Suffering 10 – The end of suffering

Posted: June 20, 2013 by J in Bible, Pastoral issues, Theology

In Christ, suffering has an eschatological significance. It also takes on a relational meaning: we can say that suffering is a major currency in which our experience of connection to Christ is now transacted. Paul writes:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.  Philippians 3:10

Sufferings have been so thoroughly subverted by God’s grace that they have actually become a vehicle of his love:

Endure trials for the sake of discipline: God is treating you as children… he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness…discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.   Hebrews 12:7-11

So the Christian has great cause to hope in sufferings, for they guarantee us a good future which our Father has prepared for us in Christ:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…         2 Corinthians 4:17

The words of C S Lewis in the film shadowlands capture this in a striking image:

The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what make us perfect.

We must be careful at this point to notice: we are talking about the suffering of Christians here. Not about wars or tsunamis or the suffering of puppies, or children in Africa. This teaching creates a special category of suffering in Christ, but says nothing much about the general suffering of the world outside of Christ.

It also does nothing to change the basic nature of evil and suffering. Evil is still evil. Suffering is still, in itself, meaningless. It is part of the futility into which the world has fallen. Suffering and death is still the enemy, the ‘last enemy’, which must be abolished. All this is still true for Christians. When a believer’s child dies, a terrible evil has occurred, and there is no reason, no explanation we can give for why. And we long for the time when this wrong will be righted by the justice of God. This is still the first thing to say about what has happened.

However, there is more to say in this case. God has allowed this believing parent to face misery and meaningless pain, along with Christ. Because he loves us. And that suffering is going somewhere. God will work in and through it to bring redemption and life. And so in the midst of the pain, the grieving parent can take comfort at the thought of what is to come, at the thought of resurrection. Like Jesus ‘who for the joy set before him endured the cross’. In her distress this parent is sharing fellowship with Jesus in his story, and that is of great encouragement to sufferers. Once the first truth is appreciated, this second truth can be meaningful.

As we warned earlier in this series, the gospel’s take on suffering involves a story, and therefore is not simple but complex. Option 2 gave us a much neater answer. And in fact, it is not easy to hold these two truths about suffering at the same time: its futility and its eschatological role in Christ. One reality will tend to swamp the other. But they are both true and both needed if we are to respond to our trials with faith in Jesus.

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