Over the last few weeks the world’s attention has been drawn to the intense persecution of Christians and other minority groups by the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), offering Christians three choices if they wish to stay: convert to Islam, pay peace tax and lose your family, or die. More than 800’000 Iraqi minorities have been displaced, thousands have died a cruel death.
Ann Drew argues that “at no other time in history have we ever been more aware of the horrors of religious persecution.” And rightly so: the #WeAreN campaign (Arabic “N” for “Nazarene” or follower of Jesus) is gaining momentum in social media as activists appeal raise awareness in the hope of a speedy end to this injustice by uploading images and petitioning for governmental engagement and financial contributions. (Do you also find the mainstream media strangely quiet on this serious matter? I suspect they fear to put Islam in a bad light in fear of retribution).
So again we have all been alerted to suffering of persecuted Christians in Iraq. Off course, this is not new to the church in Iraq, as this is probably the most ancient Christian community in the world today, living in one of the most hostile Islamic nations on earth. Most of Christian history is written in blood, and for large parts of the world, Christianity lives in varying degrees of religious persecution – it’s only in the West that we have enjoyed religious freedom – for now.
In fact, suffering is one of the main themes in the Scriptures. Most of the Bible books were written to or about oppressed believers – whether slaves in Egypt, oppressed by Canaanite nations during the period of the judges, or Daniel and his contemporaries as Babylonian or Persian slaves, or the Entire New Testament written when the Church war persecuted by both Roman rule and the Jewish persecution. Therefore a great number of the examples are recorded in Scripture about individuals of communities suffering, and God’s redemptive response to them. Regarding these examples Paul writes to the persecuted congregations in Rome: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). To the believers of both the Old and the New Testament, suffering was a reality. This is our legacy.
Yet, for many Christians today, especially in the West, suffering is foreign to their theology. But we all know the story of Job – probably the most ancient book in the Bible. Job was a rich and influential man in his day. He was a worshipper of God, a righteous man who interceded for his family and encouraged others. Then disaster struck and he lost everything, leaving Job utterly surprised at first, then depressed and angry at God – crying “this is not fair!” After lamenting his loss (and even his birth), his friend Eliphaz couldn’t keep quite anymore:
4 “Your words have upheld him who was stumbling,
and you have made firm the feeble knees.
5 But now [suffering] has come to you, and you are impatient;
it touches you, and you are dismayed.
6 Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope?” (Job 4:4-6, ESV)
This sixth verse is a good summery of the theology of Job and three of his friends: the belief that if I worship God and do the right things, nothing bad will happen to me, because God is on my side. In other words, bad things happen to bad people, good people should not suffer. We might not say it like this, but this is also a popular theology in our time. Like Job we are prone to believe that a life of integrity and sincere devotion to God will prevent bad things from happening to us. Then we, like Job, are caught off guard when disaster strikes, so we resort to unhealthy introspection (“What have I done wrong to deserve this?!”) or futile accusation (“Why does God allow this to happen to me? God is not fair!”).
When one believes that good standing with God prevents bad things from happening to you, as in Job’s case, suffering brings doubt: it makes you either question yourself (“where have I sinned to bring this suffering on me?”) or question the nature or power of God (“is God fair?” or “is God really there?” or “does God care?”). This presumption is a pharisaic notion that entrusts the welfare of the self in one’s ability to walk rightly: “if I abide by the rules it will be well with me.” It places our relationship with God on the contractual plane: “I do my part, God watches over me.”
The ninth chapter of John tells of a man born blind. Both the disciples (v2) and the Pharisees (v34) presumed that the man was blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin, but Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) In other words, his suffering had a redemptive purpose from God, and was not the result of someone’s sin. God had a plan, and it involved the suffering of an individual.
We believe rightly that obedience brings blessings, but Scripture demonstrates repeatedly that righteous people suffer in this life, Jesus even promised that. But even more clearly the life and death of our Saviour demonstrates that righteous people suffer, accomplishing the will of God. Therefore obedience to God does not prevent suffering in this evil age, and suffering is not always the result of sinful conduct.
How do we view suffering as Christians?
As mentioned before all of Scripture was written to suffering people, mostly about God’s redemptive intervention into the lives of those suffering. This is the basis of the Christian worldview: God’s creted everything good, the fall of sin bringing about suffering and death under the reign of Satan, and God redeemed creation by the death of his Son.
A questions asked many times during periods of hardship is “Where is God in all of this?” to which Phillip Yancey simply answers “God is among his people” (see Revelations 21:3). As Christ “went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38) during his life on earth, so Christ’ still today engages suffering with compassion and redemption through and among his people, being his “body” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:12). The church is and will always be God’s chosen means of addressing suffering in this earth, until Jesus comes to usher in the new heaven and new earth.
So, if the church is God answer to suffering in the world, how do we respond to it?
How do we respond to suffering?
1. We are not surprised
Firstly, Peter wrote to the early church to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you… as though some strange thing were happening to you…” (1 Peter 4:12 ). We should not be surprised either. Suffering is normative to all humans, and Christians are not excluded, as our history teaches. In fact, Jesus promised “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up!” (John 16:33). Paul echoed that promise, saying that “all who wish to live a godly life will suffer” (2 Timothy 3:12). Why can we be so certain to experience suffering?
Although God created a good world, our world is fallen (1 John 5:19), and “the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1Pet5:8-9) seeking “to kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10). But we also know that suffering is not only caused by an enemy “out there” – sin is locked up in every human heart (Romans 3:23), and therefore we humans are the cause of much of the suffering in the world (see Galatians 5:19-21). Paul taught the Colossians (3:5-11) that greed leads to sexual immorality and (and eventually sexual violence), anger in the heart results in slander and obscenity (and eventually violent abuse). Even a casual observation of society makes one see that greed (or envy) makes one satisfy the desires of self causing suffering of others whether financially, sexually, or by exerting authority (1 John 2:16). The same can be seen of pride which asserts rights for self at the cost of others, manifesting in of divisions in homes and communities, resulting of all types schisms: sexisms, classisms, sectarianisms, racism. These in turn spurs hatred, oppression, violence, and a long history of wars as we see in Iraq and Gaza today.
Do not be surprised when you are struck by suffering, for as long as we are in this world the prince of this word (John 14:30) excerpts his reign of terror and death, working through sinful people who both endure suffering and spread suffering (Ephesians 2:2).
(2) We joyfully endure suffering
New Testament writers teach that our response towards suffering should be joyful. Jesus said that those who are poor, hungry, thirsty, mourning, persecuted and slandered are blessed: fortunate, well off and happy (acc to Strongs Dictionary; see Matthew 5:3-12, compare 1 Peter 3:14). This happy response is not natural. However, there are at least six reasons to be joyful in our suffering according to the New Testament.
The first reason for rejoicing in our suffering is the imitation of Christ: since Christ himself suffered unjustly in this life, the early church counted it an honor to suffer like him, even to be identified with him in his death (1 Peter 4:12; Philippians 1:29; 3:10; Hebrews 12:3). Secondly James motivates a joyful response to suffering because it gives opportunity to grow in godly character (James 1:2-4). Hardship has the ability to reveal which parts of one’s faith and character are strong and which is not (Hebrews 12:27-28); it has the ability to reveal yourself for who you really are as Peter was brought face-to-face with his own cowardness the evening of Jesus’ arrest (John 13:38; 18:27). Moreover, bodily suffering rids one of the susceptibility of sinful sensual pleasures (1 Peter 4:1-2), as we know from receiving a hiding as a child. Thirdly, suffering (especially the threat of death) has a way of focusing the mind on what is really important, bringing the correct eternal perspective to our everyday tasks on earth (Philippians 3:8-9, 14; 2 Corinthians 4:18). Furthermore, we endure suffering joyfully since we know there are rewards when Christ returns (Matthew 5:12; 16:27; Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Peter 4:19) – our perseverance and faithfulness amidst hardships will rewarded (See Christ’s letters to the churches in Revelations 2:7, 11, etc). Lastly, this eternal perspective gives joyful hope since we know that the age of suffering will soon be over, when Christ will usher in the New Earth where there will be no more tears, no more sickness or poverty, no deceit or rejection, no suffering and enslavement, no violence or death. Jesus said “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Rejoice, for our suffering is temporal.
(3) We work towards its redemptive purpose
Our suffering also has redemptive meaning, and therefore we have to see it as an opportunity from God to be grasped (James 1:2-4). Jesus taught in the parable of the Sower that trials, temptation and tribulation arises because of the seed, to show the depth of the soil (Mark 4:5-6; Mark 4:16-17). In other words, God allows difficult times for our sake to show the depth of our character and trust in him – which will otherwise not be known to us. As an exam shows our depth of understanding in a subject matter, so suffering shows how much we trust God and how much our character has grown to represent Christ.
In Peter’s case the time of testing rid him of immature flakiness and cowardness, and in turn produced godly character and courage in him (see Luke 22:31). In Joseph’s case the repetitive injustice and abuse produced a beautiful humility and strength (Genesis 37-41). In Job’s case, the suffering brought him to the place where he knew God for the first time (Job 42:5-6).
So suffering, Biblically, holds redemptive purpose from God, as Paul teaches “All things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:19). Or as Dallas Willard stated it “nothing irredeemable has happened to us or can happen to us on our way to our destiny in God’s world.” All suffering can be redeemed by God. As Christians, our suffering has purpose.
How do we let the suffering fulfill its redemptive purpose? Difficult as it is, we surrender ourselves to God’s work in the suffering in the same way Jesus surrendered himself in the garden of Gethsemane to the cup his Father gave him to drink. Note that, although Jesus was handed over by jealous, self-righteous Jewish leaders, and crucified by Roman soldiers – he rightly saw his suffering as a bitter cup which God gave him to drink (Matthew 26:42).
This calls for a re-interpretation of our suffering, acknowledging God the Father has seen it fit to allow the suffering, and that he entrusts you with the suffering (1 Corinthians 10:13). At some point during his suffering Joseph had to re-interpret his enslavement and imprisonment as a work from God, as he told his brothers who sold him into slavery “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). Paul encouraged the congregation in Corinth to find some meaning in their suffering, to reframe their experience with the words “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) Suddenly, the Corinthian suffering was no longer persecution by the Romans, but a school of comfort and compassion with God as the Teacher. Moses did the same reframing of the Wilderness wandering as a lesson in humble dependence on God, as well as a test of devotion to God amidst suffering (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 – see a previous post on Not by Bread Alone).
As we realize our suffering has purpose and is permitted by God for our good and the good of others we entrust ourselves to God, knowing that he has the power to deliver us, and even to sustain us in during these fiery times (1 Peter 4:19; compare with Daniel 3:14-18).
(4) We Suffer well
Peter admonishes believers under a reign of persecution to follow the example of Christ and suffer honorably, blessing those who hurt you (1 Peter 2:20-23). He teaches Christians to maintaining their innocence under unjust rulers so that no one can find fault with their conduct, especially pertaining to honoring and obeying the rulers and slave masters as appointed by God himself (1 Peter 2:12-15; 3:9, compare Romans 13:1-7). We walk worthy of the Lord at all times, and follow his example in suffering.
(5) We respond prayerfully
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray!” (James 5:13) Our natural inclination is to pray for an end to the suffering, but in the pursuit of the redemptive purpose of our suffering, Scripture has very helpful examples prayers recorded. When Jesus warned Peter of his time of testing by Satan, he said “I prayed… that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31; compare Ephesians 3:17). I always pray the same for people going through a very hard time, since people are tempted to abandon their belief in God’s good character and his ability to save them. The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews (written probably early in Nero’s persecution of Christians around Rome 60 AD) had to be reminded of the same truth, from there the eleventh chapter on the heroes of our faith.
To the church in Ephesus undergoing persecution, Paul prayed three significant things, the first of which was for hope: a revelation of the rich inheritance God has reserved for all believers (Ephesians 1:18). The prayer is that they may know what lies ahead for them beyond this time of suffering, so that they may have something to endure for. Everyone going through tough times needs something to press on for, otherwise the human spirit wills no more.
Then Paul prays “that you may be strengthened with power through his spirit” (Ephesians 3:16) – for endurance, the ability to persist. The strength to suffer well, but to push on through this difficult time.
Paul continues to pray “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may… know the love of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19). Why pray for love? Because when suffering prolongs people are tempted to think that God does not love them anymore, that God has forgotten them. So Paul prays that the suffering congregation may be secured in the awareness of God’s loving devotion towards them, even though the experience pain and grief from suffering. Elsewhere he writes “nothing can separate you from the love of God…” (Romans 8:39).
Lastly, the Lord’s answer to Paul’s prayers to end his personal suffering gives good guidance for our prayers: pray for sufficient grace amidst the trial (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) – for God’s help and power to sustain one in times of weakness. His “is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). In other words this grace carries the one suffering through to the end.
(6) We respond generously
Our last answer to the question “How do Christians respond to suffering?” is found in Apostles’ instruction to Paul and Barnabas regarding their mission to the Gentiles: “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). We read of this practice of collecting goods for suffering, persecuted believers in 2 Corinthians 9:1-7, what John calls “love not just in words, but love in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). As the church we respond compassionately and generously with those who suffer. One avenue for giving to the church suffering persecution in Syria and Iraq is via the disaster management agency relief.life
In this life we will not escape suffering, since the world is fallen, and so are we humans. Yet we trust God our Father since our life is in his hands, and he is able to deliver us, or sustain us during these trying times. Therefore we pray to him to reveal and accomplish his redemptive purpose with our suffering. We joyful endure the suffering because it is good for us – and others – and we remind ourselves that this life is short, and that – for Christians – suffering will end when Christ returns to usher in the New Earth. And while we wait for That Day, we the Church will follow our Lord’s example to comfort and support those suffering with the same compassion he showed while he walked this earth.