Not to brag, but by age eleven I could recite the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible in under a minute. It was part of a discipleship program at my small neighborhood church, and I grew to be very fond of checking off the challenges set before me as we fine-tuned biblical knowledge and devotion week after week. From the hard metal chairs, in the carpeted rooms that smelled slightly of microwave popcorn, we were lovingly pruned for a life of Christian discipleship. And I excelled.
The program served me well for a time. I kept a strict regimen of Bible-reading, note taking, and memorization throughout my adolescent years. I felt secure in my beliefs and friendship with God. I even taught the same lessons on doctrine to a new group of youth, who were undoubtedly less charmed by the material. The tools I gained suddenly became clunky, however, when I encountered the world outside. With each experience of pain or grief, those days of confident recitation of scripture and the promised returns on “daily devos” seemed ever distant.
A Privileged Avoidance
It is not a unique experience to discover theological gaps in the face of tragedy. Like other expressions of the church in America, my own middle-class, predominantly white evangelical upbringing set me averse to and unfamiliar with suffering for a time. I was ill-prepared theologically for its effects. Encountering betrayal, incurable illness, personal and systemic injustice, and dire poverty each forced me to awaken to holes in my theology and expectations for this life. In all the training on how to grow closer to Jesus, suffering was never a chapter heading. We were big on Easter, light on Good Friday, and, as it turns out, life is often the opposite. Especially for most of humankind.
Suffering: A Neglected, but Central Theme
Thankfully, suffering is also a pervasive theme in the Bible, and the words welcome us when suffering finds us despite our maneuvers to avoid it. The psalms give us words and cadence to grief and confusion. The book of Job offers an honest tug-of-war between faith and injustice, giving space to theological troubleshooting. Lamentations passionately sets the disappointment in the forefront. And the pattern of the Messiah is by way of suffering and abandonment. Through enduring deep pain, and finding it was prescribed in scripture all along, we realize that it is indeed part of our adopted narrative.
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It is strange to suppose that a life lived in avoidance of suffering may somehow reflect the hope of a crucified Christ. This expectation betrays how the Christian faith has been infiltrated thoroughly by idols of comfort and privilege. Without a developed theology of suffering, our announcement of the love of an immanent Father falls hollow. As liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez suggests in his discussion of Job, if we do not know God, if we cannot talk of Him from the orientation of suffering, why devote ourselves to Him at all?1 Gutiérrez teaches that it is through joining Christ’s suffering, and the embrace he offers to the oppressed, that we discover God’s unmerited and intimate love. If suffering is not part of our experience as disciples of Christ, our experience of the love of the cross is incomplete. Gutiérrez holds “The Son of God teaches us that talk of God must be mediated by the experience of the cross. He accepts abandonment and death precisely in order to reveal God to us as love.”2
Re-centering the Cross
While human nature, privilege, and the American Dream may justify profound distaste for suffering, Calvary beckons us differently. Reconciliation with God implies further intolerance of this world and its atrocities and injustices, not a shielding from their effects. Suffering binds us with God, as Jürgen Moltmann writes, “…when we feel pain we participate in his pain, and when we grieve we share his grief… People who believe in the God who suffers with us, recognize their suffering in God, and God in their suffering.”3
Moltmann’s theological work highlights the work of the cross through the filter of solidarity. When our own suffering allows us to more fully identify with that of Christ, we realize the universality of the fear and betrayals of this life and discover God’s proximity to the vulnerable and victimized—those for whom suffering has never been optional, but constant. Facing suffering is part of this new life of faith; it is part of the invitation to a gratuitous love.
Intimacy with Christ through Suffering
Perhaps the greatest lesson of discipleship is reframing suffering as an act of devotion and communion. The abridged version of Jesus’s death and resurrection—i.e. Jesus’s resurrection—glosses over suffering and leaves our faith circumstantial. By nurturing Easter-only theology, we endanger the longevity and relevance of a life of faith altogether. The way of the cross is not one of obvious progress and controlled risk despite our human sensibilities. When we learn to receive suffering as a means of identification and intimacy with Christ, becoming like him in his death, our life of faith becomes more aligned with the biblical narrative of discipleship.
Intimacy with the crucified Christ gives legs to the hope of the resurrection. In Gethsemane and under the shadow of the crucifixion, our deepest fears and grief are linked with his companionship and purpose. We do not wait until the empty tomb to encounter a faith-worthy Christ. We do not start believing in the morning because we see God at night. What a true loss to miss this Savior in the shadows, this Messiah in the midst. Is there a suffering, a sorrow, that cannot be held by this Savior or found in this story?
A New Discipleship
Author of The Cost of Discipleship, and a prophetic and persecuted voice from the anti-Nazi movement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew what it meant to suffer and engage with suffering. In one of his letters from his prison cell, he stated from his place of despair, “Only the suffering God can help.”4
Though we are inclined, when privilege allows, to follow the crucified Christ without identification with suffering, there comes a point when we are confronted by utter brokenness. And at this crossroads, though the pain is strong, lies an opportunity for greater solidarity with Jesus and deeper enjoyment of his love. As our suffering joins with his, we find there is indeed nowhere we can go away from his love. Our experience of suffering pushes us to the margins of our theology, and we find that his story does not leave us alone.
His suffering presents a salve and trajectory to our own which we would otherwise want; his cross questions the surprise with which we first meet pain. Suffering is the retrofitting to any discipleship foundation, the gap between program and practice. The suffering God can help. We find him at our side, mending our story with His anew and deepening our devotion to a crucified and risen Messiah.