Today's Americans may be the worst prepared people in the history of the world for suffering. Are American Christians any better prepared than their non-Christian counterparts?
My professional counselor friends have often told me this is the area their clients are least equipped to deal with, irrespective of their religious affiliation.
At an international evangelical consultation on contextualizing the gospel this summer in Oxford, the Asian representatives agreed that one of the biggest theological differences between Asian and American Christianity was that Asians assumed suffering was a normal part of life, especially if you were a believer, whereas Americans were always trying to avoid it or end it. One Chinese theologian explained, "The typical Chinese Christian, when suffering, asks, "How may I acquit myself in a God-pleasing way as I suffer?" The typical American Christian asks, "How may I get rid of the suffering?"
When was the last time you heard a public list of Christian prayer requests that included prayers for people to be good witnesses in the midst of their suffering rather than for God to take away everything from terminal cancer to the common cold?
A graduate of Denver Seminary of only a few years ago had some prolonged conversations this summer with me from out of town. A "failed" church plant and the suicide of a family member left him barely believing if there was a God any longer and it certainly sounds as if he's abandoned Christianity. Without denying the immense pain of his experience, I confess seeing an utter theological disconnect here. Imagine Paul saying after his horrific catalogs of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 4, 2 Corinthians 6 and 2 Corinthians 11, "So I gave it all up." Instead he describes Christ's direct word of comfort on how God's power is made perfect in weakness and his grace is sufficient for him (2 Corinthians 12:9). Apparently, we failed our grad at the Seminary, as did his previous churches and parachurch ministries. Or else he blew us off. Most likely, it was some of each.
The so-called prosperity gospel (a.k.a. "health-wealth," "name it and claim it," etc.) only makes matters worse with its truncated, one-sided message that leaves countless people around the world believing that if a person just has enough faith God will heal them of whatever hurts they currently suffer. Yet, the death rate is still 100%. Sooner or later, there is something every one of us doesn't recover from and it has nothing to do with the amount of our faith or obedience! Billy Graham has had Parkinson's disease for several years. By some people's theology, if anyone should live to 200, it would be he, but he won't.
2 Timothy 3:12 declares explicitly that whoever would live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted. This is more than suffering; this is suffering for one's faith. How many of us are persecuted for our faith and, if not, is it because nobody knows that we have any? There are enemies aplenty, even in the good old USA, even when we are as winsome and tactful as possible, who are ready to blast us for our Christian perspectives. Sadly, a number of them are in evangelical churches. Just check out the blogosphere for examples of both kinds! More out of curiosity than anything else, I replied as kindly and matter-of-factly to a King James Only supporter in the blogworld recently to correct what were almost entirely factual errors in a recent post, and he told me I was of the devil! At least the aggressive atheist bloggers don't say that to me, since they don't believe in God or the devil!
Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Luke 6:28). And both of those commands are clearly predicated on the assumption that we will experience hostility for our faith. Some of us are experiencing that as we share our political convictions, whether "red" or "blue," this fall. And again, winsome as we may try to be in expressing those convictions, the attacks may just as likely come from inside the church as outside. The "culture wars" have made our country a pretty dysfunctional place in which to try to engage in convicted civility in public discourse. And they have made many churches, on both the right and the left, even more tragically, equally if not more dysfunctional.
When we suffer for our faith, let's make sure it's in spite of every best effort to follow 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 in being all things to all people, and not primarily because we are tactless, misinformed, or both. When we suffer in other ways, let's turn back to Paul and let God remind us that when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). And let's flee (and help others to flee) every hint of anything that calls itself the Christian gospel that denies these precious, central truths of the faith.
Is this easy? Of course, not. I can often be a real wimp when I experience chronic pain. Just ask my wife, who more closely resembles the great martyr-saints! But our sustenance always comes by turning to Jesus, not away from him, and imitating his model of responding to suffering, drawing on his comfort, strength and grace.