Do You Have a Theology of Suffering?

I’m preaching at my church this Sunday.We are going through a series titled after David Jeremiah’s book, “Living with Confidence in a Chaotic World” and I have been assigned the sectioned called, “Stay Confident.” My approach will be to show why we should be confident in trials and how we should be joyful amidst suffering and pain. I’ll be using James 1:1-8.

Reading these two paragraphs might help give you a little context.

A while back Tim Keller wrote an article title, “5 Big Issues Facing the Western Church.” Here is his fifth big issue:

The end of prosperity?

With the economic meltdown, the question is, will housing values, endowments, profits, salaries, and investments go back to growing at the same rates as they have for the last twenty-five years, or will growth be relatively flat for many years to come? If so, how does the Western church, which has become habituated to giving out of fast-increasing assets, adjust in the way it carries out ministry? For example, American ministry is now highly professionalized—church staffs are far larger than they were two generations ago, when a church of 1,000 was only expected to have, perhaps, two pastors and a couple of other part-time staff. Today such a church would have probably eight to ten full-time staff members.

Also, how should the stewardship message adjust? If discretionary assets are one-half of what they were, more risky, sacrificial giving will be necessary to do even less ministry than we have been doing.

On top of this, if we experience even one significant act of nuclear or bio-terrorism in the U.S. or Europe, we may have to throw out all the basic assumptions about social and economic progress we have been working off for the last 65 years. In the first half of the 20th century, we had two World Wars and a Depression. Is the church ready for that? How could it be? What does that mean?

Later on he provided a follow-up article providing some proposed answers to the problems. His answer for problem number five has stayed with me– and has shaped to a degree how I preach. We must prepare our people to suffer.

We must develop a far better theology of suffering.

Members of churches in the West are caught absolutely flat-footed by suffering and difficulty. This is a major problem, especially if we are facing greater ‘liminality’—social marginalization—and maybe more economic and social instability. There are a great number of books on ‘why does God allow evil?’ but they mainly are aimed at getting God off the hook with impatient Western people who believe God’s job is to give them a safe life. The church in the West must mount a great new project—of producing a people who are prepared to endure in the face of suffering and persecution.

Here, too, is one of the ways we in the West can connect to the new, growing world Christianity. We tend to think about ‘what we can do for them.’ But here’s how we let them do something for us. Many or most of the church in the rest of the world is used to suffering and persecution. They have a kind of faith that does not wilt, but rather grows stronger under threat. We need to become students of theirs in this area.