In the wee hours of the morning I worked on a forthcoming book my friend David Caddell and I have been working on for a couple of years. We hope to have it published this year. This morning’s post is the section I wrote today on the issue of sufffering from Romans 8:31-36.
. . . Paul’s point is that nothing can separate the redeemed from Christ’s love and allegiance to them. This, as Achtemeier asserts, should be the end of any belief that hardship and persecution is indicative of God’s rejection. In fact, it is the love of Christ which makes enduring these hardships possible.
More is going on here than theology. Suffering is the one aspect of the human condition that everyone faces. Sometimes the suffering is in a hospital room or in a bedroom. Other times suffering is at the hands of oppressors with ideology or religions with theology. Suffering comes in many different forms: Physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and existential.
In the “happiness is godliness” tradition of the Western Evangelical church we have glossed over this part of our heritage far too much. As a result, often pastoral ministry has no real answer for those who suffer, because ministers do not think through the issue. We affirm that God does not create the suffering, but instead he uses suffering that occurs for his purposes. There are three such purposes which illuminate our understanding of suffering.
The first purpose of suffering is to draw us closer to Christ. In our suffering we share in the fellowship of his suffering. This is what Paul describes in Philippians 3, especially in verse 10. The second purpose of suffering is punishment. Again, we don’t like to think about this because all suffering is not punishment, but certainly some suffering is punishment. We must note, especially given the above reference form Achtemeier that punishment is not the same as rejection. God punishes those he loves. This is the point the writer of Hebrews makes to his audience as he references Proverbs 3:11-12.
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline. If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:7-8)
It seems to us there is at least one other function of suffering which Christ uses in our lives. This could be called the ‘weeding out’ function. In the midst of great suffering people either turn toward the Lord or they turn farther away from him. Few people in the midst of pain and turmoil remain the same in their attitude toward the Almighty. We have observed that two Christians who go through similar pain and suffering will come out of the suffering going in different directions. One will be drawn in deeper fellowship, the other will often walk away, bitter and angry that God allowed such pain to come. This might be what Peter was getting at when he wrote:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed . . . Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the house of God. (1 Peter 4:12-14, 16-17a.)
In verse 36, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 as an example of the historic suffering of God’s people. This Psalm is used in reference to an incident described in 2 Maccabees 7, in which an entire family is tortured and executed for their . . .
I’ll keep you posted on the book in the future. We are just now in editing phase and should finish before the winter is over.