Theology of Suffering

Guest post by: Chad Ellison


The phenomenon of suffering is at once alien and common. It is not difficult for most of us to hear and accept statements such as, “If you are not suffering now, you will be soon.” Yet I’ve never known anyone to accept suffering as just another banal feature of existence, to passively observe it and get used to it like one might get used to an unpleasant landscape. It seems that in every instance of suffering the soul violently rebels, and we cannot help but thinking, even knowing, that this is not the way life ought to be. While suffering in a vacuum is not a good thing, in our world it is the common and intended experience of God and His people.

One cannot even skim through the New Testament without quickly discovering that suffering is a major part of being a disciple of Christ; indeed, every book of the New Testament except one, references suffering for the follower of Christ. Paul wrote several of his letters from a prison. James said to consider trials pure joy (James 1:2). Peter reminded the early Christians to not be surprised at the painful trial they were suffering, as though something strange were happening to them (1 Peter 4:12). There are moments when life is so painful that one would rather not be alive. We might be surprised to find out how many recorded instances God’s people asked God to kill them; these people include: Moses: Numbers 11:13-15; Job: Job 3:11; Elijah: 1 Kings 19:3-4; and Jonah: Jonah 4:5-8). I often look to God in bewilderment and shock at why others and I are permitted, and in some instances caused, to suffer so much more than expected.

An essential part of being a Christian, however, is devotion and being conformed to a man of sorrows who was tortured to death. Jesus tells us candidly that “anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). What is the cross in this passage if not an instrument of suffering? Perhaps the person who does not carry their cross is excluded from discipleship, not because Jesus will exclude him, but because a person who is not willing to suffer will exclude himself. He will not follow God into the gallows. By contrast, a disciple carries his cross even when he knows that God has given it to him and is the engineer of his suffering.

To be a Christian and not suffer turns out to be an oxymoron; suffering and Christianity are coterminous. We must even conclude, to the shock of many comfortable people, that one’s love for Christ is as deep as one’s suffering (or willingness to suffer). A Christianity that is not worth suffering for reveals a relationship, not with Christ, but with a product—a product that will be abandoned when the costs outweigh the benefits. If this were not the case, then the blood of the martyrs and the tears of the afflicted would indeed be in vain. By contrast, we see that suffering is the currency of love. A man suffers for what he loves, and suffers more intensely for what he loves more thoroughly. The Church’s love for Christ will be revealed in how she bears her cross, just as Christ’s love for people was revealed in how He bore His.