Theology

Why you can’t divorce suffering from the gospel

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Some time ago, I read a tweet by someone who claimed that Christianity should not exist among indigenous groups. In other words, if violent missionaries did not threaten minorities to convert on pain of death, then none of them would be Christian today. They would have no reason to be.

Much to my surprise, this tweet prompted outrage from…indigenous groups. Black Christians and Native American Christians called this person out, saying her tweet was grossly insensitive to those who were able to endure hardships — namely, slavery and genocide — because of the gospel. Black slaves, for example, found hope in the story of Exodus, in which the Jews were led to the promised land after years of mistreatment from Pharaoh.

Those who knew her referred to Harriet Tubman as Moses, so clearly, the story was more than just something inspiring to them. It was a literal lifeline.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I come across a barrage of tweets from progressive Christians who are talking about how suffering has no redemptive purposes. None. Whether you have cancer, are living in poverty, or have experienced loss of some kind, there is absolutely no hope or redemption to be found in it whatsoever.

And, some added, to suggest that Jesus’ death on the cross was in any way a good thing was grossly offensive. Jesus died because of Roman politics, and that’s it. There are no theological implications behind it at all.

So, as you know, I just finished writing a book about finding redemption in suffering. You can say that I felt a little like the indigenous Twitter users who chimed in to say that this generalization erases their lived experiences.

I don’t know anyone who has ever turned to Christianity in order to get rich, or to improve their lives (although I’m sure some have), but I know plenty of people who turn to Christ and look at his death on the cross for hope in the midst of deep, inexplicable suffering.

I know people who say that they never experienced the presence of Christ more fully than when lying in some metaphorical gutter.

To suggest that suffering is always pointless is one of the few times I am tempted to pull out a soapbox to say THIS IS HERESY. We simply do not know what God is doing behind the scenes. As Timothy Keller put it, just because suffering seems pointless to us doesn’t necessarily make it so.

I’m a little baffled by Christians who think this, and still call themselves Christians. It’s like someone calling themselves vegan as they bite into a cheeseburger. Without suffering, it’s the gospel that has no point.

But Jesus changes the idea of suffering as merely a human problem by coming to earth, wearing our skin, living in our bodies. So when we suffer, as all of us will on this fallen planet, God enters into it with us. He’s not watching from a lofty place of comfort from afar.

As someone who has experiencing suffering in the form of date rape, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, chronic physical pain that doctors haven’t been able to diagnose, and watching my father die of cancer, to know that Jesus knows what that’s like, and promises that pain will not have the last word, is a game changer. I do not offer this up as yet another platitude from someone who has lived a completely comfortable life.

If I had no assurance that my suffering will be redeemed, I might have committed suicide years ago. I am not exaggerating. The message of redemption in suffering has kept me alive, and continues to do so today.

Christianity doesn’t lead people on with false promises that following Jesus will amount to a pain-free life. But nor does it promise that this life is all there is.

Admittedly, that’s a hard one for me, coming from Judaism: I’m used to the idea that making the most of this life is our priority. The thing is, you can do both: live well on earth while looking forward to an eternity where pain does not exist, and everything is eventually made right. In some cases, this is where the redemption will occur. It’s tricky to have faith in what you cannot see. But that, too, is part of the point.

For more on this topic, I hope you check out my new book, Spinning Crap Into Fertilizer: How American Christianity Has Forgotten the Necessity of Suffering (man, is it tiring to type all that out!). Coming to Amazon pre-order soon! You can read the foreword here (and add to your shelf on Goodreads!).

 

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