11 February 2015

Suffering and Joy

by Dr Mark Keown

At church the other day, after an excellent sermon on suffering and joy from James 1, I was chatting with the preacher and suggested there are two equal and opposite dangers or extremes where suffering and joy are concerned.

On the one hand we can end up with a theology that lacks any real space for the reality of suffering. Becoming a Christian kind of means that your life will get gloriously better, you will get healed if you have enough faith, your financial problems will dry up if you are obedient and generous (especially tithing), and somehow you will not suffer like the rest of humanity. Some look with suspicion at others who suffer and don’t experience release. What have they done wrong? They must lack faith? God is in some sense angry with them. For the suffering, this can lead to great self-recrimination, anger at God, and even giving up on the Christian faith as a crock. This kind of faith can perhaps be found in some Pentecostal, charismatic, and prosperity expressions of the faith. This kind of faith expression does not deal well with the reality of suffering that all people, Christians included, face. It does recognise joy and God’s intervention, but can tip the balance too far that way.

On the other hand, there is a kind of Christianity where the reality of suffering is recognised. You should expect it. All humanity experiences it. In some representations of it, you end up almost celebrating it. Often it leads to a low expectation of God’s intervention. There can be a fatalistic resignation to it. Prayer for healing lacks expectation. Being miserable in suffering can become the norm. When someone is buoyant with belief in God’s power to intervene, they are looked on with suspicion. Joy becomes uncool with excessive optimism and expressions of celebration treated with misgiving. This kind of Christianity can perhaps be found among conservatives, those with a reformed outlook, evangelicals, or those who are reacting against the more optimistic expressions of the faith. The preacher other night suggested that this is a kind of “poverty gospel,” whereby poverty and suffering are celebrated states. I thought that was an interesting expression.

So how do we walk in the tension or dialectic between the two things, joy, and suffering? Paul somehow finds a way to do this in Philippians. He is in a dangerous spot. He is in chains in a Roman prison, facing a trial and potential capital punishment, he has had a tough life of suffering (e.g. 2 Cor 11-12). He is concerned for the Philippians who are seriously threatened from opposition, Judaizers, and others, and are suffering. They are also facing a unity crisis. Paul acknowledges his suffering as real, he may die (Phil 1:19-26). He yearns to experience the fullness of life in Christ including fellowship in his suffering and conforming to his death (Phil 3:10). Yet, he can also rejoice. Sixteen times in the letter he speaks of joy, summing it up with “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Phil 4:4). He still trusts in God’s intervention for him to get out through prayer and the Spirit (Phil 1:19, 25-26). Yet, he is real about suffering, death is coming, it is gain, but as he lives on, God will be with him in and through it.

One of our great challenges is to find that space between these two extremes and be people of joy in the midst of suffering. We must avoid falling into either mistake. That is a great challenge.

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