give suffering a hug

Check out this selection of verses from the Bible…

“Though He (God) slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:15a)
“I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.” (Psalm 88:15)
“My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tonfue clings to my jaws; You have brought me to the dust of death.” (Psalm 22:15)

(that all of these verses happened to be the 15th in their chapter was not planned!)

God ‘slaying’ Job? Suffering God’s terrors? God bringing David to the ‘dust of death?’ Why the selection of such negative verses?

OK, I admit it. I’ve got an agenda. I’m trying to feature these kinds of passages in the Bible to make a point. What point is that?

I’ve been observing more and more a theme that seems to run right through the entire biblical narrative. I’ve observed that the people of God are marked by the way they embrace and/or accept suffering. Yep. Suffering.

The people of God before Christ suffered under Egyptian control, in the wilderness for 40 years, on the battlefield, during the ongoing and up-and-down cycle of replacement of Judges, as their kingdom was divided, under the oppression of the Babylonians and in the shadow of the Roman Empire (even though they were ‘home’ in Jerusalem). The church also suffered. The apostles and many others suffered beatings, oppression, imprisonment and eventually death for the cause of the advancement of the Gospel. I agree with many others who are convinced that the best thing for both the health and growth of the church is persecution. Indeed, one of the worst things to happen to the church might have been when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in the 4th century.

I am convinced that the suffering of the people of God is an important characteristic for us to understand and consider in light of our surroundings. Do we embrace suffering like those that have gone before us? Do we (in our comfortable, western, affluent environment) really have the slightest idea what real suffering is?

Guess where the church is growing? Where it is suffering. Guess where the church is arguing about how to do church services, which are the best programmes and what are the right leadership structures? Where it is comfortable. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

In the midst of battle, you don’t need to know the rank, status and position of the person who is watching your back, you just want to know that someone – anyone – is watching your back! As a critically ill patient in a hospital, you don’t care about the color of the wallpaper or the style of the physicians garments, you just want to know that someone will give you the medical attention you desperately need! Tough times certainly have a way of helping us (maybe forcing us?) to have better priorities!

It’s interesting how we pick and choose our favourite Bible verses, and how those verses differ from the verses of those in ‘developing’ countries. As Rich Mullins said, “They underline different parts of their Bibles. We’re all excited about being born again, and they are excited about selling their possessions and giving to the poor.” Maybe instead of assuming we have all the right church-ways, we should ask them about church?

Here’s a startling statistic from Don Fleming’s booklet Catching The Fire, “By 1960 the number of Christians in the non-Western world had reached 32% and by 1970 was about 36%. But throught the seventies and since, the growth has been extraordinary. By 1980 the figure had grown to 50%, by 1990 it was 66% and by 2000 it had reached 75%… Today, possibly 80% of all evangelical believers are in the non-Western world. The sad reality is that most Christians in the West are either unaware of it or have difficulty accepting it.”

Later on, he goes on to discuss how instead of us sending our books, programmes and church-ideas over to them, we should take out our pen and paper and take note of why it’s working over there! “Christians in the West are still buying books, but many of these books have only a tenuous connection with the Bible… What’s more, this dubious material from the West is being pumped into some of the poorer countries, because the Western producers can afford to send it free, knowing that poor people tend to take anything they can get for nothing. The Western church should be learning from the church in the developing world, but instead, it is spreading the West’s disease.”

Coming back to the topic of suffering, Don writes about what he calls our Western exectation of a pain-free life. “We do not know how to deal with suffering – not just illness, but death, war, persecution and poverty – much less how to embrace it in the name of Christ. We know what the Bible teaches about accepting hardship and sharing Christ’s suffering, but in reality most of us secretly feel we have a right to a pain-free life… After the devastating floods of Mozambique in 1999, the response of one local Christian was, ‘We don’t blame God; we trust Him.’ “

I can’t agree more. Our faith seems to only affect what CD’s we buy and which church services we go to. Our comfort and laziness have, as Don suggests, made us “the world’s greatest complainers.”

Where is the Job-like attitude that is reflected in the opening verse, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.”? Why do we read the Bible looking for verses about ME? History is His story, and it’s primarily not about us! We are not commanded to be successful, efficient or organised. We are commanded to be obedient. Certainly we will grow (and be successful as a by-product) as we reach people – and certainly we don’t need to waste resources (time, money and people) – and certainly dis-order and/or chaos is warned against (1 Cor. 14). But it’s easy to see these things outside the proper perspective, and let them become our goals rather than by-products of our goal.

At any rate, my growing conviction is that it is not the growing, obedient and flourishing church in the developing world that needs our critique or advice, but actually it is the assumptions and traditions of our own comfortable, convenience-infused and selfish churches that need to be fiercely challenged. May we have the integrity to take an honest and humble look at ourselves and even more so may we have the courage to make changes where needed. Corporately and Individually.