It was John Wesley who famously said of Christians in his era “our people die well”. Presumably they died strong in the faith, with an understanding that this life is not all there is, or all that matters, and with hope in the glorious future that awaits in Christ beyond the grave.
Could the same be said of Christians in the 21st century? How do we cope with suffering in general, let alone death? Do we suffer and die ‘well’?
In the first chapter of his challenging book ‘Suffering Well’ author Paul Grimmond states his case: when it comes to suffering we are prisoners of our age who have “lost touch with biblical truth because of the constant hum of worldly thinking that swirls around in our heads” (p.18). As a result we don’t know how to view suffering, to suffer well, or how to encourage one another in suffering for Christ.
I read this book during a month of suffering; it was not the sufferings of physical attack or public persecution, simply that the flu had descended, making an ordeal of every simple daily task. As I suffered and coughed, Grimmond’s book helped resolve some of the dilemmas about suffering which I had wrestled with before. Here are just two main points (of many great ones which the book raises) which will stay with me:
1. Don’t come to the Bible with the world’s view of suffering – start with Bible’s view and look at suffering in our world through those eyes. In the world’s view suffering, or at least the avoidance of suffering, is the new moral standard. According to Grimmond it is the only determinant of what is right: a disabled child will suffer, and so will the parents, so it is apparently “right” to terminate their existence before birth; the same goes for an injured dog and an old person with terminal cancer. Suffering is seen as the only evil, which must be avoided at all costs. “Suffering is a major part of the argument against God’s existence. The very presence of suffering . . . is a key piece of evidence. If we really have an all-good and all-powerful God then how can there possibly be suffering?” (p.25) More than that our world believes religion is one great cause of human suffering. “In our brave new world, suffering means that God is immoral and Christians are immoral” (p.28) since we believe in a God who would allow suffering to exist!
If we come to the Bible with this worldly view in our heads, no wonder we don’t know what to do with suffering, or how to speak up for the God who allows it. Grimmond takes us back to the Bible to see that God is in control, that God is God and I am not! He is the potter, we are His clay. God is in complete control over creation, which means that “the suffering of God’s creation occurs by his hands . . .Scripture never suggests suffering and difficulty come because God is out of control; rather . . . they come because he is IN control.” (p.46-7). This may seem a big and bitter pill to swallow, but it is the teaching of the Bible through and through. This God is not a god we have created, one the world would approve of, a benevolent grandfatherly figure who simply indulges us moment by moment. God wills, He purposes, He acts, He works all things together for good, including suffering. “The world is suffering because it stands under the heavy hand of God’s judgement . . . Our world, marked by suffering and death , is a world that has been bent out of shape BY GOD. . . God has visited upon us the results of our sin” (p48-49).
Yet this God has involved Himself in the suffering of His creation; suffering is at the heart of His plan to create a perfect world and glorify himself. Jesus faced the suffering that should be ours. “While suffering may be painful and awful, it comes from the hand of a sovereign God who will use it for good, and who guarantees that good by the gift of his Son” (p64).
2. Don’t downplay the real suffering for Christ that Western Christians experience – being scorned, reviled and mocked! In Chapter 6, entitled “Where’s all the persecution gone?” the discussion moves from the general suffering of our fallen world to specific suffering for being a Christian. Grimmond wants us to see that in taking up the cross of as Christ’s disciple, the imminent danger is not usually physical hardship, but the danger of being ashamed of Christ. “When we think of suffering for Christ “persecution” is the word we naturally use. But in the bible the language is much more diverse. It talks of being reviled and spoken against and maligned . . . The Bible’s big question for us is will you obey Jesus and speak for Him, or will you be ashamed of his words?” (p.96). Grimmond sees the great danger for Western Christians is “the slow, spiritual death of a thousand tiny compromises crouched at the door, waiting to devour our hearts. . . at the moment we need it most we have let go of a robust theology of belonging to Christ and suffering for him”(p.97). Though we live in a culture where words are cheap and people can say what they want and be rude to each other all the time, we don’t have to see it as weakness if those words really sting us. Grimmond suggests that we do not serve or encourage one another well when we say we don’t suffer, because it reinforces the view that suffering for Christ is only physical. “As a result we fail to teach each other to live without shame in the face of the more subtle pressures in our culture” (p.98). So, this IS persecution and we discourage each other when we downplay it! We should also rebuke ourselves when we fear it or shy away from it. This is the shame we are NOT to be ashamed of! With regards to the promise of suffering for and with Christ, Grimmond insists we teach it to people from the moment of conversion. “We must share this truth with our children so they grow up rejoicing that they’re counted as Christ’s when they suffer for him”(p.103).
Grimmond says we also suffer as Christians because of our compassion. When we see the suffering, the sin, the lost people of this world through God’s eyes, it brings deep sorrow. And as for the ‘predictable surprise’ of the title . . . I might leave that for you to read about in chapter 5! If you want to get a better handle on the question of suffering, and find hope in the midst of it, grab a copy of Grimmond’s book, which successfully turns our eyes back to our Sovereign God, who is in control of all our suffering.
“What are we Christians called to do in the face of suffering? We are called to wait well, to praise our God in every moment, and to ask for God’s strength to do good – even to our enemies” (p.139).
You can buy Paul Grimmond’s book from Matthias Media by following this link: suffering-well