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December 01

Some Thoughts on Suffering

John Haralson

Two weeks ago, Jerram Barrs preached a really good sermon on suffering. You can find that sermon here:

In response to that sermon, a friend asked me about the difference between suffering for the sake of the faithfulness to God and suffering in general.

For example, sometimes we suffer because we are being faithful to God. Many years ago, I came within inches of losing my job because I was trying to honor God in my work and refused to participate in some fairly blatant dishonesty. If I would have lost my job (thankfully, I did not), that would have been suffering for the sake of my faith.

There are other times when we suffer, but it’s not because of the gospel. Christians get cancer, lose their jobs, grieve over infertility and miscarriages, and endure many other types of difficulties. This kind of suffering, to be sure, is not unique to Christians. It is also experienced by everyone—regardless of their faith commitments.

For what it’s worth, I have posted below a couple of points from my email response to my friend. This is by no means an attempt to be a comprehensive treatment on suffering. But I do hope it is helpful.

1) I have distinguished in my own teaching the difference between suffering for the sake of the gospel and suffering in general (cancer, natural disasters, etc.). However, the more I think about it, the less I think the distinction matters. For the Christian, the action we are encouraged to take is the same--take the anxiety, suffering, and pain to the Lord, knowing that he cares for us (I Peter 5, etc.). So even though there are different causes of the suffering, I think the Christian is called to the same heart posture during both kinds of suffering.

2) In addition, I think the internal dynamics of suffering for our faith and suffering in general have a lot of overlap.

With suffering for the sake of faithfulness to God, there is a solidarity with the Lord. We can say at those moments, "Lord, I can taste a bit of what you experience on a daily basis and on a much larger level." But I also think this is true for general suffering. Jesus entered a world of sin and death He had friends die, had to deal with corrupt authorities, etc. So in both suffering for the sake of the gospel and suffering in general, it is an opportunity to experience a greater empathy with and towards God.

Another dynamic present with suffering for the faith is that this suffering is, in a very real way, voluntary. To alleviate suffering for the sake of the gospel, you could just cave into temptation and the suffering ends. For example, the call to chastity is a call to suffer for the sake of the gospel (I know, nobody's got a gun to your head, but it is a form of suffering). So, to walk in faithfulness means to suffer the difficulty of walking in obedience. If you chose to  start sleeping around, and the suffering ends. At the same time, I think when we deal with general suffering, we also have a temptation before us to sin to anesthetize the pain. For example, let's say you're in a hard marriage. To walk faithfully, you have to endure the pain. If you wanted to make things easier, you could mentally check out, or check out with alcohol, drugs, or overworking. So, to continue to walk in faithfulness means, in a certain way, that this suffering becomes voluntary as well.

3) For the non-Christian, God's call in the midst of suffering is to turn to him. I think Lewis said that pain is God's megaphone. Many people turn to God in times of difficulty. I also think it is instructive that the curse in Genesis 3 frustrates our lives at their core (vocation, relationships, child-bearing, relationship to creation, distance from God, etc.). When pain comes into our life, it is a call from God to realize that things are broken and we need him.

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