If you have never suffered, you are doing something wrong.
You with me still? Or are you just going to roll your eyes or grumble in protest, “Uhhhh ACHEWALLY that’s not true,” or click the x to close out this tab? Do you not want to hear this hard message? You need to. I needed to. I needed it like a mackerel to the face.
For basically my entire life, I had fallen for the lie that
- If you’re a good, faithful Christian and love God, He will protect you from harm and bless you abundantly.
- If you ask Him to heal you or take away burdens, He will answer your prayers and grant you what you ask.
This could not be further from the truth.
I say this because when Christians – or people in general – believe these lies about God, when something horrible happens to them or someone they love, the first thing they’re inclined to do is get angry/resentful at God (How could You let this happen?!?!?!) and, if it persists, or, depending on how horrible the incident is, the person may stop believing altogether (When I was ten, I prayed God would heal my mom from cancer. She died two weeks later. There is no God. And if there is, I hate Him.) Think this is an unrealistic or weak-willed response? Think that if you were in such dire situations, you’d never falter in your faith? Ohhhhhh Peter, think again.
Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken…” Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.” Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” (Matthew 26:31-34)
Here’s a moment of complete honesty with you: There was a period of about a solid year and a half in which I fluctuated wildly between hatred of God and atheism. It didn’t end until about yesterday. Before feeling sorry for me or jumping all over me for hating God/refusing to believe in Him, let me say that a.) no one is immune to this, not even Jesus’ best and closest friend, and b.) I went through this feeling because despite doing everything one can do to be a saint, my family and I have undergone some of the worst sufferings people can undergo over the course of two and a half years: three close deaths, two years of unemployment, poverty, looming homelessness, depression, devastating breakups, and rape. The last two of these were, for me, the straws that broke the camel’s back. I gave up on God after losing the man I thought I would marry and seeing someone I love undergo some of the worst emotional and physical trauma a human being can go through. What these incidences told me were, You can pray for God to provide for you all you want, you can ask God to protect you and your loved ones, you can beg Him to bring the man you love back into your life, but sometimes none of that happens and you’re left in angry, bitter, confused sadness. Because He didn’t take away your sufferings; in fact, they multiplied, and you don’t know why. “God is good all the time”? Bull. Shit.
Now, I was wrong. God is good, despite the fact that my family and I have had to go through such hardship. He’s good to you, too, in spite of all the pain and suffering you feel right now. I know it doesn’t seem like it; you probably feel like He’s punishing you for something or that He doesn’t care about you or that He is ignoring you or that He was supposed to fix your problems and now you’re confused and hurt by His inaction. Maybe you keep hoping that He’ll take this cup away. Maybe you’re convinced He will. And maybe He will. But I wouldn’t stake all of your hope on it.
I don’t say that as a cynic. I say that because a critical part of being a Christian is accepting the crosses in your life, and, like Jesus, understanding that God isn’t always going to let this cup pass from your lips. To be a Christian is to suffer, and often suffer greatly. That’s a scary reality.
Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as You will.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, Your will be done!” (Matthew 26:38-42)
He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground. (Luke 22:44)
God did not spare even His beloved Son, the most pure and perfect being, from a horrible, brutal, agonizing death. Jesus, in case you forgot, was stripped, flogged, had a crown of thorns thwomped onto his head, mocked, struck repeatedly with sticks, then forced to trod barefoot up a long gravel road while carrying a 300-pound cross on his back which had just been scourged, then, naked, nailed to that cross and hoisted up, exposed and gasping for breath, in front of everyone. As he hung from his hands for three hours, his lungs filled up with liquid and collapsed – essentially drowning him – while people yelled at him, spit at him, and cursed him. Not to mention the internal turmoil he was suffering – the very Son of God felt the total darkness of abandonment by his Father. This is not a beautiful picture. It’s a disgusting, horrifying, abhorrent picture of suffering. It’s supposed to be. It was the method of execution the Romans used to strike fear into the people and discourage uprising or rebellion.
The Prosperity Gospel in me wants to ask, “He suffered once for all so we don’t have to! Yay!” Uhhhhhhhh, no.
Consider Christ’s words to the apostles:
Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans…Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:16-18, 21-22)
Jesus makes it very clear that, as a disciple, you must expect suffering. There is a level of endurance needed to be a Christian, because the reward can only be received after our time on this earth has ended. Jesus never once promised a content, peaceful, easy, blessed life on this earth to his apostles. Look at Peter – Jesus tells him that he will be the rock that the Church is built upon, yet at the same time tells him he will face death of a brutal kind because of this mission:
Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-19)
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep. Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:17-19)
We see that at first Jesus calls Peter “blessed” and tells him what a big role he’ll be playing in Salvation History – wow, what an honor! But then we see Jesus foretell Peter’s death, in which he will be led as a prisoner to execution in the same fashion as his Savior. So now Peter knows it all – he knows what role he will be playing, he knows he is blessed, he knows he is loved by Christ, and at the same time he knows the horrible death that awaits him if he chooses to follow his Savior. Jesus says, “Follow me,” to the cross. Anyone who wishes to come after Him must take up their cross and follow Him down the painful, lonely, agonizing road to Calvary and allow themselves to be crucified. That is the cost of discipleship. It’s not pretty. It’s not easy. It’s not safe. It’s the Christian calling.
To recap: The Christian calling is NOT always full of abundance and blessings. It’s NOT about having all problems disappear or having all wounds heal. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite: the Christian is often called to endure immense, unspeakable suffering. Of the twelve apostles who took up Jesus’ mission after the Resurrection, eleven were martyred. Early Christians were executed by the hundreds, often ripped to shreds by lions for sport or burned at the stake or beheaded or crucified. Modern Christian scholars estimate that since the Ascension, 70 million Christians have been martyred in world history. Even today, it estimated that about 90,000 Christians are martyred every year, with just under 1 million having been killed within the last ten years. This has NEVER been a religion of peace, ease, happiness, and prosperity! This, since its very institution, has been a religion OF SUFFERING! To think otherwise – to think that you or I or anyone else is entitled to special compensation or blessings because we follow Christ is to have the conception of the Christian faith fundamentally wrong.
He may never heal you,
He may never relieve this burden you’re carrying,
He may never throw you a life preserver,
He may not fix the problems in your life,
…but that’s not why we follow Him.
We follow Him because we have come to know and believe that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Holy Son of God, through whom we have redemption. It is not this life we live for, but the next. And we follow Him because He loved us first and invited us to be apart of His redemptive plan for the world, even at the cost of our own lives.
Jesus doesn’t promise comfort, ease, or safety. He promises His neverending love and mercy and ultimate victory.