Understanding a Theology of Suffering: Sing a New Song

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Without a theology of suffering, we will assume something is wrong, broken, or out of balance whenever we face trials. We may then find ourselves wavering, frantically searching for prosperity and blessing that we believe is the Christian experience, rather than obediently moving forward in the steps of the Savior.

Our comprehension of suffering as intrinsic to the life of the believer is essential if we are to find our voice among the faithful — among those who know lament.

Throughout the Psalms, we are told to sing a “new song” to the Lord. As the church and as individuals, it is time that we find our song.

When we find ourselves caught in the violent grip of fatigue, suffocating in the terror of the soul’s dark night, we need a song to sing. Like Paul and Silas, sitting in a damp, dark prison cell, ankles raw from heavy chains, singing loudly enough so that all the other prisoners could hear, so should we lift our voices.

This need for song is really an expression of a deeper issue — our need for a richer theology of suffering.

A friend of mine, Alex Mutagubya, is the founder of Transform African Ministries and pastor of the City Church in Kampala, Uganda. Speaking on the differences between the African and the American church, and on the African Christians’ greater resilience in the face of trials, he said, “There is, within the African Christian community, a robust acknowledgment of spiritual warfare that informs the church’s ability to endure the agony of fatigue. Even when it does not make sense, God remains God in the midst of suffering and pain.”

This theology of suffering is not unique to the African church. In most of the world, the church is familiar with adversity. The prosperity of the West has sheltered us from hardship, which has led to an anemic understanding of the place of suffering in the life of believers. Songs of suffering help us endure our seasons of fatigue. Suffering should make sense to the believer.

One of the ways we come to know God is in adversity. We draw close to Jesus in suffering.

The very One who calls us to follow Him was well acquainted with suffering and sorrow.

“In Gethsemane the holiest of all Petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.” – C. S. Lewis

Paul wrote of how Jesus spoke to him of His trials,

But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore,” Paul added, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” He concluded with one of the more astonishing spiritual truths of the New Testament, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Paul had the maturity to say in the midst of difficulty that God could move and was moving.

Can I also look at the challenges in my life as the grace of God? It is easy for us to see God in our blessings, but can we see God in our trials?

Training to Endure

It’s been said that the way you train is the way you will perform. We must train ourselves for bad times as well as for good. Just as marriage covenants refer to both bad times as well as good, so our covenant with God should acknowledge the certainty of both.

How we anticipate and are willing to accept pain will dictate whether we walk away or sustain faith through times of suffering.

Our expectations and preparation for trial will govern our ability to endure spiritual drought and burnout. Building a robust theology of suffering both prepares us for and acquaints us with the journey we have been called to walk.

How we train is how we perform. How we pattern our thinking with regard to difficulty affects our response to God when difficulty comes.

In the life of faith, it is easy to tend toward either extreme optimism, a gospel of health and wealth only, or a fatalism that sees God as distant and unfeeling. A realistic understanding will accurately locate us in the middle of a story in which to suffer is to share in what it means to be human.

We have been called to follow One who understands and empathizes with suffering. Our Lord warned His disciples,

“’A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” – John 15:20

Jesus suffered, so we should expect to suffer. We should expect it, but we should also begin to rebuild a proper theology of suffering within our confessions of faith. We need to strengthen our trust that, although we will undoubtedly meet adversity and pain on His account, He is also the one who has overcome the world and in whom we have life.

As Corrie ten Boom, the famed Dutch Christian whose family hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II, once said, “joy runs deeper than despair.”

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. — Psalm 40:1

Excerpted with permission from The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith by Ken Wytsma, copyright Thomas Nelson 2015.

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As Christians we can expect to face challenges and hard times. The good news is that we have a good God on our side who will strengthen us every single day and give us grace to walk through it. Join the conversation on our blog! We’d love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily

The Grand Paradox

The Grand Paradox
Ken Wytsma
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Ken Wytsma

Ken Wytsma is a leader, innovator, and social entrepreneur. He is the president of Kilns College, where he teaches courses on philosophy and justice. He is the founder of The Justice Conference—a yearly international conference that exposes men and women to a wide range of organizations and conversations relating to justice and the biblical call to give our lives away. Ken is also a church planter and the lead pastor at Antioch Church. He and his wife, Tamara, have four daughters.

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