Leading workshops at the Multnomah Mission Conference is a great experience I enjoy a lot. I have done several on themes around “what if I run into a demon?” It struck a chord because this year’s had about 160 participants! My Thursday session was on the theme “Does God want me to suffer?” I didn’t expect many to show since it’s a downer and also the last day has a lot less attendance. But 75 or so showed up and they were eager to wrestle.

The question comes from passages like this:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
(Mar 8:34-35 NIV)

It surely seems that deny self and taking a cross would hurt! And losing life is an outcome. Many have taken this in a sort of masochistic way: I need to choose to suffer so God will know my devotion. That sort of thing is common in paganism, of course. Christians pick it up, too, particularly in Catholic circles with the emphasis on penitence. I know good people who deliberately choose unhappiness thinking that will please God, proving they love Him. I know I was raised that way. It’s still hard for me to do things that bring only me pleasure. Like buying a tin of Altoids was very difficult. Weird when I think back.

On another level, I hear godly people say they never say they don’t want to do something because they are sure God will make them do it. Margaret Clarkson’s “So Send I You” was deemed the greatest missionary song of the twentieth century. Verses one and four are:

So send I you to labor unrewarded,
To serve unpaided, unloved, unsought, unknown,
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing-
So send I you to toil for me alone.

So send I you to leave your life’s ambition,
To die to dear desire, self-will resign,
To labor long, and love where men revile you-
So send I you to love your life in Mine.

Kind of a bleak picture, but what is the “ideal” Christian life. I also remember that I was disappointed when I got to the mission field and discovered that while it was hard in a lot of ways, I’d never done anything that was more fulfilling!

As I think of suffering, my theologian brain finds it helpful to categorize. Not all suffering is the same. God does want some, but not all suffering

(1) illness. It seems that this is not what God wants for us. the only time we see God moving illness is in judgment on sin.

(2) sinned against: I just got an email from a student asking me to help her in response to being raped. Long story, but I have to say I can’t believe God wanted that for her. Sin is against God’s will, though not out of His control or something that derails His plan.

(3) Persecution: God doesn’t particularly want us to be persecuted, but He does want us to be faithful to Jesus and that may well get us persecuted. In the US, we don’t get much outright persecution for being a Christian (though Christians get it for being jerks!). We sometimes get snickered at, slandered and passed by because we must be bigots. 1 Peter, our next series at Grace, has a lot to say about people who were having a hard time staying faithful because they were suffering so much.

(4) Joining others in their suffering: This one is God’s will for us. He definitely wants us to be like Jesus, leaving our place of comfort to join others in their suffering. While people can get overboard on this, most are way under committed on this. I just preached the last message in our Isaiah series. self centered life of Judah is what makes God so angry.

So does God want us to suffer? In some ways, yes. What of Mark 8? Deny self? That’s what Isaiah was saying: the life that’s satisfied with personal spiritual growth is a life of sin. It will neither succeed nor lead to fulfillment. Take the Cross? That means identifying with Jesus. Revelation 12:11 puts it very well: “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”

I know in my own life, the greatest joy and greatest pain comes in joining with Jesus in the sufferings of people, especially the widow and orphan people Isaiah speaks of. They are the forgotten ones, the powerless ones, the ones Jesus lifted up. There’s lots of sadness there. But there is unparalleled delight when God moves and healing comes.

But I’ve learned the hard way: don’t go past the empowerment the LORD gives. Paul puts it this way: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
(2Co 1:3-4 NIV). I can comfort only with the comfort with which I’ve been comforted. If I go beyond that I only jangle.

So much to reflect on.


4 thoughts on “Suffering

  1. It made me sad to hear that you have trouble treating yourself to Altoids. You could always think of it, not as self-indulgence, but as a purchase that makes life more pleasant for those around you. 😉

    Seriously, I appreciated your post. Thanks for writing.

  2. Tacking on to God’s ordiantion of suffering and his purpose in allowing it,

    2 Corinthians 12:7-10

    To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

  3. It seems that God uses the suffering of persecution to accomplish his ends. He did that with the Israelites throughout the Old Testament, using Babylon and Assyria as instruments for his judgment, and several NT passages talk about both the necessity of and almost desirability of suffering for Jesus’ sake. (see Acts 9:16, Philippians 1:29, 1 Peter 3:17 and 4:16, 19). None of these passages suggests that we should go looking for ways to suffer, or bring persecution on ourselves (like by being jerks!); however, they all speak to the reality of suffering and its God-ordained use in our lives.

  4. So do you view punishment/consequences for behaviors at all related to suffering? Did the Israelites suffer in the wilderness or suffer under the yoke of other nations while in exile? I’m not sure I like it lumped into category #2, but that seems the best fit. I’m creeping into theodicy, admittedly, but as you say with patterns of masochistic suffering, it’s easy to equate certain aspects of suffering with “just desserts” or heavenly discipline.

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