Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on issues of the day…
There is no way of hiding the fact that there is plenty of suffering in the world. And yet, we know that there is also much joy to be found in life. Both can be found in abundance, and such seems to be our lot in a fallen world. But what is of great interest is how often the Bible ties these two realities together.
In Scripture we find a constant association of joy with suffering, especially in the New Testament. There we find the idea that suffering might actually be a good thing, and something to rejoice about. Of course this is not what one usually finds in the teachings of much of contemporary Christianity, especially in the health and wealth gospel.
There the problem-free, the pain-free, the illness-free life is emphasised, and is seen as the source of rejoicing. To actually rejoice in problems, pain or illness is just not done in this theology. Yet this is exactly what we so often find in Scripture. The connection is made frequently, and no theology of suffering can ignore these wonderful and amazing passages.
One can only list some of the more obvious examples here. The book of Philippians is an obvious place to start. Repeatedly the Epistle makes the link between suffering, hardship and affliction and joy and rejoicing. And given Paul’s distressing circumstances at the time of his writing, his words are all the more forceful. No wonder the letter is so often referred to as “the epistle of joy”.
As Frank Thielman writes, “Philippians has much to say to the church about the problem of suffering. . . . Despite all of this, indeed, because of it, Paul is filled with joy and expects the Philippians to be joyful also (1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17-18, 28-29; 3:1; 4:1, 4, 10). The reason for this joy is not that Paul believes suffering to be good, or that people ought to force themselves to laugh at pain. Paul acknowledges the pain in his own situation and is grieved by it (2:28).”
He goes on to specifically discuss the health and wealth gospel, and then says this: “Philippians tells us that biblical Christianity cannot tolerate such simplistic answers to the evils of poverty and disease. As Paul plainly says in 3:12–14 and 20-21, Christians have not already attained all that God has in store for them.
“Indeed, they eagerly await the time when their ‘lowly bodies’ will be transformed to resemble Christ’s ‘glorious body’. In the meantime, God often works through weakness and suffering to accomplish his goals, and any form of the gospel that does not carry the stamp of the cross represents a deviation from the apostolic faith.”
Consider also Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” The first half of the passage is quite revealing. Once again a clear connection between joy and suffering is made. It speaks for itself, but the remarks of David Garland are worth recording:
“Paul’s rejoicing over his suffering jolts a worldview that values comfort and ease as the highest good. We should note that Paul does not say that he rejoices in spite of his sufferings but in them. He does not rejoice after the trials are over but during them. The apostle obviously did not view his suffering as a problem or as something to be escaped, as we moderns might. . . . Paul accepted suffering as the call of God and this call led him to look at things from a new perspective.”
First Thessalonians 1:6 is another good example of this combination: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” The two are not mutually exclusive. As Gordon Fee remarks, “Thus we find here that remarkable collocation of joy and suffering found throughout the NT.”
Romans 5:1-11 also comes to mind. In verse 3 Paul says “we also rejoice in our sufferings”, and he goes on to note the good effects of suffering on our lives. The line of thinking occurs elsewhere. As Douglas Moo comments: “Sequences of this kind, in which suffering inaugurates a chain of linked virtues, are introduced as a stimulus to face difficulties with joy in two other NT texts (1 Pet. 1:6b-7; Jas. 1:2-4).”
Commenting on this passage, E. F. Harrison says this: “Right here lies one of the distinctives of the Christian faith, in that the believer is taught to glory and rejoice in the midst of suffering rather than to sigh and submit to it as a necessary or inevitable evil.”
Paul of course simply picks up on a theme found in his master’s teaching. Mat. 5:11-12 is one such example: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The word “blessed” of course renders a term that can equally mean “happy”. As Carl F. H. Henry in his discussion on evil notes,
“The Creator has not arranged the universe for maximal creaturely happiness, least of all if happiness means unruffled ease and self-satisfied contentment. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the term ‘happy’ synonymously with ‘blessed’ in a life context that includes mourning, persecution and ‘all kinds of evil’ (Matt. 5:11).”
A question may arise at this point: is the joy associated with suffering thought of as a present reality or a future expectation, or a combination of the two? Many New Testament passages seem to contain the idea of joy as both present and future. 1 Peter 4:12-19 is a good example of the present/future dimensions of joy amidst suffering. Future reward along with present consolation are both offered as encouragement for believers undergoing trials. Comments Paul Achtemeier:
“The joy in suffering … is based in specific events (Christ’s suffering and vindication) and specific expectations (a transformed future). Hence, although suffering with Christ promised eschatological vindication and joy, that joy was already a reality for those who shared his suffering. As a result that future reality has already transformed the present reality of suffering from sorrow to joy.”
Joy in suffering is not just a New Testament theme. If space permitted, a look at how this theme plays out in the Old Testament could be explored. Just a quick comment by Walter Brueggemann will have to suffice. In his discussion on the prophetic imagination, he finds similarities between Jeremiah and Jesus and their respective ministries. He remarks,
“The riddle and insight of biblical faith is the awareness that only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings. . . . Jesus had understood Jeremiah. . . . Jesus’ concern was, finally, for the joy of the kingdom. That is what he promised and to that he invited people. But he was clear that the rejoicing in that future required a grieving about the present order. . . . [This implies] that those who have not cared enough to grieve will not know joy.”
Doing God’s work should always be a cause of joy. And if suffering is indeed a part of that work, then joy should be closely connected to it. Doing God’s will may well take us through difficult places. But the joy comes not from the difficult circumstances, but from the knowledge that we are walking in God’s will and that he is with us.
Dan McCartney puts it this way: “Suffering, for the Christian, is a vocation – we are called to suffer. . . . We are not, however, called to be gloomy. The joy of the gospel ought to have its way, even in our suffering.” Such may appear to be extremely paradoxical. But many of the basics of the Christian faith are paradoxical – God becoming man, greatness determined by servanthood, life coming through death, riches through poverty, etc.
The modern mind may rebel at such mysteries. And modern Christian teachings like the health and wealth gospel may be impatient with them. But they are part and parcel of the Christian faith, and should be embraced with the heart, even if the head finds them problematic.