The predictable surprise of suffering

In the last few days my son has begun a new game. The aim of the game is to scare the living daylights out of Dad. He’s getting quite good at it. Yesterday morning, while I was making the bed, a hand shot out from under the bed frame and grabbed my ankle. I nearly hit the roof. A mischievous face appeared and burst into laughter. Apparently scaring your dad is a joy worth pursuing!

My son has reminded me that surprise is the essence of a good shock. The evening before the great monster-under-the-bed success, he tried to hide unsuccessfully in the laundry. I heard him rustling amongst the clothes on the floor before I got there and so wasn’t surprised at all to find him lurking behind the door waiting to frighten me. When you know what to expect, the sting is taken out of fear.

But sometimes, even though we should have the right expectations, we get lazy. Having kissed my wife and kids goodbye this morning, I walked out from the kitchen to the front door. It was unlocked. I remember thinking that it was vaguely unusual to find it unlocked, but I dismissed it almost immediately—one of the kids must have been a bit careless. Then, as I opened the door to head off to work, my son burst in from the front verandah with a tremendous shout.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The game had been going for days and I knew that he was going to try and scare me. And yet I was still surprised—caught completely off guard by his cunning plan. I should have expected it, but I didn’t. And because I didn’t, I was ambushed.

It seems to me that many of us are like this when it comes to suffering. If we have read our Bibles, we know that suffering is not surprising. It is part of life in this world. Yet, for some reason, we still find it shocking. If we are going to suffer well, we need to explore again the biblical promises about suffering.

The promise of suffering

We live in a world broken by sin. This creation stands rightly under the hand of God’s judgement. Death, and all that goes with it, should be expected because we belong to Adam. This is a world where hurricanes strike, floods wash away, and famines leach away life. God has told us that we live in a creation groaning under the weight of sin, and longing for renewal. This side of Jesus’ return, we should all expect suffering.

But in many ways that makes the New Testament teaching on suffering even more surprising. While the Bible leaves us with no delusions about the broken nature of things, the fallen nature of life in this world is not particularly prominent in the pages of the New Testament. It’s there; it just doesn’t occur very often. With the coming of Jesus we find a new promise about suffering:

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. (Matt 10:24–25)

The great New Testament promise about suffering is not so much that all will suffer, but that it is guaranteed for those who follow a suffering Lord. This promise is made in so many ways and in so many places that it is impossible to avoid. In Jesus’ last words to his disciples in John’s gospel, he spends much of his time preparing them not to be surprised by suffering:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you… I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. (John 15:18-20, 16:1-4)

And from Jesus on, suffering becomes foundational to apostolic teaching. Paul says to the Christians in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). He writes to the Philippians to explain that “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he has already told them about suffering:

[Do not] be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. (1 Thess 3:3-4)

The apostle Peter exhorts the scattered saints of the dispersion:

Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet 4:12-13)

The words of 2 Timothy summarize the New Testament perfectly: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

These brief quotations only scratch the surface of the New Testament teaching on this issue. All Christians, without exception, must suffer. We should be as surprised about suffering as Christians as I should have been when my son leaped through the front door. Hearing that Christians have suffered should strike us in the same way as learning that Bob went to the shops to buy milk this morning. It’s not front-page news. It’s normal.

The reason that it’s normal is not difficult to understand. What would we expect to happen when the God who has been rejected and reviled for thousands of years steps into history as a man? John describes it as the coming of light and life into darkness. The encouragement is that the darkness has not overcome the light. But even those words reveal the friction. The light is not overcome by the darkness, but the darkness desperately wishes that it would be so.

As we read the Gospels, we see exactly what it means that the light has stepped into the darkness of this world. Jesus speaks truth, and the religious authorities send spies to trap him in his words. Jesus eats with sinners, and the powers that be accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus heals, and the Pharisees wish to kill. It is one of the great ironies of the gospels that Jesus is hated because he does the right thing, but it is not surprising. And Jesus teaches us to expect the very same.

When the grace and forgiveness won by Jesus enters into the lives of God’s people, the Spirit transforms them to live for the sake of righteousness. If they killed Jesus because of his righteousness, what should we expect people to do to us? It is still true at the beginning of the third millennium. I know of a man who was refused a promotion because he was too honest. He would not be involved in offering or receiving bribes when negotiating for business. I know another man who eats alone in the lunch room more often than not because he is too good—the other blokes feel uncomfortable telling their crude jokes in front of him. Coming to Jesus means becoming like Jesus. If we are truly changed by the Spirit, our lives will be a stench to those around us.

It’s not always true. In God’s kindness, sometimes the beauty of godly living results in others finding salvation and life. But Peter knew what he was saying when he told the believers to “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12). Peter knew that living as a Christian would mean being called evil. We really shouldn’t be surprised by suffering.

But at this point, the keen-eyed observer may have noticed a small fly in the ointment. We are speaking about persecution rather than general suffering. People daily suffer through cancer, war, accidents and more. Yet the biblical promise to Christians doesn’t seem to be about getting sick or losing your life in a tsunami. Illness and natural disasters were not at the forefront of Jesus’ teaching about affliction. Nor did they loom large in the minds of the apostles.

This raises at least two significant issues. First, does the New Testament really say so little about general suffering in a fallen world? We need to look at the evidence for this idea. Second, if this really is the case, then what does it mean for us as Christians and how we suffer well?

Examining the biblical evidence

A negative statement is always harder to prove than a positive statement. It is easy to say that elephants are grey. Find a book with elephant pictures in it and show me that they’re grey. It’s much harder to say that there is no such thing as a pink elephant. How do you know? Have you seen every elephant that has ever lived? Could it be that there is a tribe of pink elephants living on some remote archipelago that are yet to be seen by human eyes?

As soon as I say that the New Testament is not particularly interested in the general suffering of a fallen world, it is easy for our minds to jump to those passages where the New Testament clearly talks about such things. Towards the end of his ministry, Jesus tells his disciples that the last days will be full of earthquakes and famines and wars (Mark 13:7-8). When Paul details his own suffering, he talks about being cold and hungry and tired (2 Cor 11:21-29). Romans 8 speaks of the groaning of this present creation. And James can talk to believers about rejoicing when they face trials of various kinds. So why would I say that the New Testament is not particularly interested in the general suffering of creation?

Let me try and make my case. Firstly, and perhaps more significantly than it might first seem, the New Testament contains nothing like Job or Ecclesiastes. Job wrestles with what it means to suffer as an innocent man. The writer of Ecclesiastes contemplates the futility of life in the face of death. Both books are concerned with the kind of suffering that we might classify as general suffering in a fallen world—the suffering of illness and accidents and famine and failure.

But if the Old Testament contains these books that wrestle so deeply with the nature of suffering, why don’t we find similar books in the New Testament? It could be argued that the Old Testament has done such a good job of dealing with these things that there is no need for a New Testament equivalent. But this doesn’t really account for the differences between the Old and New Testaments. Let’s look at Ecclesiastes for a moment and compare it to what the New Testament teaches.

The big problem for the writer of Ecclesiastes is death. Death robs everything of its significance, or more specifically, of its gain or profit. The question introduced in 1:3—“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”—becomes a refrain in the book (Eccl 2:11, 3:9, 5:16). And the answer to the question is that there is no gain. No matter what human beings do—seek wisdom, chase pleasure, pursue fame, or work for wealth—it ultimately results in no lasting gain. Death means that whatever we achieve is lost to us forever. Any gain that is made is, at best, short term.

But to truly understand the author’s point, we need to ask why this is the case. According to Ecclesiastes, the problem that causes the lack of gain is twofold. On the one hand, sometimes we do good things (like plant our crops) only to reap no reward (they are destroyed by a storm). Because we can’t control the outcome of our actions, there is no guarantee of gain, even from hard work.

This means that sometimes we will do things that don’t work out. A man will dig a pit, only to fall into it. The lumberjack will go out to split logs, only to be split by them (Eccl 10:8-9). And what was true before the coming of Christ is still true in the last days. As I write, the state of Queensland has been struck by a string of natural disasters. There was widespread flooding and then a huge tropical cyclone. Cars and trucks were swept away in the water. Rooves have been ripped from homes as if someone had opened a tin can. And amidst it all, the loss of livelihoods.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, one of the first reporters to view the results of the cyclone recorded footage of the local banana plantations. They were entirely destroyed by gale-force winds. This year there will be no crop and no income for the farmers. They have worked hard. They have acted with an eye on the future, but they will not harvest what they have sown. At this point, life in our world is just like life in the Old Testament world, and the truths of Ecclesiastes are unchanged.

However, this is the lesser of two great problems for the author of Ecclesiastes. The greater problem is that if we act wisely and, in God’s kindness, good things result, even those are short lived. According to Ecclesiastes, we don’t know where we go when we die (Eccl 3:19-21). All we know is that we can’t take any of our fame, pleasure or wealth with us.

But here is where the gospel provides us with an entirely different perspective. Because of the coming of Jesus, we know what will happen after death. Jesus is our forerunner. He faced death and God raised him to life. We know in Christ that death is not the end; it is the gateway to judgement and eternal life for those who trust in Jesus. The New Testament believer knows what the writer of Ecclesiastes did not know: whatever might happen in this life, nothing can take our eternal home from us.

This changes things in a profound way. In Ecclesiastes, the lack of gain means that life is vanity. Our actions are rendered almost meaningless because we will never really enjoy the fruits of anything we do. But for Paul, the resurrection means that living for Christ is never in vain. Because we know that Christ died and rose again as the firstfruits, “therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58). Paul encourages the believers, who live in a world marked by death, not to fret but to continue to live in light of the hope that is ours in Christ.

It is easy for us to misunderstand the importance of this. Sometimes we forget that belonging to Christ does not guarantee comfort and happiness tomorrow. Some Christians want to promise us a victorious, pain-free life, but that is not the biblical promise. Christians are not exempt from God’s hand of judgement at work in this fallen world. Just like our unbelieving neighbours, we will act wisely, plant our crops and make our plans, but they won’t always come to fruition.

But, significantly, in Christ we do see into life beyond death. Because Christ has been raised, our actions in the service of our Lord will result in glory on the day that he visits us. When things are uncomfortable in this world, Christians are called on to live as those who have hope because Christ reveals God’s future to us. We live for a world in which the uncertainty and terror of sin will be wiped away.

This explains to us why there is no Ecclesiastes in the New Testament. The Christian is not called on to wonder whether there is value in living for Christ in this world. The Christian does not need to ask whether their spirit will go up or down. We know. Therefore we do not need to face death in the same way. Because of God’s goodness in the gospel, we can say with Paul:

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)

The New Testament does not spend entire books wrestling with the pain of suffering and death because, while entirely to be expected, they are also transformed. God has given us truth in Christ that genuinely changes our experience of life in a broken and fallen world. We are able, by the powerful working of God’s gracious Spirit, to face death in a new way because of what God has revealed in Jesus. We do not need to fear death in the way that our neighbours do. But before we move on, it is important to deal with a significant misreading of the Bible that challenges this point.

What about the promise of healing?

Some Christians suggest that the New Testament doesn’t spend much time talking about general suffering because in Christ we are freed from it. In Jesus, the new age has come. If we have enough faith then Christ will release us from that kind of suffering: the Christian should no longer get sick or face disaster. If Christ has come in order to bring in the new creation, then surely those who trust in the powerful king of the world will be free from the ravages of sin.

It’s an argument with significant biblical support. If you were to search for words like sickness, disease and illness in the New Testament, you would come across lots and lots of references to people being healed. The Gospels are full of the blind and deaf and lame and dumb being totally cured by the power of Jesus. What’s more, the healing doesn’t end there. The apostles did what Jesus did. Peter healed the lame man; Paul raised Eutychus from the dead. Surely we must conclude that the king of the world has come and given power to his people over the fallenness of this creation.

If all we had to read were the Gospels and Acts, we could well be forgiven for this thinking. However, there is a significant problem. If you go searching for sickness and disease in the rest of the New Testament (or healing for that matter), you will find very few references indeed. What’s more, those references give a very different picture.

While 1 Corinthians 12 mentions the gift of healing in passing, it says almost nothing about it. James 5 seems to suggest that healing is possible, but the way to find healing is by confessing your sins. The New Testament teaches that in some cases sin and sickness are tied directly to each other (cf. 1 Cor 11). But these references are surprising if certain healing is to be a mark of New Testament Christian experience. Why don’t the apostles tell us to be healed and show us how to do it?

The surprise is amplified by the other references to sickness and illness in the New Testament. Paul’s missionary companion, Trophimus, is left behind in Miletus because he is ill. It is a little strange that a faithful missionary should be left behind because he was not faithful enough to be healed. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul doesn’t tell his trusted protégé Timothy to pray but to drink a little wine for his apparently frequent gastro-intestinal ailments. And Paul himself is inflicted with some sort of ailment that God chooses not to take away (2 Cor 12). The apostle prays in faith but is not healed. How should we explain this apparent indifference to sickness and healing?

We must see that the healing miracles in the Gospels and Acts are a taste of the heavenly reality. While the coming of Christ as the king brings a glimpse of the kingdom, the rest of the New Testament does not teach that Christians should be free from the ailments of this life. Even Jesus himself assumes that Christians will get sick. When Jesus teaches his disciples about living at the end of the ages, he tells them that whatever they do to the least of Jesus’ brothers, they do to Jesus. This includes visiting the sick (Matt 25:36). In the last days there will still be brothers and sisters who need visiting because they are sick.

Of course, we knew it all along. Sickness is just a symptom of a world marked by death. We learn in the gospel that death and all that goes with it is passing away. But it won’t be done away with until the end. We live in a world where one hundred per cent of people still die. God’s promise is to deal with that when Jesus returns. God is powerful and may still intervene in our world to save people temporarily from illness. We would be faithless indeed to suggest otherwise. But even they will die.

For all of the wonderful pictures of the coming kingdom brought about through Jesus’ healing ministry, the repeated New Testament teaching is that we belong to a groaning world. In Jesus and the ministry of the apostles, we get a brief glimpse of the wonders of heavenly reality—a world where death and disease will melt away like snow in the face of spring. But in the meantime, our mortal bodies are still subject to the decays of this age. We shouldn’t expect the full restoration of resurrection existence until we see Christ face to face on the last day. What a wonderful day that will be!

What happened to my favourite passage?

But let’s get back to the main point. Is the New Testament more interested in the suffering that comes from belonging to Jesus than the general suffering of life in a fallen world?

Let’s look more closely at the kinds of suffering that the New Testament does speak about. It is worth returning to the opening pages of this article and going slowly through the verses there. Paul, Peter and John all talk at length about suffering for the sake of the kingdom. This teaching is woven into page after page of the New Testament, but we often mishear what is being said because we tend to read our own problems into the Bible.

Let’s look at one of the most popular and most significant passages about suffering in the New Testament—Romans 8. Many of us know its wonderful promises, such as verse 28: “for those who love God all things work together for good”. But even as we rejoice in these glorious promises, it is easy to read our situation into Romans 8 without seeing what is actually there. Why does Paul talk here about the certainty of God’s love, even in the face of death? It is because belonging to Christ is a death sentence. Becoming a Christian means taking up our cross and following Christ.

Just before the exalted promises of Romans 8 is a little section that is often skipped over in our preaching.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:16-18)

We are used to hearing about the way that by the Spirit we are children of God, and we are familiar with the idea that the coming glory is not worth comparing to our present sufferings. But tucked away in these verses is the sting in the tail. We will only be glorified with Christ if we also suffer with him. And the suffering that Paul has in mind is not just the general suffering of getting sick or being caught in a tidal wave. What are the threats that stand opposed to us in Romans 8? In verses 31 to 35, the expectation is that there will be enemies who stand against us, making accusations. The encouragement is that if you belong to God, then those who stand against you will fail. Nevertheless, God’s protection will be experienced in the midst of a fight. There will be tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword.

This is a carefully crafted list. It is not a series of words thrown together to cover the breadth of human suffering. It is a list that describes Paul’s experience of living with Jesus as his Lord and wishing to preach the truth about him. For Paul, nakedness and famine were all part of walking the ancient world living for Jesus and speaking about him. In fact, this list sounds just like the list in 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul talks about the hardship of being an apostle. This is confirmed for us in Romans 8 by the very next verse (v. 36): “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered”.

The apostle Paul personally experienced the reality of Jesus’ promises. The servant will not be greater than the master. The godly Christian who wants to speak the truth about Christ will be attacked, ridiculed, maligned and mistreated. And because Paul understood the cost of living and speaking for Christ, he spoke to encourage the believers to trust in the power of God’s love.

This is not to say that Romans 8 has nothing to offer to those who are suffering disease and illness. It is just that we fail to hear what it is really saying when we forget to read it through the lens of the rest of the New Testament. Paul was writing to the Roman Christians to tell them to keep living for Jesus and honouring him no matter what. He wrote this way because he knew that living for Christ would be costly and painful.

Paul was not heartless. He cared for people and loved them greatly. In writing to the Philippians, Paul told them that God protected him from great anguish by saving Epaphroditus from death. Paul is not ignorant of the suffering inherent in living in this world. But he also knows the great truth of the New Testament that our world wants to hide from us: the only sure solution to our suffering can be found in Christ. For those who know the gospel, suffering and death are not a surprise. But more than that, the gospel brings life and hope to those who cling to Christ.

That is what the New Testament letters are all about. Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to a church in which people got sick and died (1 Thess 4:13). His comfort for those left living was the resurrection of Christ, but the great purpose of the letter was to encourage the Thessalonians to keep living for Jesus, no matter how much persecution they faced. Peter wrote to believers who were being maligned for living for Jesus. Some of them may have been suffering in many ways—bereavement, illness, business failure—but what they needed to hear was that living for Jesus and suffering for him is a badge of honour. Peter reminded them that suffering for the name of Christ was the indisputable sign that heaven was theirs—it showed more clearly than any other outward sign that they belonged to Jesus. And so he exhorted them to cling to Christ and serve him because Jesus is our only hope.

It is important for us to stop and see the big picture. When we come to the New Testament, much of the encouragement about suffering is not about general suffering in a fallen world; it’s about the kinds of suffering we experience because we follow Christ. The apostles knew the temptations that might pull us away from Christ. They also knew that Jesus is our only hope. So they spent much of their time instructing believers about what truly living for Christ would be like.

Living for Jesus means suffering, because we live in a world of darkness that hates the light. What we need to hear is that, whatever our circumstances, the most important thing is to continue to trust in Christ. More than that, we need to be reminded that belonging to Christ will lead to suffering. It’s not a surprise. It’s the only way to receive the inheritance.

To summarize, the coming of Jesus teaches us so much about suffering. It teaches us that suffering has an end—there will be a day when even death will be done away with. But it also teaches us that the way to get to that day is to belong totally to Jesus. And those who belong totally to him must expect, not just the blessings of the new creation in due time, but also persecution in this present time. It is only when we are armed with that knowledge that we will be truly ready to suffer well.

This article was based on material from Paul Grimmond’s new book Suffering Well, which will be available in late 2011.