If I were to tell you that I have the answer to every problem in the world, would you believe me? If I were to say that I have the solution to every conflict, act of hatred, every famine, war, death and pain, and that there was no need for any more suffering in the world, what would you say?
If I were to tell you that if you believed in Jesus your life would be transformed, that you would have no more worries, that all your problems would be resolved, and that you would be able to live in a permanent state of bliss for the rest of your days, how would you respond?
Now, of course, some would probably call me a liar. They would accuse me of selling false dreams and deliberately leading people astray. And some, no doubt, might tell me in no uncertain terms where to go. And yet, isn’t that the very way that Jesus is often portrayed to the unbeliever? “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” “Believe in Jesus and all your problems will be solved.”
Yes, there’s more than an element of truth in those statements about Jesus. Because faith in him, does mean that we can have peace with God; our relationship with God can been restored. And believing in him does resolve our spiritual future, so we can be sure that when we die, we will go to heaven.
But what about living in the world in the here and now? What effect does faith have on our sufferings now? Should believers face the same things as unbelievers? And how do we cope with the fact that as believers we can still face the same hardships, the same life struggles that everyone else faces, and that our faith—belief in Jesus—does not instantly resolve all the troubles that we face?
B. THE TEACHING OF THE BIBLE
Now, sadly, some in the church might tell you, that if you find life a struggle it’s because you’re unspiritual, that you’re out of touch with God, not really saved at all. But I don’t know where that idea comes from. I can’t find it in the bible anywhere. However, I have read in the bible about the struggles of life, and how as Christians we should not only expect them but endure them too.
1. The Problem of Sin
For example, the teaching of the Old Testament clearly states that the world that we live in is far from perfect. And I wouldn’t like to guess how many times the word “sin” or the idea of “sin” gets mentioned in the bible. Indeed, the Bible quite clearly states (and demonstrates) that the world is full of sin, and sinners. And Cain, the son of Adam and Eve is a good example of this.
a) The Individual
Because one of the more notable conversations in the Old Testament, is that between God and Cain. God said, “If you do what is right, you will be accepted. But if you fail to do what is right, sin will be lurking at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7). But, of course, Cain didn’t master it, and he went on and killed Abel.
Now, I always feel sorry for Cain, it seems that he is picked on and gets such bad press. And I think that’s unfair, because the reality is that not only couldn’t Cain master sin but, the bible teaches, that no one else can master sin either (except Jesus himself).
b) The Community
And as the Old Testament goes on, it’s not just individual people who are affected by sin. Indeed, the prophet Ezra described his own land as “made unclean by the peoples of the land through their abominable practices” (Ezra 9:11).
So to think that we can be exempt from the corruption of this world, because we are Christians, does seem to be a pie in the sky ideal. Indeed, it wouldn’t matter how perfect we were, or became, simply living in this world cannot exempt us from what is going on around us.
What the bible teaches, therefore, is that suffering is part of this world. It’s a result of sin, and no one is exempt.
2. A Positive Slant
Having said that, however, the Apostle Paul, on the topic of suffering, takes suffering to a whole new level. Because Paul not only acknowledged the problem, but he suggested that we should look at suffering from a different perspective. Indeed, he suggested, that we needed to put a whole new slant on the problems we face.
And in his letter to the Roman church he stated: “We also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces patience, patience produces character, and character produces hope. Our hope does not put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:2b-5).
Paul’s expectation, then, was not that Christians should be exempt from suffering, but rather that we should use that suffering constructively, to build up our character in the Christian life.
3. The Example of Jesus
And, if we are still not convinced that suffering should be part and parcel of Christian life, then we have the example of Jesus.
a) A Tortured Soul
Now Jesus is often portrayed as a great leader, a teacher, a man supremely confident in his role in life, someone who cared for others, a miracle worker who stood up for what he believed, a man of passion deeply concerned for his people, a man of wisdom, and a man who was ultimately physically and verbally abused. But a tortured soul? Well he doesn’t often get that description. Yet, quite clearly that’s exactly what he was: “I have come to bring fire down on the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and how I am constrained until it is completed” (Luke 12:49-50).
Now normally you wouldn’t picture Jesus as someone who was wishing his life away. But for Jesus, the event of his crucifixion, which had implications for the bringing of judgement to the world, was such a catastrophic event that even he found it hard to face. But he wasn’t going to run away from it. He just wanted to get the event out of the way.
b). Come to Bring Division
And, lest we think, somehow, that the cross should signify the end of suffering and pain, that the crucifixion would suddenly change everything of that nature, and lest we think that as Christians we should suddenly find peace, then we are very much mistaken. Because the teaching of Jesus, that the consequences of the cross would not bring peace to the world, but division, should convince us otherwise.
So, if we think of the world, with its suffering, pain, and anguish, some of which we feel . . . And if we think that as Christians that we should suddenly find peace, the resolving of all our battles, then we are not only very much mistaken, but we are also going to be very disappointed.
Oh yes, we can have peace with God, and we can take on board the assurance of life after death—attitudes that will help us in the here and now—but it won’t exempt us from the battles of this world, in the here and now.
C. DIFFERENT KINDS OF SUFFERINGS
Now at this stage we need to pause for a moment, because there is obviously a difference between suffering and suffering.
1. The Consequences of Sin
On the one hand there is the suffering that we face because we live in a sinful world and corrupt world. (And whether we are Christians or not in this case is immaterial.) We may have one foot in the next world, but the other foot is still planted in this one.
So the fact is that we are affected by our sins, others’ sins, and the flow on affect that that has on the world around us. The results of pollution, the destruction of the environment, disease, animosity between one person and another, etc., etc., are all things that we have to face because we live in a corrupted and sinful world. And being a Christian does not exempt us from that.
2. Christian Suffering
On the other hand, and what Paul was more specifically describing, was that as Christians, if we stand up for what we believe in, we will also suffer from persecution. It’s part and parcel of the price of proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Yes, believing in him does bring eternal life. But the responsibilities that go with that, to put our faith into action and to share what we believe, will mean that we will also have to face people who want nothing to do with the Christian faith. Indeed, who may go to extreme lengths to ensure that the Christian gospel isn’t spread.
From a biblical point of view, then, rather than a Christian being exempt from suffering, we may actually be faced with more suffering than the non-believer. Because Christians don’t have to just face up to the ordinary suffering of this world, but they also have to face up to persecution, for standing up for their faith, as well.
D. GOD PROVIDES SUPPORT
Now, of course, that’s the bad news. But there is good news too. And the good news is, that regardless of the type of suffering, or whatever else it is that we’re going through, the teaching of the bible is clear: As Christians we do not have to face the rigours of this life alone.
1. I Am with You
“Do not be afraid, for I am with you” (Genesis 26:24). These are the words that God spoke to Isaac. In fact the words “I am with you” are repeated to Jacob (Gen 28:15), Joshua (Joshua 3:7), Isaiah (Isaiah 41:10), and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:8). Further the prophet Haggai (Haggai 1:13) was told by God to relay those four words “I am with you” to all of God’s people. And, “I am with you” are the same words used by Jesus to his disciples (John 7:3).
2. Another Counsellor
Furthermore, when Jesus was telling his disciples that he was about to leave them. He told them that he wouldn’t leave them alone. And he made this promise to his disciples: “I will ask the Father to give you another helper, to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17a).
“Another Counsellor…” In other words, not just someone else, but another of the exact same kind as Jesus himself. That’s what it means. Someone who will continue to be with his followers and someone who will be concerned with all their battles, both worldly and spiritual, as well as a lot more things besides.
What that means, then, is that whatever we’re going through, the battles of life or the more specific persecutions, God has promised to be there with all believers. He will be there with us through thick and thin, from the mountain top experiences to the depths. God promises to be with us.
Yes, we may not be immune from the sufferings of the world, and indeed we may even face more sufferings that non-believers face, because of the persecution that we will face for standing up for God, but throughout, God promises to be with us, to comfort us and to help us through.
So, today, are you suffering, whether as the result of sin and not necessity your own? Or are you even suffering because of persecution? If the answer to either of those is “Yes,” then the message for today is: You don’t have to face it alone.
As Christians we don’t just have a saviour who has promised us eternal life, peace with God. But we also have a God who has promised to be with us even in the bad times too. It’s just that is hard sometimes for us to convince ourselves that that is true.
Posted: 29th March 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis