The Theology of Suffering is something few preach about because it is not a very popular topic. However, anyone who does finds an audience ready for the message because it is the reality of life. A theology that shuns suffering is a theology that looks good on paper and in sermons but doesn’t resonate with the reality of life. For to quote a popular movie of my day, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.”
We love comfort and hope and optimism and good news. But life gives us too much suffering for these to be anything but vapor, a chasing after the wind. Sure there are good times in life, and we who are wealthy have more than our fair share of them. But then we are struck with a sickness we didn’t earn, or a financial or family crisis we couldn’t have seen coming. And suddenly our secretly works-based theology doesn’t work. “What did I do to deserve this?” we ask. “If I’d just been a better person, or not lied or cheated or stolen or killed, or if I had just earned a better lot in life.” The first blessing of suffering is that it reveals the falseness of a works-based theology. Today’s Proverbs tell us that bad people have good luck, and good people have bad luck, and things are inherently unfair when seen through a works-based, “getting what we deserve” theology. Our only hope of clinging to this kind of thinking is to believe that we are so terrible that we deserve every bad thing that happens, and that any good thing that happens is just grace, or mercy, or luck. Suffering strips away the falseness of a works-based theology.
Suffering also forces us to choose between God and anything else. When cancer strikes, where will you turn, for healing or comfort? When our kids leave the faith, where will we go for hope? When we are oppressed by an unjust system that targets us and holds us down, where will we find justice? Will we turn to our own protests or wisdom or power? Will we turn to the powers of this world, whether political or popular? Or will we turn to God? The gospel by definition saves us, which is why it is so hard to be comfortable and “on fire for the gospel”, because without suffering we have little if anything to be saved from.
We need suffering to keep us humble, honest with our beliefs, and clinging to God in fear, or in anger, or in hope. Suffering is not meaningless, but most other things in life are.
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