Particularly when it comes to the issue of suffering, one of the great obstacles of the Christian life is disillusionment; we enter into this life with God with great expectation and excitement, buying into the myth that the Christian life is a life of ease—a “rainbows and puppy dogs” kind of life. So when suffering and hardship comes our way—and it always does—we may just find ourselves surprised by it! I don’t know about you, but the more I read Scripture the more I wonder where in the world we got that picture of the Christian life.
In the last days of His earthly life, Jesus made it a point to assure His disciples that “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Jesus didn’t want to leave His disciples disillusioned about the reality of life in a fallen world; suffering is a given, an inescapable reality. But He also didn’t leave us without hope: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Last fall I had the opportunity to spend nearly the whole semester writing a lengthy research paper on what we can learn about suffering from the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels. One interaction in particular jumps out at me as characteristic of our natural response to pain and suffering. In Mark 8 the whole tone of the book changes, as Jesus begins to speak to His disciples about His own impending death:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. – Mark 8:31-32
While we often scoff at the sheer audacity of Peter to rebuke God incarnate, we must recognize that to his disciples these declarations by Jesus would have felt like having the rug pulled out from under them.
Up to this point Jesus’ words and deeds have been characterized by astonishing authority and power. This first declaration of his imminent suffering and death stands in blunt contrast to, and completely undercuts, the Messianic expectations of Peter and the other disciples. – NIV Study Bible Notes
Having walked with Jesus for years, Peter and the other disciples had developed an idea of how things were going to play out. In fact, just a few verses earlier Peter had made the bold declaration that Jesus was the Messiah; the long expected One who was to deliver Israel. They had in mind a particular picture of victory, and this talk of suffering and death was an unwelcomed intrusion that left them feeling disillusioned and confused. So is it really any wonder that Peter pushed back against this?
Much like the disciples had envisioned a path of victory as they walked with Jesus, so we tend to envision a particular life of victory and ease as Christians. So when we are faced with the unwelcomed intrusion of suffering into our lives, we too may be left feeling disillusioned and confused.
So when we come to the crossroads marked by suffering—when our expectations for the Christian life fails to match up with the reality that we experience—how do we respond? Or perhaps even more challenging, when our experience of the Christian life fails to match up with what we’ve been told it should be, how do we respond? It is an unfortunate reality that our evangelistic measures often leave people with distorted expectations for the Christian life. We expound on the JOYS and BLESSINGS of walking with Christ, and rightly so, for those things are undeniably true! But when we provide a one-dimensional picture of the Christian life, we fail to prepare people to respond well in the face of suffering.
Growing up in the Church, I’ve heard countless personal testimonies of how people met Jesus and the ways that He changed their lives. After listening to enough of them, a template was formed in my mind that went something like this:
- Here’s how broken and messed up my life was before Jesus.
- Then I met Jesus.
- Now here’s how awesome and wonderful my life is.
Last fall, I shared my testimony with my small group, and as I was preparing to do so I realized that this template that I had been following for years didn’t fit. As I was writing out my story and rehearsing it in my mind, I continued to be confronted by some of the hurt and pain that I was currently working through, and there wasn’t a place for that in my template. So I came face to face with the dilemma of wanting to be authentic, while at the same time feeling like I owed it to God to wrap it all up with a nice pretty bow at the end.
As I examined the tension that I was feeling, I realized that somewhere along the way I came to believe—and maybe you have too—that struggling and experiencing pain was somehow an indictment on my walk with God, or that it somehow diminished the work He has done in my life. So I felt like I owed it to God to put on a good face and to live a double life; to struggle silently and only let others see the good, so that God would be glorified through my story.
Around that time, one of our chapel speakers at the seminary that I attend talked about the reality of suffering and pain in the Christian life. He talked about our felt need to “fake it,” to pretend that life is better than it really is, and that we are stronger than we really are—often times “for the sake of the gospel.” But then he said something that pierced right to the heart of the tension I’d been feeling:
When we fake it, all we do is preach a false gospel to everyone else who is weak. – Jeff Mangum
When all that we let others see of our life and our walk with God is the good, the praise reports and the #blessed, we unintentionally add a degree of shame to their story as they experience pain and struggle. We mean well enough, thinking that people will find hope in our stories of prosperity and joy—and those things are GOOD, but not at the expense of being authentic about the reality and inevitability of suffering and pain. When we leave the reality of our struggles out of our stories, all we really do is leave them wondering, “they’ve got it all together, what am I doing wrong?”
We tend to live a polarized life; it’s either good or bad, joy or sadness, victory or struggle. It’s one or the other, and we struggle to comprehend a framework in which both polarities can co-exist. And yet that is the world that we live in, it is full of good times and bad, joy and sadness, victory and struggle… it is complex and messy, nothing like the clear-cut and neatly packaged existence that we long for.
While we might be made uncomfortable by the messiness of the Christian life, God is not. He never promised us a life free of pain and difficulty, nor did He call us to pretend that our lives are something that they’re not. As Christians called to be the light of the world, we must realize that the world is not compelled by our hope when all they see is “the good life,” they are compelled by our hope in the midst of pain and suffering.
That’s not to say that we manufacture pain or go about in sackcloth and ashes every hour of every day; I’m confident that this world has enough pain without us intentionally adding to it. But we must learn to hold the realities of pain and hope concurrently. We must be as honest and authentic about our sorrows as we are about our joy. It is the trials and difficulties of this life that makes our hope so compelling, and it is our hope in the midst of suffering that points to the glory and goodness of our God.