“Life is difficult.” So begins Scott Peck’s best selling book, The Road Less Travelled. This has certainly been driven home to me the last couple of years. At some stage most of us experience significant pain. A broken relationship. A debilitating illness. A period of unemployment. A violent assault. And finally, death.
Christians are not immune to this. We follow a suffering Saviour who warns that difficulties will come our way. But we do have an incredible resource to help us live well: our faith and the God we proclaim.
Living with Suffering
“Life is difficult” certainly was true to Jesus’ experience. He came to Israel as the God-appointed Saviour, he healed the sick, exorcised the possessed and welcomed the sinner. Yet a every point he faced strident criticism and violent opposition.
As a newborn child Herod sought his death, forcing Jesus and his parents to flee for their lives to Egypt (Matthew 2). When he began his public ministry some thirty years later he remained the focus of violence. The religious establishment claimed he was possessed by demons and were so opposed that they conspired to to have Jesus killed (Matthew 12:24; Mark 11:18). The people of his hometown of Nazareth grew so furious with Jesus that they “drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” (Luke 4: 29). Herod Antipas, drunk with power and perceiving Jesus as a threat, sought his death (Luke 13:31).
These murderous intentions reached their denouement in Jesus’ violent death. Betrayed by one of his friends and abandoned by the others he was convicted on trumped up charges, whipped, beaten, spat upon, mocked, then subject to the most cruel and humiliating form of execution known to the ancient world.
The emotional enormity of these events weighed heavily upon Jesus. The night of his arrest he prayed alone on the Mount of Olives, so anguished that the Gospel writer says “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground”(Luke 22:43). Later, as he hung upon the cross, he cried the words of all those who feel abandoned by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
If the Son of God experienced pain and suffering, his followers can expect it too. Suffering is a symptom of a dysfunctional world. As long as people are morally flawed, our minds lacking in wisdom, our bodies susceptible to disease and aging, and our earth structured in such a way that natural disasters occur, pain and difficulty will be part of the human experience.
So the apostle Peter reminds those who are slaves
if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:20
Where Peter speaks of the difficulties that come from unjust treatment by masters, the apostle Paul describes the suffering of a dysfunctional environment and decaying bodies
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:18-25
Bringing together difficulties that come from persecution, injustice, disease, poverty, and more James of the trials of any kind
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4
For Jesus and those of his era suffering was a reality of life. They lived under often brutal, dictatorial regimes; experienced high levels of poverty; were susceptible to disease, and had little medical knowledge. On top of this Christians often aroused opposition due to their refusal to worship the gods of the home, city and State. Life was difficult and the notion that Christians would not share in this is foreign to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament.
Living Meaningfully Through Suffering
We live in an age where, thankfully, prosperity and technology allow us to avoid much suffering. But our emphasis on happiness rather than meaning as the goal of life has created an unhealthy attitude to suffering, which at its worst sees faith as a guarantee that we can be shielded from difficulty and pain. It is not.
Jesus shows us that what matters is not happiness but meaning. His life was centred on the goal of proclaiming and inaugurating the reign of God, and it was this that gave him the framework for making sense of life and enduring great suffering. So we see him on the night of his betrayal praying “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He does not welcome the suffering that lies ahead, but if it is part of living under the reign of God he will face it.
I have found something similar. I was blessed to be raised in a household where happiness was seen as a byproduct of living meaningfully, and where meaning was constructed in terms of seeking the reign of God in my life and world. This has given me a framework for dealing with Parkinsons. I do not relish what lies ahead of me, but neither has my world collapsed in on me. Whatever comes my way I will be able to live meaningfully through it.
Living Joyfully Through Suffering
At the same time that Jesus experienced difficulty he was able to live thankfully and joyfully. I do not mean that he was experiencing joy at the same time he was filled with anxiety as he prayed on the Mount of Olives, but that his difficulties did not blind him to that which was good in his world. Sunshine and rain were gifts of God that enable us to grow food (Matthew 5:45); the lilies of the field and birds of the air found provision for their need (Matthew 6:25-34); he enjoyed deep friendship with his disciples, and John in particular (John 20:2); he shared table with tax collectors, prostitutes and others and seems to have genuinely enjoyed their company.
The End of Suffering
Nor was Jesus resigned to suffering. At the centre of his ministry was his declaration that the kingdom of God was arriving. This does not refer to an immaterial realm we inhabit after death, but to the remaking of this world. Disease, suffering, death were intrusions into God’s good world that were to be eliminated once and for all.
In Luke 4, for example, Jesus interprets his ministry through the lens of Isaiah 61
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Isaiah spoke of a figure who proclaims to Israel that the time of redemption has come, that the people will live in the land free from violence, hunger, disease, fear and injustice. This was to be the first stage in a process by which all the nations were restored to God and fullness of life. Jesus declares that in him this prophecy is being fulfilled, giving it a dramatic twist. He and the community of disciples gathered around him were the true Israel.
The miracles Jesus performs are then signs of the coming reign of God. They function as teasers, pointers to what will come, the “renewal of all things” (Matthew 19:28). This is what happens when God reigns – the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the possessed are exorcised, the sinner is forgiven, the outcast welcomed.
Far from a fatalistic resignation to suffering, Jesus sees himself as coming to eliminate it. The New Testament letters fill this out. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead to a new existence where he is free from disease, decay and death is, like his miracles, a sign of what is to come for all of us.
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:20-26
We may suffer in the present, but a time is coming when the world will be made new.
Suffering Like Jesus
Jesus then provides the lens through which Christians ought to view suffering. It means that we accept suffering as part and parcel of life. Attempts to deny or evade this simply prevent us from coming to grips with reality.
But we refuse to allow suffering to rob us of life. We are determined to live meaningfully and to see and soak up all the goodness in life.
We refuse to be resigned to suffering, this unwelcome intrusion into God’s good world. Where injustice exists we will fight it; where relationships have broken down we will seek reconciliation and forgiveness; where disease wracks bodies we will apply ourselves to finding cures; where poverty occurs we will share our resources; where people are struggling, wounded or despairing, we will be present and caring.
And we do so because we know that a future is coming when it really will be on earth as in heaven.