Theology of Suffering

Starting with its founder persecution has been a constant feature of the Church’s history. It is a major issue affecting the global church today with even greater scope and intensity. However, I feel the theological implications of it have not been thoroughly worked through by a lot of Christians. By theology I do not mean an abstract set of ideas. I am rather asking how a Christian should live and think in a world where they face the reality of suffering in the name of their God and still remain faithful to him, even when there is the prospect of no relief.

It is impossible to think about these things in a detached manner when you become acquainted with the data and some of the personal stories behind the numbers. You begin to ask yourself questions of your own faith. If I was in similar circumstances could I hold my ground? Do I live as a believer in a way that honours the same faith others are suffering for?

Particularly over the last year, I have been paying attention to the troubling situation but it is only quite recently that I have begun to take a focused look at it. It is fairly surprising how long it took for me to attempt a proper theology of suffering. However, it was inevitable given the trajectory of my life over the past two years. Many personal experiences and anecdotes, not all pleasant I might add, steered me to this point.

Two years ago I belonged to a charismatic, neo-prophetic group which literally defined my life and my future. They had a more nuanced version of prosperity gospel/Word of Faith theology informing their worldview. However, I came to eventually view the vision of life it provided as an illusion. With that realisation my world came crashing down and ever since I have made it my agenda to be a Christian realist. I want to have a faith that does not depend on personal success or things going my way. One that was honest with the existential struggles and hardships of life in a broken world filled with broken people like myself. I did not want to confuse faith with optimism. From coming to terms with a Christianity that did not offer any personal advantages the natural progression is to square with a Christianity that is personally disadvantageous.

In an article I wrote a year ago about how inconvenient becoming a Christian can be, I briefly dabbled with a theology of suffering but I did not pursue it much further. It was oddly enough a confrontation which I had on Facebook of all places that finally made it register for me as a serious theological issue. I openly criticised a pastor I knew for trying to justify his personal ambitions for fame as the will of God. Much to my chagrin he described me as a persecutor for that. The personal affront was not what ticked me off but the audacity to consider social media criticism persecution. ‘How dare he!’ I thought but on reflection it dawned on me why he did dare. He is part of the local Christian subculture which I left. The prosperity theology it holds only exists in places where there is no persecution. If he was living in northern Nigeria, not only would he never consider my comments as persecution, the entire mindset that produced such a reaction would not be formed. I am certain Pastor Christ himself would not be a Word of Faith preacher if he lived up there. When it comes to personal success, persecution puts a huge spanner in the works.

The disagreement I had with the pastor is an extreme example but it demonstrates that theology is always shaped by the context in which it is found. Prosperity theology naturally emerges in places of hardship, like the poor countries it is popular in, because it offers the possibility of control in a difficult world to positively influence it in your favour. Living in Ghana and coming from that theological background, I am very sympathetic to why it is so attractive. For many of its believers it is their sole hope in God. As strong as these convictions might be I do think it is a fragile faith. The Lordship of Jesus supersedes my personal circumstances and goals, good or bad. So what do you when things are really bad?

I asked a friend who is a staunch believer in Word of Faith doctrine that question. If you are so sure of those principles, why do they not work for persecuted brothers and sisters? To my surprise she said that was their problem. Though I didn’t think she wanted to come off as cold, it was the only move she could make to preserve her convictions. She did not want to hazard entertaining the thought that things do not always work out for the believer, even when they have done everything right. Now her views were more developed than most but nonetheless they are very common. That interaction taught me that ignorance alone cannot account for why we avoid addressing persecution. I think the Ghanaian church simply does not want to deal with an uncomfortable reality.

Two years ago when Boko Haram’s activities reached the height of international prominence. I remember many church’s, including my own, praying about it. It was a horrifying thought that ordinary Sunday church goers like ourselves could all of a sudden be killed in a bomb blast just because of where they lived in the world. We prayed earnestly that the terrorists would be defeated and that things would not spill over into Ghana. After the attacks faded from the headlines it also faded from our minds. It has not been brought up since but the persecution has not stopped. It was only when the reality of it intruded into our lives through the power of information technology that we cared. We genuinely thought out faith pronouncements could solve the problem but if we are honest to ourselves we really did not know what to do with it. It was, and still is, too difficult a challenge for us to even know how to approach so we promptly brushed it aside. Without experiencing it, candidly acknowledging the ongoing occurrence of persecution puts things into perspective. The type of Christianity we have here which is focused on God backing what I want seems shallow and unreflective in comparison. Wrestling with persecution requires asking what it means to follow Jesus, knowing that it could potentially hurt you and ruin your life.

The cost of being his disciple is no secret and our crucified Lord was completely upfront with. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Reckoning with the existential hazards of being a Christian means going back to that raw, gritty Jesus of scripture. Before going in depth on what scripture said about persecution, I was well aware that the New Testament did not offer a rosy picture of the world, especially when you are a believer. However, the more I thought about suffering for Jesus, the more I realised it deeply shaped the New Testament. Persecution is right at the heart of the Christian faith since Jesus is the ultimate righteous martyr. It openly records the harassment and difficulties the earliest followers of Jesus faced. Almost every single book in the NT canon references persecution in some manner. Some were written to help persecuted Christian communities. Many authors of the texts themselves like Peter, Paul, Timothy, James, John of Patmos faced serious hostility. The theme of God’s people being harassed is not only found in the NT but stretches back to righteous Abel. You cannot faithfully read the scriptures, particularly the NT, without seriously grappling with persecution. I am confident the Ghanaian church has no real theology of persecution which says a lot about how we read scripture. We have unwittingly censored the Bible to avoid being confronted with the jarring realities of being a faithful believer in a hostile world. A perfect example of this is how we read Hebrews 11, the so-called hall of fame of the heroes of faith.

Hebrews 11 famously begins by defining faith and then demonstrating what it means through the many well-known stories and exploits of faith of beloved Old Testament characters. Most sermons tend to deal with the first part where there are happy endings. Towards the end it talks about the stories Walt Disney would never write.

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. – Hebrews 11:35-38 ESV

Those undesirables were described as people of faith and are examples of what a life of faith can also be like. It does not always end with fantastic victories. Interestingly enough these prophets and righteous people of old who suffered the most are given the highest commendation on the honour roll of faith. The scriptures see their steadfastness during opposition as exemplary, true heroes to be admired, yet we avoid them in our preaching and reading of scripture. We do not want those dour, depressing stories especially when we preach that when you believe in God you’ll eventually get what you want in this world. The persecuted directly contradict the narrative that because God loves you he will intervene to ease your pain. In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews argues the exact opposite. It says because God loves you, that is why he is not intervening in your suffering and he still requires faithfulness to the bitter end (Hebrews 12:5-8.)

It was in the context of very trying circumstances that Hebrews and other letters were written. Remarkably within their theology they could paradoxically embrace suffering that will not be alleviated with joy. They could face unresolvable hardship with such courage and tenacity precisely because they looked to Jesus the true martyr who suffered and was vindicated through his resurrection (Hebrew 12:1-3.) Taking his sufferings meant also sharing his joy. By not squaring with persecution not only have we missed the meaning of the cross, we have also missed the significance of the resurrection. We have misjudged the very crux of our faith. The Christian faith cannot be resolved until we embrace the sombre reality of hostility to it. As far as the Bible is concerned it is a theological imperative and we cannot mature as a church until we address it.

You end up with a profoundly different vision of Christian life when you accept the reality of persecution. Without a robust theology of suffering it is impossible to endure openly hostile environments to the faith. Our view of suffering is then a helpful indicator of the quality of our faith and the sturdiness of our convictions. Like the person I spoke with, many of us cannot endure a mere thought experiment. We do not want to even envision a scenario where our faith is put to the test. Yet we consider ourselves believers along with those who live the real thing daily. They are concrete examples in the present of what scriptures say it means to follow Jesus. We must at least reckon with the possibility if we want to serve the Lord faithfully. According to the latest research on Christians living with persecution [1]“theology—in particular, a Christian community’s theology of suffering, church, and culture—influences the response of that community.”

The findings of the Under Caesar’s Sword report shows modern Christians in many ways mirror the early Church in how they live with persecution as well [2]creatively dealing with more contemporary challenges. Their theological positions cover a wide gamut of issues including evangelization, interfaith dialogue, the use of force, the purpose of the state, the meaning of culture, and off course the role of persecution in the Christian life. These are important issues that need we need to address in the church because we live in a world that does not share our beliefs and sometimes turns on us because of that. Sometimes we forget that the Christian life is a battle and as soldiers we need to be prepared. We cannot be so locked into our particular contexts, what Paul calls “civilian affairs”, without acknowledging the wider realities of Christian life (2 Timothy 2:4.)

Christian leaders have a huge role to play in changing attitudes. [3]For example, one house church pastor in Vietnam, Dinh Thien Tu, designed a course for Christian leaders called “What If Tomorrow?” which prepared believers for being picked up and taken to prison, as Tu had been. The course even involved having a small bag of essential items packed and ready to go. We might never face such a scenario depending on where we live in the world. However, we must never forget what it entails when we swear allegiance to King Jesus. We need to lift drooping hands and strengthen weak knees because we simply cannot have soft Christians (Hebrews 12:12.) As scripture and history have shown they are the ones who tend to give in to the world. Persecution has a huge bearing on Christian ethics as well. If you are not willing to go all in for Jesus, then you have left room for compromise. The writer of Hebrews urges believers to resist sin till they shed their blood (Hebrew 12:4.) We cannot live righteously before him until we make our peace with the possibility of suffering in his name (2 Timothy 3:12.)

In summary persecution has profound biblical, theological, ethical and obviously existential implications on the Christian worldview. In a former piece I hinted at the missional implications and in a future piece I hope to explore its ecumenical relevance. In my first attempt to construct a proper theology of persecution I ended up with the reality of Jesus and him crucified, a Christology of suffering if you will. In this article I have come to the same conclusion that the crucified king is why it matters. When we keep the cross at the centre, the reality of persecution comes into stark relief and it shines an austere light on all these issues it affects. When we lose sight of it, it means we have lost sight of the Jesus who suffered and through that suffering was glorified. That is what we have been called to. When we lose sight of it we lose sight of our hope.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. – Romans 8:16-18 ESV

 

[1] In Response to Persecution: Findings of the Under Caesar’s Sword Project on Global Christian Communities, p. 5, 2017.

[2] Ibid., p. 32.

[3] Ibid., p. 32.

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