For Only Pennies a Day . . . – The Wrongful Human Fascination with Eliminating Suffering

April 6, 2009

I was driving home the other day and this thought hit me.  So I wrote it down and continued to think on it for awhile, but hadn’t really gone much further with it.  Then tonight I was listening to Mark Driscoll’s sermon on 1 Peter 3.8-17 and it hit me again.  And as I was thinking about it I looked at the verses in front of me and listened to what Driscoll was saying and I felt like the thought was worth sharing: I don’t understand why we place so much value on human suffering!

What I mean is this: we run around campaigning and complaining acting as if the worst possible situation in the world is to be in suffering, either our own personal suffering or someone elses.  Heck, we even talk about the suffering of animals and of the environment.  I challenge you to not be able to name at least five different groups dedicated to alleviating the suffering of some special group in some special place.

And yet, I am not all that convinced that suffering is not inconsequential.

I mean, what are we trying to do?  If we get those kids out of the dirt shack that we see them in on TV, are they no longer suffering?  Or if we provide clean water to a village, are they now safe forever?  Removing landmines removes pain?  I think the clearest way to see the fallacy behind all of this is to look at the amount of suffering sustained by the richest, most well off people in our country: CEO’s.  Are they not suffering?  It seems almost cliche to talk about corporate CEO’s considering suicide or easing the stress if their life by participating in recreational drug use and promiscuous sexual encounters.  The bottom line is, no matter what suffering we ease or alleviate, new sufferings will crop up to replace them before too long.

This is true because we are human.

Hebrews 5.8 tells us about Jesus’ experience: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”  So does Hebrews 2.18: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  Christ was fully God, but in order to show his humanity and to be able to identify as a high priest who can faithfully intercede for his people, Christ had to come to earth and suffer.  It was his sufferings that sat his humanity apart from his deity.  It made him human.

Because of this fact, because suffering is a part of humanity, we don’t see in the Bible a call to be without suffering.  There is no Joel Osteen-type health-wealth-and-prosperity crap that says if you suffer you aren’t saved.  Instead what we see is a theology of suffering that teaches us how to suffer well.  Specifically, it tells us, “Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed” (1 Peter 3.13-14a) and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8.35-37).  We are not to be without suffering, but we are to suffer in a way that we may be blessed because of it and with hope that nothing we can suffer in this world can remove us from the family of God.

It is not suffering that is the worst thing.  The worst thing is what we find in 2 Thessalonians 1.8-9,

[Those] who do not know God and [those] who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus . . . will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.

If we are called into the family of God, the sufferings we face will only be for a little while (cf. 1 Peter 1.6) and then we have the hope of eternal salvation and glory in the presence of the Lord.  But those who are outside of God’s family, who haven’t heard or haven’t believed, the sufferings of this life are nothing compared to the sufferings of an eternity separated from Our Father.  

We need to embarce this.  We can do social works all day long, but we will not see change that gives hope and keeps people from wasting their sufferings until we have seen a life that has been washed in regeneration and renewed in the Holy Spirit (cf. Titus 3.5).  The goal is not to alleviate sufferings, it is to make them worthwhile.  Caring about human suffering seems so altruistic, but an unbalanced approach to handling it belies a spirit of pridefulness which places the self and our needs in front of God and his eternal purposes of glory.