Is Christianity A Religion of Suffering?

While a student at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary our dean, The Very Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko, said, “Theology is not studied it is suffered.” A couple of days ago, while looking over some course work, I found the quote and thought it was an interesting tweet to send out on twitter. My tweets automatically update my facebook status. Facebook theologians are always standing by – and it touched off a flurry of theological statements regarding whether our call to follow Christ involved personal suffering or not. I felt it was important enough for further reflection.

First, here is what I meant by “Theology is not studied it is suffered.” We do not study theology like other academic pursuits. Theology is personal it asks something of us. We do not study God. We enter into relationship with God. This relationship is both the sweetest thing and the most difficult for us. Just looking at the Cross of Jesus we know that the Father will stop at nothing to save us.

Reflections on the theological question, “Is Christianity a religion of suffering?”

Both the Old and New Testament spend a lot of time dealing with the reality of suffering. A quick glance at Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Job and the Psalms will see that the Old Testament does not shy away from the pain of loss, doubt and suffering that the people of God experienced. But the New Testament also has much to say regarding suffering.

We are not used to this message and to be quite honest there are churches that will drop the passages that talk about what following Christ is going to cost us from their daily readings, Sunday Gospels and sermon series. I could name names but let’s not get ugly. But even a brief overview of the New Testament teaching reveals that we do not want what the disciples wanted or what Jesus said would be ours if we followed him.

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“Take up your cross and keep on following after me.”  Mark 8:34

“In this world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

“I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like him in His death.” Phil 3:10

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory.” Romans 8:17

“But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.” 1 Peter 4:1

“So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me His prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” 1Timothy 1:8

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance.” Romans 5:3

Many people today have started to believe that Jesus wants me to have a life of ease and plenty and if things are difficult or I experience suffering then the Lord has removed his mercy, life, peace and maybe my salvation from me. People ask, “If my life is difficult why doesn’t the Lord love me anymore?” How ridiculous are we? We need to look to Jesus the author and perfector of our faith who for the joy set before Him endured the cross! Our difficult task is to rely on him more when we suffer and know that following Him will cost us. Buckle up, because there is no real Christianity without suffering. We will have joy but it will be through the cross.

Flannery O’Conner said, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is a cross.”

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5 Comments

Filed under Orthodox Christianity

5 responses to “Is Christianity A Religion of Suffering?

  1. Fr. Gregory (Gary) DeSha

    James,

    Life is living with the following: birth, sickness, sin, old age and death. When my wife was suffering through cancer, a friend of mine sent me “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like him in His death.” Phil 3:10 When I read that, I was floored. I had read it many times before, but it hit me hard. Sharing in Christ was not only sharing in His sufferings, but understanding what for and how He suffered for us. This led me to find 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 which tells us “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.” St. Paul is not only speaking of suffering for the sake of being a Christian and spreading the Gospel, but he is speaking of life in general. Jesus came to help us through this life which is full of suffering. I do not believe that Christianity is a “religion” of suffering, nor that being a Christian is the door that opens us up to suffering. Life is suffering. Jesus Christ bore all of humanity’s suffering upon Himself that day on the Cross at Calvary. He knows our suffering and wants to help us through it. Even when we “think” that God is far off or doesn’t love us anymore because we suffer, the challenge of faith is to realize that we are being carried through it all. We are to realize that God loves us and gives us the strength to make it through it all.

    Even though I was sick. I suffered. I felt guilty because I felt terrible about my wife’s illness. She said I was her rock, and I couldn’t feel it. Nurses and Hospice counselor’s told me I was doing such a great job through it all. I couldn’t see it. But, afterward, after she died, I realized that it was God holding me up. He held me up, so I could hold her up and keep her faith in God alive as she was dying in front of me.

    Yes, we suffer, but we must KNOW that God is still here, whether we believe it or not. We MUST know that He knows our suffering and is the God of all comfort. He consoles us with His sweet Holy Spirit and quenches the thirst of our weary souls.

    Following Christ MAY involve suffering. But, following Christ does not mean that BECAUSE

  2. Loss and suffering, joyfully accepted for the kingdom of God, show the supremacy of God’s worth more clearly in the world than all worship and prayer. God ordains suffering because through every other reason suffering exists, it primarily exists to display to the world the supremacy of his worth above all treasures. Therefore, suffering with joy proves to the world that our treasure is in heaven and not on the earth, and that this treasure is greater than anything the world has to offer. The supremacy of God’s worth shines through the pain that his people will gladly bear for his name.

  3. I don’t believe St. Paul is just talking about the general suffering that life offers. When one chooses Christ over the world there is the Cross that is also taken up, a real battle. “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” John 15:19.
    We must also keep in mind that when we say that Christ “suffered in the flesh” (Gr. pascho) in its deepest sense means that the unmovable God allowed His creation to “act” upon Him. He was born, hungered, slept, cried, slapped, beaten, cursed, tried, and hung on a cross and still remained God. So yes, Christ entered into our lives and sanctified and transformed our everyday experiences (both good and bad) by His presence. But as followers, Christ specifically asks us to take up the Cross. We take up this Cross by choice as one who takes up a flag in battle provoking the ruler of this world. It is not dark and gloomy for our Lord has already shown Himself victorious. We can find great Joy in our perseverance and with our fellow co-sufferers who fight the good fight alongside each other. Anything other than this is a distortion of the Gospel.

    “Remember that each of us has his own cross. The Golgotha of this cross is our heart: it is being lifted or implanted through a zealous determination to live according to the Spirit of God. Just as salvation of the world is by the Cross of God, so our salvation is by our crucifixion on our own cross.” Bishop Theophan the Recluse.

  4. Rebecca

    Fr. James,

    Being on facebook as well as reading your blog, I’ve been keeping up with the back-and-forth on the studying vs suffering of Orthodoxy. I thought that your blog response made a lot of sense.

    That said, I just wanted to say thanks for your earlier posts on the joy and peace you find in prayer – especially the ones about hiking rim-to-rim and the prayer rock. I spend a lot of time outside running and rock climbing, and some of my most spontaneous and overwhelming moments of prayer are when I’m outdoors. It’s great to read about someone else who feels the same way, too. I’ve heard many, many sermons on suffering, and many more on the necessity of taking up our cross, but I haven’t heard more than a handful on the intrinsic peace of prayer. Maybe people are afraid to talk about happiness and joy – there is certainly a lot of suffering in the world and it wouldn’t be right to trivialize that – but I feel like it (joy) gets forgotten about a lot. To me, at least, this world and this life aren’t all bad.

    Thanks for being able to (and doing so) talk about joy as well as suffering. It made my day.

  5. The Hungarian Reformed experience would lead them to agree with this. During the Counter Reformation all their ministers were persecuted. Those who did not flee, get expelled, etc. and did not recant were sold as Galley Slaves.

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