cause us to blame God instead of coming to him for refuge. A refuge that he promises is strong and certain in times of trouble.
Now, I should also say before I am asked that, yes, sometimes we are victims too, of the sins of others. I don’t wish to be insensitive, if you have suffered at the hands of someone else!
This is a painful reality in a fallen creation. We only have to read the headlines to hear of terrible atrocities being committed against innocents. Please hear me clearly. I am not saying that if you suffer you are getting what you deserve, that God is specifically punishing you!
In fact Jesus addresses this when he is asked if this is why eighteen people died in a disaster of his day.
His answer is a resounding no.
But it is also not the rush to assure and pacify that I might offer! Instead he says:
I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3-5)
It’s another example of Jesus’ ‘harsh kindness’. What these people need to know is that the suffering that they see and experience must not be explained away. Instead of trying to work out whose specific fault it is, they must acknowledge the cursed state of the world, and make sure they have repented!
So let’s not let our own victimization cause us to forget our personal need to repent.
As I think about this issue for myself, I am coming to see that when I point the finger at God in suffering, I’m foolish. But I’m also cheating myself of the comfort and hope that is mine when I acknowledge what scripture tells me about the state of the world, my gospel hope, and Christ’s coming victory.
Fortunately for us, the passage that I quoted earlier continues: For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)
Let’s allow our heavenly hope to strengthen us through earthly suffering.
I’m about to end, but I want to make one final qualification of what I’m saying, to the person who is in the midst of suffering.
Perhaps you feel angry at God, you are reeling from what you are facing, you can’t pray, let alone think clinically about a theology of suffering!
God’s grace to us is large and abundant. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we cannot (Romans 8). Don’t add guilt to the emotions that you already feel, Christ died for our victim mentality too! It is only his grace that helps us to see ourselves as we truly are, and it is this same grace that preserves us and upholds us through suffering! Not our ability to think these things through.
17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!…19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Romans 5:17, 19