We rarely hear a theology of suffering today. What we are hearing more often is a theology of comfort.
- “Come to Christ and you will be blessed!”
- “Pray and God will give you a new car!”
- “Give God $10 and He will give you $100 back!”
The prosperity gospel is not the true gospel. It’s simply a veneer of Christ talk over a core of modern materialist culture. It is crass materialism wrapped in religious language.
The true gospel calls us to follow Jesus. When Christ first alerted his disciples that he was going to die (Matthew 16:21) they had no mental categories for such a concept (Matt. 16:22-23). They had not signed up for this. But Jesus made it clear: he was going to die and he called them to follow:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? Matt. 16:24-26
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was martyred at the hands of Adolph Hitler. In his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, he famously reminded us: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
“Come to Jesus and die!” How many in our generation would respond to such a call? But no worries. We have a much more comfortable message: “Come to Jesus and God will bless you!”
Today the church preaches a Theology of Comfort. As Francis Schaeffer used to say, modern culture is bound by personal peace and affluence. We want a life of ease and instant gratification. The church has syncretized with the modern world and preaches and programs correspondingly.
British pastor and Christian statesman John Stott wrote,
The place of suffering in service and of passion in mission is hardly ever taught today. But the greatest single secret of evangelistic or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. It may be a death to popularity (by faithfully preaching the unpopular biblical gospel), or to pride (by the use of modes methods in reliance on the Holy Spirit), or to racial and national prejudice (by identification with another culture), or to material comfort (by adopting a simple lifestyle). But the servant must suffer if he is to bring light to the nations, and the seed must die if it is to multiply. The Cross of Christ, page 322
We live in a fallen world. Evil is promoted at every turn. Injustice abounds. The tools of political and economic discourse are lies, spin, and promotion. Art and music celebrate the mediocre and the hideous. God’s kingdom culture is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. But invariably, these are rejected. The church needs to foster kingdom culture, to stand for kingdom culture against the culture of darkness. This may well entail a return to a Theology of Suffering.
Many of our readers live in countries ruled by fascist and communist totalitarianism. Other readers endure political Islam. Jihadism is spreading (as I write, Sunni fundamentalists are threatening to retake Baghdad). We in the West are living in post-Christian countries where fundamentalist atheism is growing.
These dynamics are the new reality. To seek comfort is to be disengaged from life and culture. In contrast, to profoundly engage in life and culture will lead to discomfort, persecution, and suffering.
The early church lived in the context of violence and slavery. Cruelty was a virtue. Eighty percent of the population of the Roman empire were slaves. To push back against the culture was to suffer. Hebrews tells of the great cloud of witnesses who resisted the culture and the price they paid:
Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. Hebrew 11: 35- 38
In 60 years as a Christian, I have heard this passage expounded only once. When I was in the university my pastor, Grant Howard, taught from this text one Sunday. He suggested this may be the normal Christian life. So why are we not experiencing these realities? Perhaps, he mused, because we are not taking up our cross and following Christ. It was a very challenging sermon. I understand why the passage is rarely preached today. We want a theology of comfort, not one of suffering.
Christians are to be counter-cultural to the anti-God ruling paradigms of society. We are to say No to lies, to injustice, to the hideous. We are to live and promote the culture of the kingdom. But to do so will mean consequences.
Let me be clear: we are not to seek out suffering. Some Filipino Catholics have themselves nailed to a cross at Good Friday. Such self-flagellation is masochism. Yet at the same time, we are not to avoid suffering when confronting the culture requires it. There is a conflict going on for the soul of our nations. To seek comfort and safety at the price of engaging the battle is to forsake our calling. Christians are to be engaged.
But how do we engage?
We are to be captivating – to overpower with excellence and beauty; to charm; to engage the affections; to bind in love. With winsome word and deed, we are to live out the culture of the kingdom: to speak truth to lies; to replace the mundane and hideous with beauty; to seek justice in the midst of corruption and evil. These will cause conflict with the reigning culture.
This is not a work of overpowering or even persuasion – winning the argument. This is a work of emancipating people who are enslaved by the tyranny of lies, injustice and the hideous. Winsome reasoning and attractive lives are what set people and societies free. (For more on this see my book: Emancipating the World.)
For an excellent treatment of this subject see John Stonestreet’s BreakPoint article What Does Cultural Engagement Look Like Now?
– Darrow Miller