My wife and I spent a lovely evening a few years ago with a couple with whom we’ve been friends since 2004 and had not seen in a long while. We chose to dine at a posh Asian restaurant, swanky for hillbillies like us. Between hearty forkfuls of honey-glazed Walnut Shrimp and an even heartier swallow of a bold coffee, we talked with them about the Christian life and ministry. I had on a modest pair of $40 Levi’s and a crisp powder-blue dress shirt. My friend showed me his brand-new ministry app on his $600 iPhone. After dinner, we walked for an hour in the hallways of a ritzy Dallas mall and talked at length (rather ironically) about the value of Christian suffering.
When it comes to suffering, most of us haven’t a clue. I’m talking about “my body’s covered with boils, had to eat my shoes when the food ran out, haven’t slept on a bed since the day my mama brought me into this world” kind of suffering. As Christians, the Bible teaches that we are destined for suffering (1 Th 3:3), yet in this modern world of cell phones, segueways, and same-day Amazon delivery, it’s hard to understand just what Paul was talking about. We eat like emperors, sleep like sultans, and dress like debutantes. Where’s the suffering?
Have you been in a modern megachurch recently? The air-conditioning alone should have you confused. Rock opera church music, plush pews, and hipster coffee bars (with punny names like HeBrews and Holy Grounds) have transformed the once persecuted bride of Christ by dressing her in a million-dollar wedding gown. Stage lighting, professional sound equipment, track lighting in the aisles, state-of-the-art projectors…the only thing missing is the pastor attached to cables so he can fly around the sanctuary like Iron Man while he preaches about the Suffering Servant.
So, are we doing something wrong? What does suffering look like for a luxury-saturated church? Should we ditch all the gear and the gizmos and start wilderness churching in tents?
Maybe we need a better understanding of suffering. First, all true Christians will suffer. We don’t have to go sign up for it or find it, it will always find us. Second, it’s not the same for everyone. Some get way more than others, based on God's will for individuals. Third, the kind of noble suffering the Bible promises for Christians is directly related to being a Christian and spreading the gospel. If I go to Pizza Hut and cram an entire large supreme pizza down my piehole and lay in bed for the rest of the day complaining that my stomach looks like the Stay-Puff Marshmallow man, that kind of suffering comes because of a special condition called gluttony, from which many of us suffer.
What does this suffering look like? That varies dramatically. It can be mild enough to almost not resemble suffering, such as a dirty look from a co-worker when you spend a little too much time talking about Jesus. Maybe the school board sent your fifth-grader home one day for bringing her Bible to class with her. Some of you may have gone to jail for standing up for Christian values, like the husband-and-wife cake bakers who refused to bake that cake for a gay couple.
However, the most horrific examples of modern suffering go beyond our borders into parts of the world where men, women, and children are abused, beaten, and beheaded simply for choosing to be a Christian. Considering these atrocities, it is difficult to imagine how anything we deal with in North America constitutes suffering.
I guess I write this piece today because I don’t know how to answer my own question. It often seems as though suffering is an abstract idea of which I know nothing. As I write this, I can hear the dulcet tones of modern worship music flowing from a Smart TV that I bought during a Black Friday sale at Walmart. I enjoy the music as I sip on coffee purchased at $24 a pound in a warm, church office. The full weight of my Christian suffering over the years wouldn't move the scale.
Suffering for many of us resembles mild irritations in comparison to others.
However, while indulgence needs to be kept in check, I have no intention of leaving behind the comforts of this world. Ecclesiastes tells me to enjoy the fruits of my labor and to eat, drink, and be merry, and so I shall. But, along the way, as I live my faith out loud for others to see, I should expect that suffering, in whatever form it chooses to take, will come seek me out, and I welcome it. Facing such things well goes on credit in the life to come.
The Book of Revelation is a scary book to many people. All those mysterious and outlandish symbols in the book cause most Christians to write it off as an impossible read. But are there blessings today for reading the last book of the Bible?