Most people probably wouldn’t want to admit it, but if they’ve taken the time to read the book of Job, they’re inclined to think his friends make a lot of good points. I mean, can we really disagree with Eliphaz when he says,
According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity
And those who sow trouble harvest it.
Of course, we have the prologue in the first chapter that tells us Satan is testing Job, but without that information, what would we honestly think about him?
He was rich beyond measure, well respected in the community, generous to the poor and needy, godly in every respect. And then one day, his world collapses. He loses practically everything he owns, his children die in a freakish storm, and then he himself gets sick. Horribly, painfully sick.
Would we conclude that God’s favor is on this man?
Again, I understand how the idea that suffering and God’s blessing are incompatible got a foothold in evangelical circles. After all, there is some Biblical foundation. Take Psalm 1, for example.
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
Clearly, in this contrast between the righteous and the wicked, God is saying there are advantages for the righteous. Those advantages could easily be interpreted as here and now.
But there are also any number of passages that indicate suffering has nothing to do with wickedness. Christ Himself suffered, and we are to experience the “fellowship of His sufferings.” Peter and John suffered because they wouldn’t stop preaching about Jesus. Paul suffered a “thorn in his side” which God would not heal. Stephen suffered to the point of death.
In the end, the Christian who believes the Bible and doesn’t just give lip service to it, must take into consideration its entire counsel if we are to understand what God wants to teach us about suffering.
A brief summary shows that suffering
* may come as a part of persecution
* can be a blessing
* may be a result of Satan’s opposition
* sometimes exists solely to bring God glory
* is something in which we can rejoice
* is experienced by our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world
* can be experienced by those who are doing wrong
One thing that seems absent is the idea that suffering is a sure sign of sin. Peter says it’s far better for us to suffer for doing right rather than for doing wrong, and he commands believers to make sure they don’t suffer as “a murder or thief or evil doer or a troublesome meddler.” But if we suffer as Christians, he says we’re not to be ashamed.
So Peter highlights the fact that suffering can be a consequence of sin or a result of persecution. In other words, there is no automatic, “this is what suffering means” answer.
Peter actually seems to look favorably on suffering. In his first letter, he starts chapter 4 by saying, “Therefore since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”
I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that last line, but clearly, he was looking at suffering in a completely different way than do most western evangelical Christians.
I think about the newly converted Paul having to leave Damascus in a basket because his fellow Jews were trying to kill him for preaching Jesus. I suspect today if someone had a similar experience, they’d write a book about being disappointed in God for not smoothing the path for their preaching or they’d give an e-zine interview about how they lost their faith because God couldn’t be counted on.
The fact is, we put God on trial and judge Him based on whether He gets us out or keeps us out of uncomfortable, hard places. When we walk through the fire, we think God has messed up, but the prophet Isaiah said,
When you pass through the water, I will be with you
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you. (Isaiah 43:2)
There’s no promise there that the waters won’t be overwhelming or that the fire won’t come near. There is God’s promise of His presence, His direction, and even His protection in the midst of suffering.
James says, “When you encounter various trials,” not if you encounter various trials.
The real question doesn’t seem to be “will we face suffering,” or even “why do we face suffering,” but “how will we face suffering.”
As long as western evangelical Christians buy the myth that suffering is incompatible with God’s blessing, I don’t see how we can respond with the kind of joy Peter and James both talk about.