by Krista Horn
Several years ago, a missionary friend of mine made the difficult decision to leave the mission field because of serious health concerns that couldn’t be addressed in her host country. She had spent a long time enduring physical suffering and attempting to find answers locally before her condition became so complex and so unbearable that she was forced to return to the States for medical help. Once in the States she still endured a long and painful journey of recovery. In the midst of all that, my friend reflected, “In order to attain a theology of suffering, one must suffer.”
I have never forgotten those words.
They’re particularly poignant coming from an American worldview. The American psyche does not accept suffering well. Our culture feels entitled to not suffer, as if all the hard work and thinking and planning and determination and zeal that were instilled in and passed down by our forebears grants us a “get out of suffering free” card. This is our American Theology of Suffering: we have the knowledge and willpower to combat and defeat suffering if we choose to. We get confused at best, offended at worst, when we suffer anyway.
That perspective doesn’t seem to line up with a biblical view of suffering.
Living and working at a mission hospital in Africa has given us an opportunity to see how other cultures view and understand suffering. While Americans (in general) experience comparatively little suffering and fight against it at all costs, Africans (in general) experience a lot of suffering and accept its existence in their lives as normal. Death is known here. Death is fairly understood and even expected. And although death is greatly grieved, somehow it’s also accepted. While we struggle sometimes with how easily it’s accepted – we fail to understand the lack of “Why God?” in so many situations – we’ve also been learning something from our Kenyan brothers and sisters that is so hard for us as Americans: how to identify with our Savior through suffering.
Because of COVID-19, the entire world is suffering right now, and disciples of Jesus in this present age have an opportunity. We have an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus and to know Him more by willingly walking down the road of suffering.
I would argue that “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, emphasis mine) is best done by suffering willingly. I don’t mean welcoming suffering in a masochistic sense or never fighting against sickness and disease. I mean that it’s beneficial to acknowledge that suffering is a part of this world and no one is exempt from it, and that for followers of Christ it’s beneficial to invite Him to use our suffering as a way of connecting with Himself – the man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).
No one saw a global pandemic coming and no one saw the acute, increased suffering in our present world. No one saw the sickness and death, the separation and isolation, the stress and anxiety, the financial failures and economic disasters. No one saw a world imploding and crying out for answers.
Answers may elude us, but opportunities do not. Opportunities abound for displaying kindness and compassion, for increasing our prayers and study of the Word, for choosing to connect and encourage each other in an era of social distancing, for giving of our limited resources because someone else has even more limited resources. And another opportunity has presented itself: to identify with Christ through our suffering.
Most of Paul’s writings on suffering refer specifically to suffering for Christ, for the Gospel. “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). The average world citizen suffering in this pandemic is not suffering for Christ, for the Gospel. But that doesn’t exclude the reality that suffering for its own sake is opportunity to identify with Christ.
Paul tells of a time when his “brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier” Epaphroditus became ill and nearly died, a circumstance that no doubt caused Paul great anxiety since he acknowledges that a deadly outcome would have spiraled him into “sorrow upon sorrow” with grief for his friend (Philippians 2:25ff). God had mercy on Epaphroditus, and on Paul too. The life of his dear friend was spared. Yet I’m sure his experience of stress and anxiety (and for a time the loss of his fellow worker’s presence) caused Paul to lean heavily on Christ, the Savior who also knew stress and anxiety and the loss of His fellow workers’ presence. I’m sure Paul turned to Christ for help and for comfort, and I’m sure Paul understood his Savior a bit more too.
Even for the times when our suffering is granted by God (such as Paul’s thorn in the flesh and of course Christ Himself who submitted to the “the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Isaiah 53:10a), we can take heart that God’s grace is sufficient for us. His grace sustains us, it teaches us, and it helps us to know Him more.
Charles Spurgeon, who was no stranger to suffering, once wrote: “Will the Head be crowned with thorns, and will the other members of the body be rocked on the dainty lap of ease? Must Christ pass through seas of His own blood to win the crown, and are we to walk to heaven in silver slippers that stay dry? No, our Master’s experience teaches us that suffering is necessary, and the true-born child of God must not, would not, escape it if he could.”
As we walk this road of suffering during COVID-19, let’s acknowledge the opportunity before us. It’s not an opportunity to fight against our current suffering because we’re entitled to not suffer. Conversely, we have the opportunity to endure suffering as people who are entitled to suffer as followers of Jesus. And maybe, if we’re willing, there’s an opportunity to develop a biblical theology of suffering as we lean into this time of identifying with and understanding our Savior, the Man of Sorrows.
Krista Horn met and married the man who once took her on a date to go tree climbing, which just about sealed the deal then and there. After her husband slogged through seven years of medical school and residency (with Krista doing quite a bit of slogging herself between work, grad school, and becoming a mom), they left for the mission field with three boys 3 and under. Now they live and work at a mission hospital in Kenya. While her husband is busy on the wards, she stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field. When she’s not making meals from scratch or singing lullabies or chasing skinks out of the house, Krista loves to curl up with a book, bake chocolate chip cookies, and go to bed early. Krista blogs at www.storiesinmission.