Week 9, Day 4: A Suffering Church
The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand
with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial.
- Howard Thurman
The whole premise of Learning to Live is that life in the kingdom is available right now. Life to the full is available right now. Life with God is available right now. But included in the deal, at least on this side of heaven, is suffering. As Paul wrote, “There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting” (Philippians 1:29, The Message).
The idea of suffering doesn’t sound all that exciting, does it? Particularly in the world we live in, where we tend to do whatever we can to pursue comfort and ease and to avoid suffering and pain. But Jesus is not only our role model for living, he also promised us that we would suffer (John 16:33); indeed, he said it was part and parcel of kingdom living. What did he mean?
READ: ISAIAH 53
Isaiah 53, a passage that refers to the Suffering Servant, was a prophecy about Jesus and sheds light on the one whose life, death, and resurrection we are invited into.
The key thing about kingdom suffering is that it is not suffering for suffering’s sake — that would be a form of masochism — but rather suffering for the sake of others, for their good; that is, for love. In his book The Four Loves, author C.S. Lewis wrote:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Love is, you may remember, one of the measures of our spirituality — love for God and love for neighbor; indeed, love for God as shown by love for neighbor. As such, vulnerable, suffering love has been a hallmark of Christians since Jesus suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the world.
One of the reasons Christianity spread in its early days, according to sociologist Rodney Stark, was the way Jesus’ followers responded to sick people. Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the 4th century, said:
Lepers have been made in the image of God. In the same way you and I have, and perhaps preserve that image better than we, let us take care of Christ while there is still time. Let us minister to Christ’s needs. Let us give Christ nourishment. Let us clothe Christ. Let us gather Christ in. Let us show Christ honor.
Jean Henri Dunant grew up during a time of spiritual awakening in Geneva, Switzerland; in 1863, he started the Red Cross to care for injured and wounded soldiers from all sides. Theodor Fliedner was a Lutheran pastor in the 1800s who trained mostly peasant women to care for the needy sick; Florence Nightingale was trained as a nurse at one of his training centers. By the time of his death, there were over 35,000 women serving throughout the world. Father Damien was a Belgian priest who cared for lepers in Hawaii for sixteen years before succumbing to the disease himself. (These examples are from John Ortberg's Who is This Man?)
But suffering for the sake of love takes other forms as well. British politician William Wilberforce campaigned for almost sixty years to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom; it was only in 1833, one month after Wilberforce’s death, that Parliament finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act. Martin Luther King Jr. endured beatings, imprisonment, and death threats for the cause of civil rights; he was assassinated while campaigning in Memphis on behalf of striking sanitation workers.
Around the world today, Christians are ridiculed, persecuted, and even killed for their faith in Christ — and how that faith calls them to love, even in the face of suffering and death. The challenges and suffering we face as Christians in the West often pales in comparison but we must remember that, as Paul writes, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). We are part of one body, and we are to pray for those who are suffering for Christ—whatever form that suffering takes.
We, as the body of Christ, are called to love as Christ did. Love — God’s love — involves the suffering of giving ourselves for others. May we have the faith and courage to share in Christ’s suffering for the sake of love so that we might also share in the power of his resurrection life (Philippians 3:10).
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: In what ways do you think your church experiences suffering because of the way it loves others?
Heart: C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” How does this affect the way you understand how you — and your church — love those around them?
Hands: Is there a recent moment you can think of where you had the opportunity to show love to someone but you didn’t because it would inconvenience you (or cause you to suffer) in some way? Would you do anything differently next time? Go out of your way at least once today to show love to someone.
ADDITIONAL: Continue writing a few sentences of blessing — words of affirmation — for each person in your small group. Send them to your group leader to collate and share. (This will likely take more than one day, so we’ll make more time for this tomorrow.)
Lord, help us to love others as you love us. Amen.
We, as the body of Christ,
are called to love as Christ did.