Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Pendulum: Suffering and Death
I've been doing a bit of thinking lately about what the Christian attitude towards suffering and death should be, and have arrived at the conclusion that suffering is a normal and expected part of life for those who follow Jesus (1 Peter 4:12-16). Not only is it expected, but it also has good consequences (we grow in character, perseverance and hope - Romans 5:1-5).
The problem is when some people start believing that suffering is good IN ITSELF. Suffering is good because it has good consequences, but it was never meant to be a part of this world. If suffering is so good in itself, then why will it not be a part of the new creation? I've seen this error manifest itself in people not wanting to pray for others' safety or health because they think it is better for Christians to be suffering. I remember being a part of a Bible study where someone rebuked someone else for wanting to pray for a safe plane trip for another group member. Their logic was that we shouldn't bother praying for things like that because it might be God's will for the plane to crash. I've met people who think it's wrong to pray for healing from cancer because God might be using the cancer to make that person more godly. Well, yes no doubt He is bringing good out of it, but that doesn't mean that the cancer itself is good. The attitude that it's wrong to pray for relief from suffering EVER can end up looking like a kind of masochism ("God, I'm not suffering enough - beat me!"). The Christian life is not a competition to see whose life is worse and who has suffered the most. The reality is that all Christians WILL suffer at various times and to varying degrees depending on individual circumstances. Jesus warned that if the world hated Him, it would also hate His people (John 15:18-21).
However, while I believe that suffering in itself is not good, the other end of the scale which says that if you are suffering from illness then you don't have enough faith, is equally as wrong. I do not believe in a 'name it and claim it' kind of theology that says we can have heaven on earth right now as long as we have faith. Firstly, it's about God's sovereignty - not our measure of faith. Secondly, we live in a fallen world and Christians are not immune from trials such as natural disasters and sickness. God never promised otherwise.
The other disturbing trend I've noticed among some people I know is that when a Christian dies, it is suddenly all good. Again, I think we should have mixed feelings when farewelling a loved one who belongs to the Lord. We rejoice that they trusted Jesus and have gone to be with Him, and are now free from pain. But, on the other hand, death has signalled a break in the relationship and it is good and right to grieve. Death is not good in itself. It has good consequences if you follow Jesus (you go to be with Him forever), but, like suffering, death was NOT a part of God's design for this world. Death is a consequence of sin. We rejoice that the sting of death has been removed and it is no longer permanent. But we should not be telling people that they shouldn't grieve because their late friend/family member was a Christian. That is wrong. We still grieve, but with hope.
At times I have sat more on the cusp of avoiding suffering. I have struggled to 'count it all joy' and still do. In hindsight, I can look back at difficult times and not only rejoice that God brought me through them, but also changed me in the process. But sometimes I just need to trust God, that He knows what He's doing.
Praise God that He uses suffering for our good and that the sting of death has been removed for those who love Jesus.
But bring on the day when things like suffering and death will be no more.