A Closer Look at Suffering
The option of forgiveness and the choice to face suffering are inseparable. It is impossible to forgive without a willingness to also suffer.
This is very likely why real forgiveness has so few serious takers. Yet because Jesus presented forgiveness very close to, if not at the very center of salvation, we have diluted the word in ways so as to make it appear that we practice it in order to be able to claim that we are Christians.
But when it comes to suffering we have quite a different disposition. Suffering has even less willing participants than forgiveness. We think that we can somehow separate the two and we try to figure out ways to forgive without having to experience any suffering. But in attempting to do so we irreparable damage or obscure the very definition of the word forgiveness. Forgiveness without suffering, or at least a willingness to suffer, is a denial of the very essence of true forgiveness.
Peter really grasped this truth some time after he witnessed the greatest demonstration of true forgiveness ever carried out in all of history. It was this dramatic revelation of love to his heart that finally captured him, transformed him and empowered him to live a life opposite of the one he had been living while spending three and a half years observing his Master up close and personal. During those initial years he was so infected with traditional views of religion and God, much like we still are today, that the concept of true forgiveness as Jesus viewed it was simply both amazing and very confusing. But after both observing radical, unconditional forgiveness and experiencing it personally, especially during the last days of Christ's ministry on this earth, Peter finally began to grasp the real truth about this stunning character trait of God, and he put it into these words –
For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, “who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth”; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:19-25)
I guess I had never really viewed this passage so clearly from this direction previously. Now it is becoming far more distinct to me. To think that I could exercise forgiveness in obedience to Christ's instructions and yet avoid suffering is a complete delusion. That is probably why nearly every description of forgiveness I have heard from people is so far off from what I have been learning through a careful examination of the teachings of Jesus.
I recall an event when I was quite young that has stuck in my thinking the rest of my life. My parents allowed a man to take me somewhere in his car for a few miles. I have no recollection who he was, where we went or any other details surrounding the story. All I can remember is what transpired during that short car ride with this stranger.
I do remember that this man was not a part of our religious culture. I don't know if he was even a Christian or not, but he definitely did not belong to our church. Having been raised isolated from anyone 'not of our own faith' I had little experience in how to relate to 'outsiders.' Thus great fear began to rise up in me when this man began asking me about what we believed and taught. This experience has lodged in my memory for all these years because since that time I have realized how much I need to have a much better grasp of my personal beliefs than I have had previously.
Upon questioning me about what I believed, my mind began whirling with fear trying to recall what I had been taught in school, at home, or in church. I quickly began to realize that I didn't have a succinct explanation for what I believed. I knew that we believed in keeping the seventh-day Sabbath and that we believed that people sleep when they die, but other than that I felt like I was grasping at straws.
The one thing that did elicit a challenge from him was when I came up with a statement that I thought we believed that Christians had to suffer. The reason I made this statement is unclear to me now, and he challenged me as to the validity of this belief. He felt it was unreasonable to think that God would want His children to suffer. Then I began to wonder myself where I had gotten this notion. Why would God expect us to suffer? Is that what being a Christian is supposed to be about? These questions were surprising ones that jolted me out of my complacency and I had no answers for him. But I now realized that I had little clue as to what I actually did believe and I needed to be more serious about looking into things for myself and not just relying on others to have all the answers.
That incident has never passed from my memory and that challenge to the idea that Christians have to suffer has been a lingering question in my own mind ever since. Should we really have such a sadistic view of God that we believe that if we are not miserable and suffering all the time then we must not be living within His will? That encounter challenging me to rethink what I believe was a good wakeup call for me that has maybe shaped much of my way of thinking ever since. In the intervening years I have felt compelled to challenge everything I believe to discover if it is really true and if it aligns with the Word of God or is just something absorbed from the culture and teachings passed on to me from others.
Today I find myself in another interesting conundrum. My views of God as some sadist seeking to keep His subjects under His thumb through intimidations, threats and warnings of dire punishment if they don't comply with His wishes has been fast evaporating in the light of the blazing glory of fresh revelations of the real truth about His true character. I have discovered that God is not the sadist that I grew up thinking He was and feared for so long. And even though my mind was hard-wired to react in that view, I have been aggressively seeking to purge myself of all such dark-ages-like notions.
Over recent years my learning curve has sharpened as the Holy Spirit has been revealing more and more truth as fast as I can handle it. He is constantly introducing me to fresh revelations of a God who really is love, who really does care about me far more than I ever dared to imagine in the past, and more that most religious people are even willing to concede. The more I become aware of the truth about God's passionate love for sinners the more dissonance I find in relation to so much of what I assumed growing up.
Now I find myself back to this earlier question about suffering, and I suddenly realize that I have not really faced this head-on to resolve this long-standing issue that has lurked deep inside me for so many years. Was I really right that day so long ago when I asserted that God expects us to suffer if we want to be Christians? Or was I confused and simply reflecting what I had picked up from my parents talking about their own sufferings and trying to spin it as the will of God for their lives?
About a year or so ago I was led into an intensive study of Matthew 18 where Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness. After immersing myself in that passage and presenting my findings to my local church over a three month period, I came away with a far keener awareness and appreciation for the real meaning of forgiveness than I had ever had previously. Yet even during that intensive study I did not pick up much on this closely linked issue of suffering until now, even though I had included this passage from 1 Peter.
This morning as I was reading from a compelling book about forgiveness this morning by Brian Zhand, I was suddenly jolted into realizing that suffering very well may be an unavoidable part of the Christian's experience who becomes serious about following the example and teachings of Jesus. But what is also emerging is that the kind of suffering I likely had in mind during that encounter long ago may have been quite different than the kind of suffering we may experience when we engage in the kind of forgiveness that Jesus demonstrated. The example of Jesus seems to have been lost on most Christians and has even become a point of heated debate among many today. But I like the way Brian helps place things in better perspective.
There is a place for Christian apologetics. There is also a place for Christian apology. There is a place for vigorously defending the Christian faith with intelligent, reasoned debate. There is also a place for simply loving the enemy of the Christian faith and trusting God to defend the truth. Not every attack upon the Christian faith needs a response, and no attack upon the Christian faith needs an angry, threatening response. Forgiveness is a kind of Christian suffering, and sometimes we are simply called to suffer. (Unconditional p. 173-174)
I have grown up seeing far too many Christians who seem eager to promote a religion filled with suffering as if such a life somehow could earn credits with God. Of course they usually won't admit that this is the underlying motive for their beliefs and actions for that would be like the kind of religion imposed under the dominating system of counterfeit religion in place during the dark ages. Yet I have noticed that there is still a great deal of residual thinking left over from that era that still infects protestant thinking today in every denomination than most are willing to admit. I have also come to realize that most of this is due to our dark views of God, especially about how the Father feels and acts toward sinners.
Over recent years God has been radically changing my opinions and feelings about Him through ever-increasing revelations of the real truth about His nature of love. The more I become aware of the actual truth about His character the more I realize how little I am aware of reality the way heaven sees it. Yet the more I increase in my understanding of the truth as it is in Jesus the more harmonious and beautiful and attractive it is becoming to my own heart, and I long to be healed even more so that I can live in heaven's kind of atmosphere and consistently treat those around me like Jesus did.
But this is where I am forced to come face to face with this issue of suffering again. Only this time I am starting to see more of the faulty thinking that confused me so many years ago. Now I am starting to see that suffering is not something to make God happy, so we just have to embrace being miserable all the time. No, God is not some sadist who delights in the suffering of His children – not in the least. God desires our happiness and has extensive plans to bring us into the full joy of heaven as soon as possible. But there are other factors at work besides God's will for us, so between here and the life of heaven He has planned for us there are many obstructions to overcome that are designed to prevent us from entering into the kind of abundant life Jesus promises to those who choose to follow Him.
That is not to suggest in the least that we cannot begin to taste that abundant life here and now. But what I am realizing is that resistance to God's love both from within our heart and from evil forces around us from without means it is unavoidable to escape the potential of suffering to some degree or another if we get serious about following Jesus.
One reason that Jesus came to this earth as a human over 2000 years ago was to show us what it looks like to live the life God designed us to live. Peter noted this in the passage quoted above – Jesus has set us an example to follow. But too often we are confused about what it was He did that is to be our example. I have puzzled over this for many years and still wrestle with what it really means to be a Christ-follower. But as of late it is becoming far more clear in my thinking. I am also seeing many around the world waking up to this and sharing with others the real truth about what the example of Jesus was all about.
Suffering is not necessarily the direct will of God for us, but rather in following the example of Jesus in the way He loved and forgave unconditionally and without hesitation, the unavoidable result will be that we will have to experience suffering just as He experienced it. This kind of suffering however, is different from the kind of suffering I had in mind so many years ago. I was thinking more along the lines of a God who demanded that His children go through humiliation, endure all sorts of imposed suffering and not have a very happy existence just because He said that's the way it had to be. My feelings about how God felt about me during those early years was a very far cry from what I have been learning about Him recently. So my concept of suffering back then had a completely different perspective than what I am starting to see today.
Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. (2 Timothy 3:12 NKJV)
Suffering that develops good character is not necessarily the same as the suffering that has been experienced by nearly everyone throughout history. Just because someone suffers in no way dictates how that suffering will change their life. Many who suffer react with anger, bitterness, rage and violence in order to lash out intending to inflict more suffering on those who have hurt them. If they are unable to 'get even' with those causing their suffering they often end up passing their suffering on to someone else or even animals. These are causes of a great deal of the suffering we see all around us in the world today. Suffering is resultant of the internal damage that sin has caused in our fallen nature.
Suffering is not noble in and of itself. It only produces positive results when it is closer to what Jesus demonstrated and how He chose to think and feel toward those who abused and attacked and vilified Him throughout His life here on earth. Jesus is the only clear example of how to suffer well without being negatively affected by it. Otherwise suffering can be a destructive force to push us deeper into sinful reactions that in turn can cause us to inflict suffering on those around us.
I find it helpful to view suffering as analogous to how heat is produced by resistance. When a resistor encounters too much electrical current passing through it, it will heat up to the point where it can self-destruct. Likewise, the resistance produced by simply rubbing your hands together vigorously can create levels of heat that can also induce suffering. The point I am trying to make is that suffering is always linked to some sort of resistance, whether that resistance is physical or emotional or otherwise. (Maybe this is the solution to the question long circulated about what happens when an irresistible force encounters and immovable object. Maybe the evasive answer is really 'suffering.')
The important question however is, what is being resisted and what is the attitude of the one resisting? This is what makes all the difference when it comes to the effect of suffering. This is what Peter was alluding to in his letter, for just previous to this he talked about suffering as a result of wrong-doing. He said that such suffering will not likely produce good results. Only the suffering encountered when we are abused for doing the right thing, for following the example of Jesus' love is the type of suffering that can produce a righteous character inside of us.
I am starting to see that the reason there will be no suffering in the earth made new after sin and sinners have disappeared is not because God will simply prevent it from occurring. The reason that suffering will never be encountered again after sin has been resolved is that all will have learned to live in perfect love and will never again try to live independent of God's perfect design for happiness and joy. The potential for suffering will always be present, for without that capacity we would not be able to practice love. The real reason suffering will be forever absent in eternity is because we finally will have chosen to subscribe to God's original plan where everyone respects the freedom of everyone else and lives in such a way as to always seek the best for others before their own desires just as God always does. When we finally reflect the true character of the agape love of our Father as Jesus demonstrated it, then the universe will finally become free of all suffering.
In the meantime, all those who choose to pursue that destiny for their own future find themselves in constant tension and conflict with all who are choosing to remain in Satan's system based on lies and selfishness. The conflict between selfishness and agape love is so sharp and incompatible that the inevitable result is always suffering. But interestingly suffering can be induced on both sides of that equation which is something easy to overlook.
When a person who is seeking to follow the path of righteousness and live out selfless love for others finds themselves around a person who is resisting that sort of life, the conviction that the righteous life produces in the other person can be perceived as condemnation that can be intolerable. In reaction to this inward sense of feeling condemned, a sinner will often lash out at the one creating this disturbance and will blame them as the cause of their problem. This leads to what we call persecution which is simply the efforts of those who want to live comfortably in sin trying to force those who are seeking to follow Christ to return to the status quo of the world. The more the true follower of Jesus resists returning to their old ways of thinking and living, the sharper the persecution may become because of the increasing inner pain of conviction the sinner is feeling. Thus suffering is increased on both sides.
We need to be aware that not only do Christians suffer when persecuted but that the ones who are persecuting them are usually reacting out of their own internal suffering produced by this amplification of their own disturbed conscience. Often those who are trying to conform their lives to better reflect the attitude and actions of Jesus are puzzled as to why those around them become hostile or distant. What they do not take into account is that whenever anyone begins exhibiting the life of God through their spirit and actions, that witness becomes a polarizing factor for everyone coming within their sphere of influence. Others now find themselves having to face a choice of how they are going to react to their own exposure to the level of light starting to shine from the one who is reflecting God's light. And those reactions are not often going to be positive.
God says that we are His witnesses (see Isaiah 43). As faithful witnesses we reflect the true glory of God, His character which acts as a catalyst for others around us. Those who are ripe, who are hungry for something better in their lives, who have been brought to a point where they are willing to be drawn toward the salvation that God is offering, will find themselves attracted by such ones. And although at first they may feel agitation about the light invading their world, they are still drawn toward such ones to discover how to get more life and hope and peace for themselves.
But others who are hardening their hearts may become very agitated as the light of truth and love clashes with and exposes their selfish nature. As the light of love begins to highlight their own sinfulness they can become alarmed of being exposed, so instead of changing the way they relate to God they try to stifle and suffocate the light that is disturbing their perceived comfort zone. In reaction they naturally will lash out in various ways at anyone who is bringing light into their darkness and will accuse them of being the problem instead of acknowledging responsibility for their discomfort. This is always the reaction that sin produces in the guilty heart. And this reaction can clearly be seen in the immediate fallout from the very first sin on this earth as both Adam and Eve begin to blame and shame each other instead of admitting their sin and seeking to be reconciled to God.
When this dynamic is better understood by the disciple of Jesus, it can bring new perspective on why they are persecuted so much when they are just trying to follow in the footsteps of their Savior's example of love. This is when the attitude of forgiveness becomes vitally central for the true follower of Jesus, for it is impossible to imitate His example who unfailingly forgave all of His enemies in real time, even while they were tormenting and torturing Him to death. Without a constant attitude of instant forgiveness (which really means refusing to take offense over anything that happens), a Christian cannot be a true reflector of the life of God. Only through unconditional love and forgiveness flowing through the servants of God can the world begin to catch a true glimpse of the kind of reconciliation that God is seeking to accomplish with all of us who have been estranged from Him.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)