Suffering and Missions

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We avoid suffering, Christ embraced it, and Satan tempted Jesus to sidestep it. Meditating on these dynamics yields an interesting perspective on suffering that stays clear from errors of the health and wealth gospel and a Christianized Stoicism. Suffering for the sake of missions strikes the needed balance.

Some believe that God does not want his people to suffer at all: no sickness, no trials, and no economic hardships. Few are this consistent, but some lean this way. They argue that Jesus healed, delivered, and came to destroy the works of the devil. All these points are valid, but the New Testament offers a more nuanced picture. For some, sickness lingers, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, for instance. Others have embraced suffering as a virtue, a Christianized Stoicism. In a fallen world, suffering and trials beat upon people. Sometimes these trials are chronic, disabilities and depression. God calls his people to persevere, but he has also broken into this world through his son and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, perseverance without a theology of an inaugurated kingdom disembowels the centrality of the gospel story. Even for those who suffer chronically, God gives, uplifts, and strengthens. Moreover, he uses this suffering to advance the kingdom in mysterious ways.

It is interesting that Satan attempts to steer Jesus away from suffering through one of his closest disciples. When Jesus speaks about the cross, Peter says: “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). We know Jesus’s response: “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus at once sees a direct attack to get him to avoid the road of suffering. His own humanity makes this temptation pernicious. Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane shows the real temptation to bypass the pain of the cross. Two points emerge: Satan does not want Jesus to suffer, and Jesus embraces the path of suffering.

Jesus’ passion steps into the heart of Christianity. Jesus has to live a life of covenantal obedience and take the curse of a broken covenant to save humanity. Were Jesus to forfeit the suffering of the cross, salvation would be a cruel chimera.

This conviction takes root in the life of the early church as well. In the book of Acts, a number of people prophesy that suffering awaits Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-24; Acts 21:4, 10-16). Paul’s companions plead with him not to go. Reasonable advice. Paul, however, refuses to listen. He, like Jesus, doubles down and resolves to reach Jerusalem. In fact, Acts 20:13 states that Paul went from Troas to Assos on foot while his companions sailed there. It is tempting to see this march to Assos as Paul’s Gethsemane, his time alone with God in agony. Paul emerges and knows in his gut that these prophecies are intended to prepare him for suffering, not to avoid it. In a different context, Paul tells the fledgling Thessalonians that they are destined for trials (1 Thess. 3:3). More surprisingly, he says to the Colossians that he is suffering for them. The language he uses sits uncomfortably in our ears: “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). 

God delivers, heals, blesses, restores, and mends, but he also calls us to follow him in missions and offers the honor to plant our knees in the soil of Gethsemane, to walk in the footsteps of our elder brother toward Golgotha, and embrace suffering for him and his people. In the end, God redeems the tears, the pain, and the suffering and transforms them into something beautiful. Like a seed that falls, suffering for Christ produces a harvest.

About the Author

John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan, a Christian classical school. He also serves with Ben Spalink at City Grace Church in the East Village of New York City.

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