Suffering in the Lap of Luxury

My wife and I once spent a lovely evening with whom we have been friends for many years and had not seen in a long while. We chose to eat at the Asian restaurant P.F. Chang’s, which is not a high-dollar restaurant, but it was pretty swanky by my low-brow standards. Between hearty forkfuls of honey-glazed walnut shrimp and dainty sips from our premium coffees, we talked about ministry. I had on a pair of $45 Levi’s and a powder-blue dress shirt. My friend showed me his brand-new ministry app on his $1100 iPhone. After dinner, we walked for an hour in the hallways of a ritzy Dallas mall and talked at length about the value of Christian suffering.

When it comes down to it, most of us westerners haven’t a clue about suffering. I’m talking about “my body’s covered in 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.

The Bible teaches that we are “destined” for suffering (1 Thessalonians 3:3), yet in our modern world of cell phones, segueways, and same-day Amazon delivery, it can be difficult to understand what Paul was talking about. We eat like emperors, sleep like sultans, and dress like debutantes.

Where’s the suffering?

Have you thought about our modern church culture lately? Air conditioning is standard operating procedure. Rock opera church music, plush pew chairs, and hipster coffee cars with punny names like He-Brews and Holy Grounds have transformed the image of the once-persecuted bride of Christ by dressing her in a million-dollar, technicolour wedding gown. The only thing missing is wires and harness gear to catapult the pastor through the air of the sanctuary like Iron Man as he preaches about the rapture.

All this begs the question: is the church actually doing anything wrong? Should we be trading our state-of-the-art church buildings for tents in the wilderness?

Maybe we should strive for a better understanding of suffering in the biblical sense. To use a ridiculous example, if you order Pizza Hut and cram an entire large supreme pan pizza down your pie hole in one sitting and then spend the rest of the day complaining that your stomach looks like the Stay-Puff Marshmallow man, this kind of suffering occurs because of a condition called stupidity (of which we all possess a certain measure).

But biblical suffering comes as a result of aligning oneself with the person of Jesus Christ. The mildest forms of suffering might include a dirty look from a co-worker when you bring up Jesus one to many times in the lunchroom. Maybe the principal sent your fifth grader home on suspension because they were caught reading the Bible out loud in the cafeteria. Perhaps you know of the Christian couple who owned a bakery and went to jail for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex couple getting married. These are most of the stories of suffering for the faith in North America.

But most of the more extreme examples happen outside our western culture. Places where men, women, and children are beaten, tortured, kidnapped, and executed simply because they profess belief in Jesus Christ. In light of these kinds of atrocities, it is difficult to imagine how anything we deal with in North America constitutes biblical suffering.

Hear me clearly; this is not a self-denial manifesto. I have no intention of leaving behind the comforts and luxuries that are available to me. Ecclesiastes tells me to enjoy the fruits of my labour and to eat, drink, and be merry, and so I shall.

But along the way, as I live out my faith in a way that allows my light to be seen, I should expect pushback from some who do not see my path as a good one. It is how we face suffering in its many forms that comes to bear on our witness to others today and the quality of the life that is to come down the road.

Pastor Scott