“In the world you will have tribulation, but rejoice for I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
I’ve noticed that over the last several weeks I’ve touched often on the topic of suffering. This doesn’t represent a plan on my part necessarily, for I really try to let topics come to me through prayer and what I happen to see at the time. It seems, I suppose, that trials and difficulties have caught my attention a bit more than usual lately.
It's an important topic, of course, and one that nearly everyone can relate to any given day. In my long preaching and writing career, sermons or columns on how to handle challenge and difficulty proved most popular or needed. Life is hard, and the hardness of life can be the great shipwreck of faith for many people. We need to get this idea right, or we risk losing all. It is the most consequential fault line in American theology.
Perhaps one reason I’ve been drawn to this topic so much lately is that I see so many people getting it wrong. Specifically, I find the idea that Christianity is the way to avoid suffering.
This idea has been around for a very long time. Rev. Ike used to preach that God wanted him to have a Cadillac, and you too presumably if you sent him enough money. I risk sounding snarky here, but when Janis Joplin satirically sang about the Lord buying her a Mercedes Benz, we have a theological problem that needs to be addressed.
The key to a good heresy is to take a kernel of truth and blow it wildly out of proportion. Does God want to bless us? Well, of course. Jesus said the Father knows how to give good things to His children. And yes, doing good does put us in a stream of Providence that generally leads to a better life, and doing bad will eventually catch up with you. But does that mean that if I tithe I’m due a disease-free life of luxury as I jet around the country in my Gulfstream? Of course not.
Now I don’t want to substitute one distortion for another. We do love to casually, even caustically, dismiss some preachers as health and wealth peddlers. But I’ve listened to a message or two from one of the most libeled and I found that particular sermon to be positive and encouraging. Contempt is never a virtue even if I happen to agree with the assessment.
Now I’ve gone a long way around to get to this point: Christians are not in the suffering-avoidance business. We’re called to be part of the suffering-redemption business. And that business is God’s. It's an act of grace, not a reward for my works. Grace wins even when suffering shouts.
Jesus said quite clearly “in the world you will have tribulation.” When He added “rejoice, I’ve overcome the world,” He did not mean that we get a pass on the uncomfortable truth. Paul, James, and Peter echoed this idea. They all suffered, dying awful deaths because of their faith. To suggest in any way that we can or should avoid suffering turns the New Testament on its head.
We expend far too much energy, and have tremendously distorted expectations, regarding our own suffering. Pray to be healed, of course! Pray for a level path, without question! But above all things invite God into your suffering. The redemption through suffering is the central and richest idea of Christianity. The cross itself bears marvelous witness to this truth. It is the nexus of the very worst suffering imaginable and the greatest dispensation of grace possible.
Indulge me for a moment in a bit of Greek mythology. I think I can make it worth your while. Through Hades flow five rivers, with Styx being the most familiar. The river Lethe, however, is the most interesting. The word in Greek means “to forget.” Everyone who goes to Hades can take a drink from the river and forget everything.
John Erskine’s poem “Actaeon” focuses on a story from Greek mythology about a hunter who dies tragically. (It’s a great story, but I don’t have time to go into it. Google it.) Anyway, in the poem, Actaeon goes to Hades and comes to the River Lethe. After beautiful stanzas of reflection, he asks this question: “One draught of Lethe for a world of pain? An easy bargain. Yet I keep the thorn to keep the rose.” He could have erased all pain, but he realized the pain was prelude to the blessing. Thorn and rose are forever linked. Lose one and you lose the other.
So here is the question I want to ask you this week: are you trying to take that drink and avoid all pain? Or are you willing to accept the pain in order to gain the blessing? It’s the only way, really. All the other paths involve complaint, fear, and doubt about past, present, or future pain. Take any of those paths and you miss the redemptive grace Christ died to bring into the world.
For some of you this little exercise will mean that you stop playing God. Your questions have been inevitable, but they’re now holding you back. It’s time to move on. Invite God into your pain. He’s there already. He understands your tears, your doubts, even your rage. But God is also good, and the source of all comfort. He is the rose we find after the thorn.
Dr. Terry Ellis
August 4, 2019