This is the second in a series looking at words associated with Christianity that have taken on a negative meaning in the larger culture.
SCRIPTURE – 1Peter 4:12-19 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory,[e] which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.[f] 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. 16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?”
19 Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.
Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series
#3 – Suffering
January 25, 2015
I remember the first sermon I preached on the biblical concept of suffering. As the ushers were preparing the sanctuary for worship, I overheard one of them say to the other, “Well, guess we better put out some extra chairs today. This topic should draw a huge crowd.” To his surprise, we did have a few people show up, including a visitor. At the end of the service, as I was greeting people at the door, the visitor vigorously shook my hand and said, “Thank you for that sermon, pastor! I never truly understood suffering until I heard you preach.”
We continue our sermon series today looking at some of the dirty words of the Christian faith. These are words that are essential to our spiritual understanding but have been co-opted and redefined by the larger culture. We’re going to try and ground these words in their biblical meaning and reclaim their power for our lives, and try not to suffer to much as we do so.
So let’s get right to it. Why is suffering a dirty word, something that we’re not comfortable talking about? Maybe we’re embarrassed by the central role it plays in scripture. Maybe we’re embarrassed by how often the Bible calls followers to suffer for their faith. Or maybe we’re embarrassed by the fact that, deep down, we’re ashamed because of how little we suffer in the name of Jesus. The first followers of Christ faced persecution, violence, and death, all because they boldly proclaimed Jesus as Lord. And us?
For most Western Christians, the context for our faith is one of comfort and affluence, not trials and persecutions. We have the freedom to worship in heated sanctuaries where the worst affliction we may face is a long-winded preacher who keeps us from missing tip-off or lukewarm grape juice during communion. Our proclamations aren’t bold because they don’t have to be; there’s nothing we’re proclaiming that threatens our comfort (not to mention our very lives). We can be followers of Jesus without all the life-and-death drama. We may at times have felt awkward because of our faith, but we’ve never been beaten because of our faith, never lost our homes because of our faith, and never been fed to the lions because of our faith. The true meaning of “suffering” is no longer in our faith vocabulary.
That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about suffering, but we do it in a much different context than the biblical use of the word. The dictionary defines “suffering” as “agony” and “torment.” But I wonder if nowadays “suffering” is defined as “anything, either real or perceived, that causes us to not have things our way.” We have come to believe that we are entitled to certain rights that go well beyond our U.S. Constitution, like the right to having our pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less and the right for our stocks to yield favorable earnings. And when we don’t get what we want, we label it “suffering.” “I suffered through a 20-minute wait on the tarmac before my plane took off.” “I suffered through ‘The Lord of the Rings’ after drinking an extra-large diet Coke.” For us, “suffering” is an appropriate description for anything that even slightly threatens our comfortable state of existence.
In fact, you could argue we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that to suffer is an unnecessary interruption of our normal life. We’ve done our best to insulate ourselves and eliminate any form of suffering. We surround ourselves with conveniences and luxuries that serve to protect our comfort and minimize the amount of suffering we must endure. We buy chairs that massage and cars with heated seats and exotically flavored coffees, each time increasing the baseline of what we consider “comfortable.” As our threshold for comfort rises, our definition of “suffering” changes, as well, morphing from “pain and distress” into “the absence of comfort.” Before we know it, suffering means sitting in a cold car seat drinking black coffee. And we lament, “My chair, my chair, why have you forsaken me?”
That’s a far cry from what the Bible defines as suffering. While there are many different forms suffering takes in the Bible, from exile to prison to being sawed in two, there’s a common thread running through all of them: suffering in the Bible occurred as a result of a person’s faith. Because Christianity was an underground movement with many opponents, believers were often severely persecuted for their faith as they sought to reconcile their Jewish heritage with their new-found belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God. Fellow Jews thought they were blasphemers, betraying the faith of their ancestors. And the Romans treated them as traitors because they pledged allegiance to a God other than the emperor. So the early followers of Jesus were beset on all sides by people seeking to change their minds through coercion, ostracization, or outright violence.
Suffering and persecution were not interruptions in their normal lives; they were the norm for believers. “Suffer” and “suffering” occur 86 times in the New Testament, including in our passage from 1 Peter. Early Christians understood that suffering for their faith was a necessary part of life because it linked them to the suffering of their savior. When Christ tells his disciples to “take up your cross and follow me,” he is inviting them into a life of discipleship that will put them in harm’s way because of their faith. The call to follow is not a call to an easy life; it is a call to faithfulness in the face of forces that threaten our well-being. Like Jesus, his followers will be cursed, spit upon, and killed, simply because of what they believe. We don’t know that kind of suffering.
And yet, we have suffered, haven’t we? It may not have been directly tied to our faith, but we have suffered in the biblical sense. Spiritual writer Joyce Rupp says, “We are finite human beings living on an earth where natural disasters occur, where genetic conditions exist, where we sometimes make poor or sinful choices, where life does not always work out as we had planned and hoped it would.” Not everyone suffers the same amount or in the same way, but no one can go through life without suffering.
When understood in this way, colored by our cultural redefinition, suffering takes on an exclusively negative connotation. Even though suffering is inevitable, no one wants to go through it. And when it happens, which it will, we look for someone to blame. One of the primary questions I deal with from parishioners is, “Why did God let this happen?” usually asked in relation to some tragedy or setback. That question implies that life should be pain-free, devoid of any kind of suffering that keeps us from living the life we want to live. In that context, there is nothing redeeming about suffering.
I wonder how our perspective would change if we reclaimed the transformative qualities of suffering found in scripture. Wait! Transformative properties suffering? Listen to Paul’s words from Romans: “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” At some point, Paul says, we must move from asking “Why?” to asking “How?” How can God use this experience to strengthen me? How can God work through this suffering to shape my character and fill me with hope? How can I glorify God through this experience of suffering?
Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” And French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Our spiritual character is formed as much by what we endure and what is taken from us as it is by our achievements and conscious choices.” In other words, we are who we are today not in spite of our suffering, but because of it. We are transformed through our suffering.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus says. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Sometimes our suffering can feeling like something inside of us is dying. But death is a prerequisite for resurrection. You can’t have new life without something dying. As we suffer our little deaths, God is at work tending to the seeds of perseverance, character, and hope that have been planted inside of us, bringing about resurrection, calling us forth from the tombs of our despair. It is through suffering that we are most able to experience the restorative power of Jesus.
It’s a human reflex to look for answers when we’re in the midst of suffering. We want to know why we or a loved one is suffering an illness or a divorce or a financial crisis. And we often feel as if God has abandoned us. But scripture promises that God IS there, working to bring about good from even the worst situation. If we can take the focus off our suffering – Why me? – and put it onto God’s presence in the midst of our trials – How is God using me? – we have a renewed reason for hope, even in our darkest valleys
While Webster’s dictionary casts the word “suffering” in a decidedly negative light, Roget gives it a more balanced treatment in his thesaurus. Some of the synonyms for “suffer” include: to endure, undergo, put up with, go through. All those imply forward movement, don’t they? It’s as if suffering is a part of our spiritual journey to something greater, something more redemptive, something like perseverance, character, and ultimately hope. We must remember that when we suffer, we won’t stay there forever, that God is in the midst of our suffering, working to bring about resurrection. We can choose to ask “Why?” to stay stuck in our suffering, blinded to its transformative qualities by the world’s conditioning. Or we can ask “How?” and look for signs that God is at work, hopeful that God is using our suffering to help us persevere, to build our character, to give us hope. And that hope does not disappoint.