Everybody Hurts

I am embarrassed to say this, but for many years in pastoral ministry, I sat across from people in real suffering, but because of my own discomfort with suffering, I sought to fix those who weeped instead of weeping with those who weeped.

A number of years back, Susan and I were out with some close friends and they had some people in their lives going through some really hard times. They asked, ‘what’s your theology on suffering?’

I fumbled around.

The truth is, my understanding of the bible  at that time in my life was formed by books written by American mega-church preachers who taught that with enough faith, you’d get your miracle because God would be moved by your great faith and deliver you from your suffering.

There’s at least two errors the church can make regarding Christians who are suffering – and I’ve made them both.

ERROR 1: People who grow their faith can escape suffering because if you hold on long enough – you’ll get your miracle.

The scriptures repeatedly teach that God is with us in our suffering, loves us through our suffering, offers us grace that is perfect in the weakness of our suffering and when Christ returns, He will restore all things and eradicate all suffering. Spoiler alert: that’s in the end of the book in Revelation 21.

In short, the teachings of the faith movement disregard when the scriptures teach us that suffering free life is enjoyed, by cutting and pasting verses in such a way that they communicate  that everything that God promises we will enjoy after Christ’s return can all be enjoyed now – by those who have enough faith.

When we adopt the unscriptural idea Christians shouldn’t suffer, that it’s abnormal when Christians suffer, or that with enough faith or financial giving, God will put a force-field around you to ensure that you don’t suffer – we invite the church into a confusing crisis.

To borrow from Michael Horton, the idea that faith always delivers you from suffering is more therapeutic deism, a total departure from faithful Christian teaching. The hope of Christianity is not a baptized American dream that promises us a suffering free life. The actual gospel offers tremendous hope and strength when all hell is breaking loose and nothing is great about our life.

Christian or not, welcome to planet earth – everyone suffers.

I remember talking to a young man who had walked from his church. He said that from his perspective, there is no distinguishable difference between the amount of suffering in the lives of believers versus non-believers. I couldn’t agree with him more. Christian faith does not come with a force-field. As REM once put it, “everybody hurts”.

God is not indifferent to our suffering – He entered into our suffering. He’s not turning a blind eye to pain and injustice, He wrote Himself into human history in 33AD and on a cross, and took on excruciating pain and suffered radical injustice. Jesus gets sorrow. He’s the Man of Sorrows. [a]

Yes. In this world there is suffering – but united to Christ by grace and faith – our suffering is not final. The story your life does not end in darkness and death, but light and life with God.

The hope of the Christian gospel is not that everything in this life will work out but that we are united to the death-proof saviour of the universe who is holding the world together with a word of His power. [b] Just as He rose from death & suffering – so will we.

ERROR 2: People who have strong spiritual disciplines don’t suffer.

While spiritual disciplines certainly affect the way we live, leading us away from various kinds of avoidable suffering, spiritual disciplines do not make Christians invulnerable to suffering.

If I live indifferent to God’s law, I’ll experience suffering in some form because His law is wise and it promotes my flourishing. If I abandon worship to God and I don’t endeavour to love my neighbour as myself, then the ‘me 1st’ disposition of my heart will inevitably invite suffering into my life in some way. Looking to things smaller than God and making them god never ends well. Loving ourselves more than everyone else in our lives never ends well either.

At the same time, I can endeavour to live according to God’s Word (though imperfectly) and still suffer. God’s Word is not broken, but this world has been broken by sin.

If we insist that spiritual disciplines like worship, prayer, scripture meditation or generous giving are surefire ways to keep suffering at bay, then we don’t understand what spiritual disciplines are for.

God does not give us these disciplines in His Word as a means of earning things from Him, but as the means of truly enjoying life by imitating Him.

Dead religion always teaches obedience as a means of leveraging something from God, whereas the liberating simplicity of the gospel teaches obedience as a means of loving and enjoying God.

The difference between leverage-based religion and love-based gospel is that one wants things from God, the other wants God.

There’s nothing for us to leverage from God through obedience that hasn’t already been given to us by God through His grace.

Just as Job’s friends burdened Job in his suffering, our churches can become a place where we further burden those who suffer if we adopt a tit-for-tat view of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian faith. Oh – you’re suffering? Well – are you in the Word? How’s your prayer life? How’s your giving? Your volunteering? Did you walk any old ladies across the street this last week …

On this side of the cross, we are what’s called “New Covenant” Christians. In other words, we are under grace, which means the life we live is not an exercise in spiritual lever pulling.

Our obedience to God’s Word isn’t motivated by a need to leverage God to deliver us from suffering, our obedience to God is animated by a heart that loves God and finds strength in His grace for our suffering.

A life without suffering is not only poor theology, it’s a denial of reality. Christ said that He is our hope in suffering precisely because all humanity is susceptible to suffering. [1]

Every person who walks through the doors of our churches is dealing with a measure of sadness and suffering in some way. They’re sick or someone they love is. They’re in lack or someone they love is. They’re dealing with anxiety or someone they love is. They’re fearful about the future and they can’t sleep at night or someone they love is.

Good News

The gospel promise in Romans 8 says that we are overcomers ‘through Him who loved us’. [2] We are not overcomers in and of ourselves. We are not overcomers when our lives are suffering free. We are overcomers, “through Him who loved us” … even through our tears.

The “overcoming Christian” is not the one with a life devoid of suffering, sadness or tragedy. Those lives don’t exist.

The overcoming Christian is the one who finds rest and strength as they fall on God’s grace in the midst of their suffering, sadness and tragedy.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
II Corinthians 12:9

Press on,

Paul

[a] Isaiah 53:3
[b] Colossians 1:17
1] John 16:33

[2] Romans 8:34-38

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