Q&R with Brad Jersak – Is suffering “necessary”?
I have often read Christian authors (especially the great “saints” of history) who say that suffering is necessary. Is it? Or is that a superstition?
Good question. The difficulty is what “necessary” means.
If it means, God needs you to suffer, no. Not any more than I need my children to suffer.
But if it means, the structure of the universe and the nature of humanity in a fallen world is that suffering is inevitable, but remarkably, these challenges can become occasions for growth and that without them, we seem to atrophy, okay. In that case, “necessary” is descriptive of our reality and only prescriptive of patient endurance. Not “Thou shalt suffer” but rather, “Thou shalt hang in there, baby!”
Some Scriptures describe this:
- 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
1 PETER 1
- 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
- 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
I think what these authors are doing (rhetorically) is recognizing their readers were, in fact, suffering and they don’t want them to despair. They are offering them a two-fold word of hope because some were sorely tempted to leave the faith when persecution increased.
He wants them to know there’s nothing for them back there in their old life of sacrificial religion. And he wants them to know that God will offer the grace of “patient endurance” so that if they remain faithful, they will get to places in their maturity that would have never been possible in a life of ease. So there’s a cross to pick up and a way to follow that seems hard and narrow but it’s the Jesus Way of eternal life.
Today, this is an important message for people who think they’re entitled to life without challenges. Or they may think that God’s best for them would be to experience zero resistance on our path. Maybe when they hit these challenges and resistance, they believe God is punishing them or God is unfaithful to them or God is no longer good … and they reckon they might as well give up or give in (I’m thinking about addictions here, for example).
But no, that’s not it. Paul uses the metaphor of an athlete whose work-outs strengthen them into champions. Life challenges are resistance training, so to speak.
But there are also what I would call “afflictions,” where we would never tell the suffering one this is “necessary.” That would be an abusive platitude. I’m thinking of my friends who live in third-world conditions of war, disease, starvation and death. That requires a different message. They especially need the gospel message that in becoming human, Christ endured these same hardships and even now, unites himself to us in our suffering. He can truly empathize with us in our afflictions and ultimately, raise us up with himself.
I hope this brings some clarity and hope in these challenging days.