Christian Suffering in a World of Suffering
Perhaps it is due to my ongoing fascination with Jewish and Christian apocalypses that the motif of suffering is constantly on my mind. I am always struck with John the Seer's words of praise and encouragement in his letters to the seven churches of the Apocalypse that are patiently enduring persecution, affliction, distress, and tribulation. This is especially the case for the Churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and Philadelphia (Revelation 2-3). Even the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew (also found in Luke 6:23-24) note that those faithful who are persecuted for righteousness' sake will inherit the kingdom of heaven where their reward will be great (Matthew 5:10-11).
It seems that from a Christian perspective, suffering is to be expected and just part of the deal of Christian membership-a real scriptural blow to prosperity gospels! Thus it should come as no surprise to us when the letter of 1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11 emphasizes the same themes of present suffering as a marker for future reward.
Christians are told in 1 Peter to expect suffering and "not to be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you, as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12). In fact, suffering Christians are instructed to "rejoice in so far as you share in Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:13). Suffering, according to the author of 1 Peter is a Christian badge of honor and a sign of future exaltation. It is a marker of a world that will be turned upside-down where the persecuted will soon be exalted. God, we are instructed, has a preferential option for the faithful sufferer.
_ The recent focus on the kidnapped girls in Nigeria shines a light on the suffering of women and girls all around the world. _
So as I ponder these words I cannot help but think about those amongst us that suffer outside of the faith. What about their suffering? There have been on a few recent moments when hearing of such suffering has troubled me to my very core, and I could not help but think that the world had gone mad for inflicting such suffering or allowing it to happen.
One such moment occurred April 14, 2014, when I first received word of the abduction of almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls at the hands of the Boko Haram extremist group led by Abubakar Shekau. Children abducted, hundreds of them used as bargaining chips in a prisoner release plot. And as each day passes (over forty of them by the time of this publication) and fresh news cycles emerge, the world's attention has shifted elsewhere and these children remain captive. Children. Little girls. Victims.
I, for one, could not take this privileged opportunity in writing this piece and not scream out to the readership: they are still captive, they are still lost, they are vulnerable, they are suffering. What kind of people would we be if our attention is so easily distracted from a distressed child with the simple passing of time? How do we not stand in solidarity with the parents and relatives of those who have lost their children? Are we not called to suffer with them? To scream our protests with them?
Imagine the horror of these families when they learned their children were abducted. Imagine the horror they felt when they entered the empty schoolyard where their children once happily studied, played and lived. Imagine the horror their young children are experiencing in a frightful captivity.
Their horror should be embodied by a caring world that will stand in solidarity with them and their devastated families. These children must be returned to their homes safely. It is the only reasonable solution lest the world has simply gone mad. Not our children. Never our children.
So here I write pondering the exaltation of suffering in Christian scripture as a sign of future heavenly exaltation. What do I say to sufferers of other faith traditions? My suffering, our Christian suffering, is privileged?
I respond to this by noting that a good majority of apocalyptic literature was written with the understanding that the end world was expected imminently. Suffering could be, would be, tolerated in the short term. There was never an expectation that the suffering would be ongoing if not altogether perpetual.
However, our Christian messiah is delayed and we now suffer with a suffering world. The time has come to shift all the weight from the shoulders of our delayed messiah and bear the cross of the human condition ourselves. No longer can we privilege Christian faithful suffering over the suffering of the world. No longer can we privilege our "not of this world" victimization. We are squarely in this world.
We are co-sojourners with all peoples representing all faith traditions or no faith tradition at all. For the sake of our children, for the sake of these children, we must humanely turn that page.
Questions for Discussion
Where do you see suffering in your life? What does your faith teach you about the suffering you or others are experiencing?
How do you usually react when you hear a news story about someone else's suffering? Angry? Disappointed? Hopeless? Unsurprised? Do you ever feel inspired to do something in response? Why or why not?
What might it look like for us to "bear the cross of the human condition ourselves?" What would that look like in your own life?
Isasi-Díaz, Ada María. En la lucha: In the Struggle. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
Moltmann, Jürgen. Jesus Christ for Today's World. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Lament for a Son. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
David A. Sánchez is an associate professor of Early Christianity and Christian Origins at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. David is also the Book Review Editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and the President of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States. He is the author of Hispanic Theological Initiative's award winning book, From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths (Fortress Press, 2008). He has published extensively on contemporary Guadalupan iconography from a postcolonial perspective. His current area of research is on ancient and contemporary apocalyptic groups.
About ON Scripture
Learn more about the ON Scripture Editorial Board
Like ON Scripture on Facebook
Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture
ON Scripture – The Bible is made possible by generous grants
from the Lilly Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation.