[This is a followup post on Eric’s post on Friday. I want to expound on his thoughts on suffering]
Why is this happening to me? I hear this question–better said–I ask this question all the time. Suffering for me is related to my failure; I am working from retribution theology. Just like the disciples, I am asking, “who was it that sinned in reference to the blind man?” Jesus, the suffering servant, brings this philosophy of suffering into question. With the cross in view, we cannot think about suffering in the same way. Instead, suffering is life-giving. It is related to kenosis, the self-emptying life. Johnson says, “Suffering is the pain of a system in disequilibrium.” Jesus models the life-giving system in disequilibrium as He says, “Not my will but yours be done.” Or as John Howard Yoder says, “The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the Kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.” The way of the cross is the power of God.
This means suffering is not the markings of evil or destruction. Suffering is central to all of life and compassion, the willful suffering with is the place where we meet the other. Cultures are different, languages are different, but human suffering is universal. Learning to minister with others, not so much to meet their need, but to suffer with them is central to the missional life. Luke Timothy Johnson argued during suffering it was the silence and the holding of his wife’s hand that brought the most relief. Cognitively, I do not understand this because I want to give answers, but experientially I know he is correct. A few years ago a church member called me to share with me she had a brain tumor and immediately a surgery was scheduled. The morning of the surgery Jill, my wife, and I met her at the hospital. We were able to sit in the pre-op room with her and a few others as she waited for the delicate surgery. There were no big questions answered that morning, our presence was what eased the suffering a bit.
Romans 5 says, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” We participate in the faith of Jesus. A self-emptying faith of suffering which ultimately leads to hope. We participate in the self-emptying life, we suffer and suffer with others because in this self-emptying life we are participating in the new creation of God. Suffering is not the marking of destruction, but the participation in the life of God. I do not know how this works itself out, but the Church has to learn to lean into this reality.
The missional impulse here is related to compassion and openness to the other. It is about joining people as they suffer toward the fullness of God’s new creation. Evangelism looks different here. It is not that we leave off the good news, but the good news cannot be absent of suffering with. I am not sure how this looks, but I believe the Spirit is calling us to mission right here.