In my visits to churches overseas, one difference from North American Christians stands out sharply: their view of hardship and suffering. We who live in an age of unprecedented comfort seem obsessed with the problem of pain. Skeptics mention it as a major roadblock to faith, and believers struggle to come to terms with it. Prayer meetings in the U.S. often focus on illnesses and requests for healing. Not so elsewhere.
I asked a man who visits unregistered house churches in China whether Christians there pray for a change in harsh government policies. After thinking for a moment, he replied that not once had he heard a Chinese Christian pray for relief.
"They assume they'll face opposition," he said. "They can't imagine anything else." He then gave some examples. One pastor had served a term of 27 years at hard labor for holding unauthorized church meetings. When he emerged from prison and returned to church, he thanked the congregation for praying. Assigned a dangerous prison job, he had managed to couple together 1 million railroad cars without an injury. "God answered your prayers for my safety!" he proudly announced. Another imprisoned pastor heard that his wife was going blind. Desperate to rejoin her, he informed the warden that he was renouncing his faith. He was released, but soon felt so guilty that he turned himself in again to the police. He spent the next 30 years in prison.
I found the same pattern in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a dictatorship with brutal policies against religious activities. The person who invited me to the country informed me, "When you speak to pastors, you should remember that probably all of them have spent time in jail because of their faith."
"Then should I talk about one of my book topics like Where Is God When It Hurts? Or Disappointment with God?" I asked.
"Oh, no, that's not really a concern here," he said. "We assume we'll be persecuted for faith. We want you to speak on grace. We need help getting along with each other."
In preparation for my Myanmar trip, I read several biographies of Adoniram Judson (1788 - 1850), one of the first missionaries from the United States and the one who first brought the Christian faith to Burma. Hardship stalked his life. When war broke out with England, the Burmese arrested Judson because, light-skinned and English-speaking, he looked and talked like the enemy. (Actually, the U.S. was still recovering from its own wars against England.)
Judson was force-marched barefoot for eight miles to prison, where each night the guards passed a bamboo pole between his heavily shackled legs and hoisted the lower part of his body high off the ground. Blood rushed to his head, preventing sleep and causing fierce cramps in his shoulders and back. Clouds of mosquitoes feasted on the raw flesh of his feet and legs. Treatment like this went on for almost two years, and Judson managed to endure only because his devoted wife brought him food each day and pled with the guards for better treatment.
A few months after his release, Judson's wife, weakened by smallpox, died of fever, and shortly after that their baby daughter also died. Judson nearly had a breakdown. He would kneel by his wife's grave for hours each day, regardless of weather. He built a one-room hut in the jungle, morosely dug his own grave in case it might prove necessary, and worked in solitude on a translation of the Bible in the Burmese language. Only a handful of Burmese had shown any interest in the Christian message. Yet he stayed on, 34 years in all, and because of his faithfulness more than 1 million Burmese Christians today trace their spiritual roots to Adoniram Judson. The dictionary he compiled, now nearly 200 years old, remains the official dictionary of Myanmar.
I have read enough such stories and interviewed enough saintly people so as to become impervious to any hint of a prosperity gospel that guarantees health and wealth. "If anyone would come after Me, he must Mark 8:34and take up his cross and follow Me," said Jesus, who could never be accused of false advertising. "All men will hate you because of Me," Mark 13:13His disciples. But the trials would be worth enduring, for "he who stands firm to the end will be saved." In Matthew 10:28, He encourages us, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul."
Christians claim a loyalty to another world, and from the time of the Roman Empire on, that fact has aroused the suspicion and ire of governments and other religions alike. In Hindu India, Buddhist Sri Lanka, atheistic China and Vietnam, and scores of Muslim countries, present-day Christians experience discrimination and outright persecution.
As George Ladd wrote, "When God's people are called upon to pass through severe sufferings and tribulation, they should remember that God has not abandoned them, but that their sufferings are due to the fact that they no longer belong to This Age and therefore are the object of its hostility."
Even for those fortunate to live in societies that honor religious freedom, following Jesus complicates life, often inviting hardship. I know Christians who have adopted emotionally and physically damaged children, bringing a permanent disruption into their lives. I know a man who resigned his position as president of a Christian college in order to care for his wife afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. In the Philippines I met an ordinary middle-class couple who invited a few street orphans into their houses and ended up running both an orphanage and school.
AIDS. Famines. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. By instinct I do not want to hear about yet another tragedy, but down deep I know I have no option. I must care about that holocaust of human suffering because God cares.
Why, then? Why would anyone choose to follow a God who promises more hardship, not less? I will let the apostle Paul answer that question.
Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (
2 Corinthians 4:16).
Paul had two pictures of himself. One image he could view in a mirror, and the insomnia, beatings, imprisonments, and deprivations must have left their mark in the gaunt and weary face that stared back at him from the crude Roman glass. The other image he could not see. Nevertheless he could sense his inward self being renewed and made more fit, tempered by hardship. Belief in another world cast hardship in such a different light that he could compile a list of his many personal calamities and call them "light and momentary troubles."
I get the overwhelming sense, reading Paul and the book of Acts, that the unseen world became for the apostles more real than the visible world around them. Jesus too had faced tribulation in this world but had returned from death with a promise of triumph and hope. They trusted Him with their future.
No one gets an exemption from hardship on planet Earth. How we receive it hinges on whether we believe in an alternate reality that transcends the one we know so well. The Bible never minimizes hardship or unfairness; witness books like Job, Psalms, and Lamentations. It simply asks us to withhold final judgment until all the evidence is in.
"Do not be afraid" is the most frequent command in the Bible, which seems wholly appropriate in an era when terrorists could strike at any moment. We have a thousand fears: mammograms and prostate tests, our children's future as well as their present, retirement funds, job security, crime.
We fear not getting the job we want or the lover we desire, and if we have them we fear their loss. In the face of such everyday fear, Jesus points to a lily, or a sparrow, and calmly says, "Trust. Matthew 6:33the kingdom of heaven."
Trust does not eliminate the bad things that may happen, whatever sparked our fear in the first place. Trust simply finds a new outlet for anxiety and a new grounding for confidence: God. Let God worry about the worrisome details of life, most of which are out of my control anyway. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God," Paul wrote. "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (
When I question the practicality of those words in view of all the terrible things that have happened to Jesus' followers over the years, I remind myself that Paul wrote them from a Roman prison cell. God's peace indeed "transcends all understanding."