Most of us at one point or another have asked the question, “Why does God allow suffering?” Frustratingly, the Bible I read never gives an answer. Suffering is simply a given. A bit like the bumper sticker, “Shit happens.”
Except more than that, too. Because while we as Christians do not have an answer to the age-old theodicy question, we do have some pointers on how to approach suffering from within the framework of faith. So that our suffering becomes redemptive.
This help comes from at least one place, in 1 Peter 4:12-14: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”
The writer of 1 Peter was addressing his letter to a community of first-century believers facing persecution. Their suffering was of a specific kind. But suffering can be of the more garden-variety type, too. A spouse dies. Or, we lose a job and find ourselves chronically unemployed. Or, we get the diagnosis we most dreaded: cancer. It is still suffering. It can still feel like a burning away of all that we thought we knew about God, ourselves and our world. A “fiery ordeal.”
And unlike the notion in some Christian quarters that “every day can be Friday,” the writer of 1 Peter tells us to expect suffering. Christians by virtue of their humanity, and at times because of their faith, will suffer. Suffering is part of what it means to be human. Period.
There is to be a difference in how Christians suffer, though, according to this passage. And this is where 1 Peter offers a consolation prize that is as challenging as it is comforting. I like to sum it up in “3 P’s”: Presence; Purpose; and Passion.
Presence. Christians can know that God is present with them in their sufferings. Which is not to imply that God is not with non-Christians in their sufferings. Only to affirm that in Christ we have an abiding assurance when we go through painful trials that the Spirit of God is “resting on” us (v. 14). This is the same Spirit that like a mother bird hovers over her babies, watching, sheltering, nurturing and drawing us under her wings (Psalm 17:8). The same Spirit that hovered over the face of the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2). The Spirit that creates out of nothing and nothingness something beautiful. That takes the dull, senseless matter of our hurts and tribulations and transforms it.
This sustaining, nurturing, life-giving Spirit of God is with us. Hovering over us. And it is, the writer of 1 Peter tells us, glorious. It is “the spirit of glory.” Much like the glory of God that shone most brightly on a cross, so that even a centurion standing by, one of Jesus’ executioners, could exclaim, “This truly is the Son of God!” So, too, in our suffering, God’s Spirit hovers over us: like it did over Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove, it proclaims that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters.
Purpose. Just as and because God is with us in our trials, our suffering serves a purpose. If God’s Spirit is with us, hovering over us, then our pain and anguish are the stuff of new creation. They are the clay that God is using to remake us. They aren’t just crap- or if they are, they’re elephant poo. Elephant poo being recycled to make stationary. (I really saw this the other day at The Aquarium gift store.)
Our first question can be, then, “God, how would you use this terrible thing before me for your purpose?” The whole “Why me, Lord?” thing will never get us very far; so while our first inclination is understandably to ask this question, we thankfully don’t need to sit on this bench too long. God’s purpose puts us back in the field to play with whatever has been handed us, trusting that one day we will understand just how our poo was used.
Passion. Here is where the message of consolation cuts both ways. As a challenge, it can rub us the wrong way. We are to “rejoice” in our suffering. Say what?
Before we jeer and boo and throw paper airplanes at the writer of 1 Peter, he gives us a qualifier: we are to “rejoice insofar as [we] are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” Our weeping and tears over the death of a spouse? They belong to the cries of One who like a lover came near and dwelt among us- only to have his life cut short against his will- and felt the incredible pains of separation. Our painful embarassment over the loss of a job and inability to find work? It takes its place within the humiliation of One who deserved the gold, gem-studded crown of a king and got one made of thorns. Our diagnosis of cancer and all of the anguish it brings? They are a dimension of Christ’s own great tribulation in the face of death.
Christ’s Passion for the world, in the pouring out of His life on a cross, somehow mysteriously embraces, enfolds and transforms our sufferings, so that Christ’s Passion ignites and intermingles with our passions, changing them in the process and opening our hearts to the world around us in all of its pain and beauty. With the result being that we don’t have to walk around emotionally beaten down by our suffering. Or cynical, checked-out and disengaged from our world because we would rather not feel pain. We can be passionately involved in the lives of those around us and in the sufferings of our world without succumbing to despair.
Presence. Purpose. Passion. These are the marks of Christian suffering. They are what make the suffering of a follower of Christ distinctive.