Saturday, February 23, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Suffering?

Check out today's episode

I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about Suffering. Other entries in this series:
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
  7. Fear
  8. Blasphemy
  9. Wealth
  10. Binary Thinking
  11. Faith
  12. the Afterlife and Free Will
The vast majority of the time when the New Testament mentions suffering, it talks about it as if it is a good thing. Romans 8:17Colossians 1:242 Timothy 1:82 Timothy 2:3, and Hebrews 2:9-10 all praise suffering, it is a good thing that brings us closer to Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 adds that through suffering we learn obedience, which I suppose is true, if someone was causing me to suffer I would obey them to prevent further suffering. 1 Peter 4:1,13 adds that if you have suffered then you have ceased from sin. The big problem here is that suffering itself is being glorified, instead of the cause or the result of that suffering.
Sometimes God sounds like Maddox
What naturally comes next? If suffering itself is good, then the rational thing to do would be to go out and seek out some suffering. To be happy when it comes your way. The New Testament even pushes us in the direction by supporting a persecution complex. Galatians 4:292 Timothy 3:12, and 1 John 3:13 all tell Christians that they should be expected to be persecuted, the world hates them for being Christians. But it actually goes farther than that, Luke 6:22 and 2 Corinthians 12:10 take things a step farther and tell Christians to rejoice in being persecuted, and why not, the message we see is that a good Christian should be persecuted, an easy message to get here is that if you are not being persecuted then your faith is lacking. I think we can see the effects of this in America, Christians yell persecution at the drop of a hat. It's gotten to the point that they call it persecution when we stop try to stop them from discriminating other people. Obvious examples of this are gay marriage and contraception (they can make these rules all they want, but when they try to control what non-Christians do then we have a problem). 

The issue I have with the above verses about suffering is that they praise the suffering itself. The message that comes from those verses is that suffering is good, you should suffer and be happy about suffering. That message is crap, but there are actually a few verses that advocate suffering that I agree with. 1 Peter 3:17 and Acts 21:13 say that you should be willing to risk suffering and even death for your principles. It obviously is highly dependent on the specific circumstances, but it is a great thing to risk personal safety for something you really believe in. Just think of a soldier in the military, or perhaps a fireman, they are risking bodily harm and death for a good cause, they are rightly praised. But we aren't praising them for their suffering, we are praising them for being willing to deal with some suffering for a good cause. I could just out of a third story window and break my legs and experience a great deal of suffering, you wouldn't praise me for it, you'd probably call me an idiot. It's not the suffering that is important, it's the reason for the suffering.

Of course, not all suffering is a result of a standing up for good cause or stupidity. Sometimes we just wind up suffering as a result of an accident or maybe we catch a disease. It can be easy to think that we are alone, that we are the only one having to deal with our unique situation (whoa, flashback to high school). It is nice to know that other people are dealing with similar situations, and many people have done so in the past and got through it just fine. 1 Peter 5:9 tells us exactly this, there are other people dealing with the same kinds of suffering throughout the world. It's nice to see a little bit of good advice coming out of the bible, even though, as usual, it seems that the good is heavily outweighed by the bad.


  1. That image in the post makes me cringe, it really does.....

    Anyway, all of the verses glorifying suffering in the New Testament is much of the reason for the bogus persecution complex that fundies often get, they think everyone is out to get them, and persecute them for their faith, because they want it to happen.

  2. (My first attempt to post failed. Attempt #2.)

    The image makes me cringe too, because parts of the Bible do advocate violence against children (not to mention some fundamentalist parenting "experts" such as the Pearls).

    I've never understood the spiritual significance given to suffering. When suffering has meaning and a positive end, it can promote growth and maturity, but meaningless suffering does not. Furthermore, by glorifying suffering for its own sake, the Bible can lead people to ignore some of the causes of suffering -- injustice and oppression -- and fail to act on them.

  3. I think there are two important things to consider about this doctrine of suffering:

    1) It was, ironically, one of the most effective doctrines for securing growth of the early church. That's not to say that Disciples went around preaching to people and telling them that they need to suffer. I think that's unlikely. Instead, they would sell people on the fundamentals ("God loved you so much that He killed His son to atone for your sin, and now, if you want it, you can get a get-out-of-Hell-free card, etc., etc.") but then eventually came around to telling those new converts that their suffering was proof that they were following God, because "the world" followed Satan instead, and so it would naturally hate them once they followed God.

    I can tell you that, based on listening to Christian radio a bit, this same message is being played out even today, as I have often heard this suffering doctrine discussed regarding evangelism efforts in Iraq, Egypt, and China. One of the last ones I had heard was a home-preacher in China who said that every time there was a public persecution, their church grew by a significant amount soon after.

    Quite likely, the early Christian converts did experience difficulty; essentially rejecting its own foundation in Judaism, and yet staying distance from the pagan religions around them too (until, that is, they started to assimilate the pagan holidays!).

    2) The suffering doctrine is a significant departure from Judaism. The OT, with a few exceptions, quite often repeats that if you obey and follow God, He will provide you with temporal security and blessings, such that no enemy or persecutor would prevail on you.

  4. Sheldon and Ahab: I totally agree about the picture, unfortunately it definitely lines up with many passages in the bible.

    TWF: that is actually a really good point. I could imagine if I was suffering in some way already, to hear that this is a sign that I'm doing things right would be great. It would make it feel like I'm doing things right and everything was for a purpose. As often happens, an effective message to someone in one situation (already suffering people) has negative effects on people in other situations (everyone else)

    That's interesting about the difference in what is in the OT versus the NT. I'll keep my eyes open for that.

  5. I'm a pastor in a Presbyterian Church, so that's my disclaimer.

    Suffering is significant not because of the way in which Christian suffer, but because God suffers (particularly in the person of Jesus Christ) and the idea of a God that suffers was (and still is) an affront to what we tend to imagine being true of the divine. In the scripture there is a relationship between suffering and glory (Phil 2:6-11). Also, suffering is part of a radically different ethic that Jesus presents in which what is celebrated and sought after is not riches, comfort, social approval, and happiness. Instead Jesus is turning everything upside down and encouraging people live with a longer view, so that the rewards come 'in heaven' (Luke 6:17-38).

    It's also worth noting that persecutions are a subset of suffering. There are many kinds of suffering that are not persecution. However, the communities to which the New Testament documents were first written were universally minority communities that suffered discrimination because of their faith.

    Finally, while there are western Christians who are too quick to wave their persecution flag, the important book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, has lock-tight research illustrating the significance of suffering to Christians around the world. As a global religion, Christians are the most persecuted religious group, suffering human rights abuses under religious intolerance in ways that would stagger most comfortable western Christians.

    Please read the New Testament again and consider the daily reality of the communities to which these documents were first written and it might give you a new lens through which to appreciate the significance of suffering to persecuted Christians in history and around the world today.

    Thanks you for your consideration.

    Rev James Estes


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