Summary: Theology of Suffering
The problem of pain, it has been called. There are some people who refuse to believe in Jesus, who refuse to believe in God because of the problem of pain, or maybe a better word is “suffering”. The thought goes, if there is God, and He is good, then how can there be suffering? How can a good God allow people to suffer? Either God is not good, or He is not powerful, or He does not exist. And what is the point of believing in a God who is not good, or one that is not powerful, so some folks refuse to believe in God because of suffering, either their own or a general view of watching good people starve in Africa, or be shot in the inner city or whatever. Americans, in general, have a tendency to deny suffering and pain. People suffering are to either be avoided or to be solved.
There is another way to look at the situation. I think God understands suffering, and He is with us as we suffer, as we go through pain. God uses suffering. This was never an issue for ancient Israelites; people suffer. It was a fact of life. It really has only been the last several hundred years that suffering has become a theological issue. Suffering just always has been. When the world is fallen, and people are evil; others suffer. There is no easy answer; just that people have always suffered. Since Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, life has been hard. Now suffering is never fun, but it does, as much as I hate to say it, have some positive aspects.
In fact, I have a feeling of unease when I am around people who I know haven’t suffered at all; like they really don’t understand the world, they don’t understand how God is with us in suffering, like they haven’t matured. I was chatting with a friend recently who said they hadn’t had to struggle, hadn’t had to suffer. Never had to look for a job, never had to struggle for a grade, never had to experience being dumped romantically. And for some reason that made me nervous; like they don’t really understand how the world is, and at the first sign of pain or the first roadblock they will stop doing what they know to be right.
The text today is about suffering and the problem of pain, and our attitude toward suffering. 1 Philippians 1:12-20
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice. 19 For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
As you remember, we are going through Philippians. This is perhaps Paul’s most enthusiastic letter to a congregation he has planted. He encourages them, rather than berating them. They are on the right track, rejoicing in Christ, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to their friends and neighbors rather than being distracted by theological misunderstandings or distracted by situations in the church that should not be tolerated. Paul is writing this letter as he sits in jail, in chains, awaiting an audience before Caesar that will either vindicate him, or end his life. Paul has struggled in his life, struggled to communicate the gospel to his own people, the Jews, and struggled in a multicultural society to proclaim the singular truth that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God, and only through Him does anyone have salvation. The people back then weren’t interested in truth necessarily, they were interested in experiences or new thoughts. That someone would claim to have the truth was fascinating, and often off-putting. I am reminded of Pilate when he asked Jesus, “What is truth?” without expecting an answer.