Someone said to me recently after church, “Protestants don’t really have a good theology of suffering.”
And I think this person is right. In Protestant circles, we tend to focus more on things like:
- “Victory in Jesus!”
- “Just believe and it will be yours!”
- “All things work together for the good of those who love God!”
It’s not that there’s no truth in these statements. They just aren’t the whole truth.
The Stoning of Stephen
I recently preached on the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). As I was preparing that sermon, I couldn’t help but think about Tyre Nichols.
Y’know, sometimes we read about horrific events in the ancient world, like the stoning of Stephen, and we think to ourselves, “Gee, isn’t great that those kinds of things don’t happen anymore?”
Except they do. All the time. All over the world.
Stephen and Tyre Nichols were both beaten to death.
And so was Jesus.
Jesus was beaten with fists (Mark 14:65), with a baton (Mark 15:19), and then was flogged with a cat-of-nine-tails all before being crucified.
We could add more to this list. George Floyd. Emmett Till. Mahsa Amini.
What Does Suffering Mean?
Most of us won’t suffer the way Jesus did. Or Stephen. Or Tyre Nichols.
But we will suffer. And the question is, what then? Does it mean God no longer favors us? Does it mean we’ve done something wrong? Does it mean we don’t have enough fait
Of course, it doesn’t mean any of those things.
What it means is that we live in a broken world. A world that Jesus came to heal.
That leads us to the paradox of suffering.
The Paradox of Suffering
While suffering is always evil—sometimes moral evil (like what happened to Tyre Nichols), sometime amoral evil (like the earthquake in Syria and Turkey)—somehow God is able to bring good out of our suffering.
Here’s where I get nervous. In no way do I want to suggest that suffering is a good thing. Or that we should long for suffering. Or that it’s ok when other people suffer because, y’know, God will bring something good out of it.
We should always work to bring an end to suffering in the world. We should always work to bring an end to injustice and violence and disease.
And, yet, sometimes healing and restoration come out of suffering.
- Emmett Till’s death led to the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.
- Mahsa Amini’s death has led to a revolution against oppression in Iran.
- Stephen’s death led to the spread of the gospel to Judea and Samaria.
- Jesus’ death led to resurrection and rescue for humanity.
But what about less violent forms of suffering? What about disease? Or betrayal by a trusted loved one? Or loss of financial security?
I can only speak for myself here. When I went through my own personal dark night of the soul (you can hear about it HERE and HERE), it was a transformative experience for me.
Yes, it was painful and terrifying.
But it forced me to draw closer to Jesus. It helped me to embrace my truest identity as God’s beloved. It helped me let go of my unhealthy ego. It made me more compassionate. And it gave me clarity about what really matters to God.
Have you ever noticed that suffering often deepens a person’s character?
Suffering can also make a person angry and cynical. But if we can move through our suffering in a healthy way, we can become more fully who we were created to be.
(Have you ever met someone who has never had to go through anything particularly difficult in their life? Have you noticed that there seems to be a kind of shallowness there?)
This is the paradox of suffering.
Suffering is never good. And we should always work to bring an end to all suffering in the world.
And, yet, God can bring great good into the world and into our lives through our suffering.
Not in Vain
My prayer is that you and I would lean on God and learn to surrender when faced with suffering in our own lives.
And in regard to the beating murder of Tyre Nichols…. I hope it never happens again. And I pray that you and I would join God in bringing healing and reformation to our society and institutions so that this never happens again.
May Tyre’s suffering not be in vain.
Check out also this episode of Spiritual Life and Leadership:
Episode 49: Flourishing, Suffering, and the Renewal of All Things, with Trevor Lee