Toward a Theology of Suffering…

Many of us recognize the first Sunday of November as more than an opportunity to get an extra hour of sleep the night before. It has been set aside as Prayer for the Persecuted Church Sunday. In fact, I will be leading a prayer service at Wheaton College on Sunday at 8 pm; an event sponsored by World Christian Fellowship (Phelps meeting room, south end of lower level of the Beamer Student Center, for those who would like to come). This has motivated me to share some principles I have gleaned from Scripture about suffering. I do so for two reasons: First, to help you build a theological framework in which to deal with what some have called the Problem of Evil; Second, to help you construct a place to stand for your own faith when you face suffering or see it played out in the suffering of other followers of Christ.

These principles could be summed up in Elisabeth Elliot’s book Suffering is Not for Nothing, in which she wrote, “I see [suffering] as a necessary part of the sovereign and loving purpose of God, even as a gift to be received, then offered back as a sacrifice, capable of being turned into something beautiful.”

You may not agree with her conclusion, but you must respect her suffering. Here are my principles:

  1. The presence of suffering in this world does not need to be problematic for the Christian’s faith. In reality, it can be seen as a proof of God’s existence. If God did not exist there would be no standard by which to judge whether an action was good or evil. God is the ultimate reference point and apart from Him good and evil cannot be defined. (Rom 7:7-12)
  2. In many cases evil and suffering are redeemed by God to produce something of value. Imagine the shape of morality in a world where there was no pain, only pleasure. (2 Cor 4:16-18; James 1:2-4)
  3. What satisfies us most when we suffer are not intellectual answers to our questions, but the experience of the personal presence of God. (Job 42:3-5)
  4. Given our self-seeking and rebellious natures, suffering is the only way by which God could arrest our attention and graciously motivate us to begin seeking after His help. Truly, pain is God’s “megaphone.” (Gen 3:16a; 4:1; Lam 3:19-33)
  5. Suffering for the Christian does not imply punishment, but presents an opportunity for learning and drawing near to God for His sustaining grace in the midst of our crisis. (Rom 8:1; Heb 12:5-11; 4:15, 16; Ps 119:71)
  6. God allows evil to exist, but has limited its effect. While this is not the “best of all possible worlds” because of human sin, it is also not as bad as it could be because of God’s common grace. For the honest seeker, this creates what we call “the problem of the good.” (Rom 8:20-23)
  7. Our suffering may serve the purpose of showcasing God’s glory before a watching universe (John 9:1-3; 11:4; Job 1, 2) and as a witness to the Gospel (Acts 9:15, 16).
  8. While we do not know why God permits suffering to accomplish His purposes, we do know that there was a principle established at the Cross; evil is overcome through the suffering and death of Christ. It is the “deeper magic,” which turns tables on the evil one. Victory is not through violence or revenge, but through suffering; life comes out of death. (1 Cor 15:50-57) [Look at the example of the Apostle Paul, where the persecutor became a devoted follower; this should cause us to pray specifically for the “beloved enemies” of the gospel.]
  9. Suffering is not only a part of the human condition in a fallen world, but also what a follower of Christ should expect as a means spiritual development and of reaching a fallen world with the gospel. (Matt 5: 11, 12; 20:27-28; Phil 1:29; 2 Cor 4:8-10; James 1:2, 3; 1 Peter 4:1, 2; 2 Tim 3:12)
  10. In the coming Kingdom of God, ALL EVIL will be overcome and the incomparable GLORY AND GOODNESS OF GOD will reign, FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN (Rom 8:18; Rev 20:11-21:4)

Chick-fil-A Revisited…

eat more chickenDo you remember the controversy last year that began when a Chicago Alderman did not want Chick-fil-A in his neighborhood because of what he perceived as “anti-gay” sentiments of its president Dan Cathy, a committed Christian? Well this week there was a very interesting article in The Huffington Post written by Shane Windmeyer, a national leader in the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Transgender) movement.

Windmeyer wrote, “Like most LGBT people, I was provoked by Dan’s public opposition to marriage equality and his company’s problematic giving history. I had the background and history on him, so I thought, and had my own preconceived notions about who he was. I knew this character. No way did he know me. That was my view. But it was flawed… On Aug. 10, 2012, in the heat of the controversy, I got a surprise call from Dan Cathy. He had gotten my cell phone number from a mutual business contact serving campus groups. I took the call with great caution… The first call lasted over an hour, and the private conversation led to more calls the next week and the week after…”

“His questions and a series of deeper conversations ultimately led to a number of in-person meetings with Dan and representatives from Chick-fil-A… Through all this, Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness… Dan embraced the opportunity to have dialogue and hear my perspective… Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being ‘a follower of Christ’ more than a ‘Christian.’ Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-A — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.”

“In many ways, getting to know Dan better has reminded me of my relationship with my uncle, who is a pastor at a Pentecostal church. When I came out as openly gay in college, I was aware that his religious views were not supportive of homosexuality. But my personal relationship with my uncle reassured me of his love for me… His beliefs prevented him from fully reconciling what he understood as the immorality of homosexuality with the morality of loving and supporting me and my life. It was, and remains, an unsolvable riddle for him, hating the sin and loving the sinner.”

“My relationship with Dan is the same, though he is not my family. Dan, in his heart, is driven by his desire to minister to others and had to choose to continue our relationship throughout this controversy. He had to both hold to his beliefs and welcome me into them…. In the end, it is not about eating (or eating a certain chicken sandwich). It is about sitting down at a table together and sharing our views as human beings, engaged in real, respectful, civil dialogue. Dan would probably call this act the biblical definition of hospitality. I would call it human decency. So long as we are all at the same table and talking, does it matter what we call it or what we eat?”

I am so impressed with Dan Cathy’s initiative to build a relationship with Shane Windmeyer. It really reflects the love of the Lord Jesus. How can the gospel spread in a culture where it’s us vs. them? Where would Christianity be today if Peter had refused to sit down and eat with Cornelius (Acts 10)? May God give us the wisdom and boldness to love others in such a way.