A SUFFERING FAITH?
David W. Dillon
Superintendent, Appalachian District
A great disservice has been done to Christianity. Suffering has been demonized and faith has been deified. Granted, faith is the foundation of knowing God. The Bible plainly teaches that we are saved through faith (Eph. 2:8) and that without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb.11:6). Believers are justified (or made right before God) by faith (Rom. 1:17;5:1). Both the Old and New Testaments declare (and demonstrate) that “the just shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17). Christianity is impossible without faith, plain and simple.
However, in the contemporary church there is little if any theology of suffering. Though its reality is plainly spoken of in the Scriptures, suffering has been demonized, and often in the name of faith. (Ironically, the same faith given to the believer not only for salvation, but also for victorious living in the face of suffering and pain.) Not only is this unhealthy in that it creates an unrealistic Christian worldview for its adherents, setting them up for an eventual crisis of faith when they encounter the painful realities that result from living in a fallen and sin dominated world, but it is also simply untrue in that it contradicts the stated truth of God’s Word. (Many more knowledgeable authors and scholars have addressed this, so I’ll not make a feeble attempt to recreate their assertions in this brief writing.)
Now please note, suffering should not be deified nor faith demonized. God’s people are blessed with eternal and abundant life. The Spirit of God has been given to them so that the very Presence of God can reside within. The favor of God (defined as that which is ordained of God and unseen and eternal and in contrast to that which is orchestrated by man and visible and temporary) rests upon those that are His, for all time and eternity. The Bible does not teach that suffering, in and of itself, is some virtue of religious piety, something to be pursued or intentionally brought about to demonstrate one’s devotion to God. To the contrary, when suffering is self-induced or self-afflicted, that is abnormal and a sign that something is wrong within the mind of the person, including his understanding of God.
Rather, the Bible simply presents suffering as a fact of life for the inhabitants of this world, whether they be “saints or sinners.” From the first verses of Genesis all the way to the end of Revelation, suffering and hardship are presented as the norm, not the exception to the rule. Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33a). Why Paul tells us that those choosing to live a godly in Christ will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). Why he encourages those doing good not to grow weary (Gal. 6:9). Why the Psalmist of the Old Testament declares, “Many are the afflictions (troubles) of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19a). And so on and so forth (and not to even mention the example of Job, the epitome of someone who suffered through no fault of their own).
So why do we demonize suffering and deify faith? Possibly because it’s much easier to blame someone or something else for our troubles than to acknowledge our responsibility for them. Also, because it may decimate our weak and unrealistic view of faith to acknowledge that God’s people are not exempt from the sufferings and hardship of this world. Either way, both courses of action are wrong.
One thing I have noticed is that the proponents and adherents of this misguided and erroneous understanding of biblical truth are often harsh in their rebuke and quick in their judgment of those undergoing hardship. It’s easy to do so when you are on the outside looking in. When you’re not the one walking through the pain of sickness and illness in spite of living a godly life and pursuing a healthy lifestyle. When you’re not the one dealing with the heartbreak of a rebellious and wayward child in spite of doing all a loving parent could do in raising that child. When you’re not the one being unfairly mistreated in spite of walking in integrity. When you’re not the one victimized by the unfaithfulness of a spouse in spite of loving that person with all of your heart and affection. When you’re not the one without a job because of a corporate decision made by others in spite of your hard work as a loyal and devoted employee.
May God help us not to add to the burdens of others by imposing our misunderstanding of the Christian faith! That is similar to what Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day for when they increased the burdens of the people with their extra-biblical teachings and traditions but wouldn’t so much as lift a finger to help lighten those loads (Matt. 23:4).
The good news of faith and the reality of suffering is that believers are “more than conquerors through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 8:37). God’s people are always led into triumph (victory) in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14). Yes, and as was said earlier, the righteous have many afflictions “but the Lord delivers them out of them all” (Ps. 34:19b). And similarly, those who have faith in God will have trouble in this world but they can “be of good cheer” because Jesus has “overcome the world” (John 16:33b) with all its heartache, trouble, sickness, grief, pain, etc.
Faith is the victory! But it is not a denial of suffering. Believe it or not (and even though it may not seem so and may even seem impossible), faith and suffering are not mutually exclusive nor diametrically opposed. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is believing that no matter what happens to us while we are in this world, God’s got our back and we can rest easy knowing that He is in control, our future and eternal destiny are certain, and He loves us without end. No wonder Paul prayed that he might know not only Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection, but also the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil. 3:10), those same sufferings by which the Son of God learned obedience (Heb. 5:8). May we do the same.
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