Summary: There are multiple spiritual dynamics to suffering that goes beneath the surface.
What's going on when God's people suffer?
Holy Week is about suffering. It is specifically about the suffering of Jesus, but I believe it like the season of Lent is also about our own mortality. It is a time to reflect on our moral place in life and on the humanity of what we endure, waiting for the final hope of all believers. If it is also about our suffering, then our suffering needs to be brought into perspective.
A quick list of 30 ways to suffer:
Chances are some of you hear this list and think, "He didn't even cover the way I suffer." That's because I challenged myself to make the list quickly, knowing that it would not be complete. I do not mean to disrespect anyone's suffering, these are just those that occur to me first.
However, the first thing I need to do is admit that I am not an expert on suffering. I've seen my share of it, and that which I've experienced first hand has been relatively mild. However, some of the suffering I've witnessed first hand is quite harsh.
When Dawn and I were in Africa we knew many people deprived of even some of the basics of life: enough food, clean water, basic medical care, competent education. I've known and am even related to people who have suffered some of medicine's most tenacious enemies: Cancer, AIDS, ALS, respiratory and circulatory failure. I've helped clean up a community destroyed by hurricane, people lost everything they own. I have known physically and emotionally abused women. Anyone who has never confronted homelessness has never visited a city, or even a large town. Perhaps, most pervasive of all, are the people who suffer with their own minds and emotions, unable to understand, control or even cope with the feelings they are assaulted with.
Worse than what I've witnessed, is what we see on the news. The scale of loss in natural disasters is so massive as to be paralyzing: Perhaps a quarter of a billion people have been killed by natural disasters in the past decade alone. The effects of crime on unoffending people is baffling. The nationally sanctioned, even legislated injustice in some places is nauseating. As bad as we think it gets here, some places have it so much worse as to put many Americans in permanent and unshakeable denial: forced sex-trade slavery, systematic torture and genocide, political corruption that impoverishes entire nations, whole economies dependent on drug trafficking, and some things that defy description.
Nothing more needs to be said describing the depth and horror of human suffering. You know it as well as I do. It is appalling.
There is another, even deeper problem associated with suffering. Every item on my list of 30 (nor I suspect any more comprehensive list) affects Christian and non-Christian indiscriminately. The people of God are confronted by these tragic and painful human problems as much as anyone else.
This is a problem, because our impression of how things should be is exactly the opposite. That's because we think in worldly political terms. We think friends of the king get a pass. That's what the Apostles kept thinking too. They wanted to know when Jesus would set up His kingdom and who would get the best seats at the table. Jesus reminded them it doesn't work like that.
Certainly trouble comes to the ungodly, and if we insist on being ungodly, we can expect it. But suffering is less picky than that. Jesus put it this way:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
(Luke 13:1-5 TNIV)
In essence, Jesus is explaining that a person's relative "goodness" or "badness" is not reflected in their suffering. Sometimes suffering people are no worse than average. Death will follow the ungodly, but we should not judge a person's relative righteousness based on how much they suffer. In fact, some Psalms are complaints that bad people seem to get away with it. What's up with that?
The opposite is true too. We should not judge a person's relative righteousness based on the blessings in their life. Jesus said: