Some thoughts on suffering, the Spirit and Christian hope
Short answer: Everything
A close friend of my wife’s died last Saturday after a long battle with cancer.
The witness and story of Sandra – her extraordinary courage, faith, honesty, her uncomplicated transparency, her gift as an evangelist right to the end, her fierce future hope – all speaks of the empowering presence of the Spirit in the midst of, and through, increasing weakness.
Often Christians pray against all hardship and suffering as if behind those prayers there is an assumption that being a Christian should be a guarantee of happiness and a trouble free life. The prosperity gospel takes this one step further – all suffering and hardship are outside the will and purpose of God.
Yet consider those most empowered by the Spirit in the NT
John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit – and embarks on a ministry of misunderstanding, opposition and marginalisation. His obedience to the Spirit loses him his head.
Stephen is filled with the Spirit who enables him to see heaven but simultaneously gives him the courage to face a violent, murderous mob.
Paul has profound and deep experiences of the Spirit (tongues, visions, revelations, healings, prophetic words, guidance and so on), but you’d be hard pressed to say he had a trouble free life (and death).
In all this they were only privileged to follow their Lord and to share in his sufferings (Romans 8:17).
Jesus is anointed in power by the Spirit for mission and ministry (just read Luke 4 ‘the Spirit of the Lord is on me’); obedient to his calling; deeply aware of his Father’s presence; and filled with the Spirit for the increasingly intense spiritual conflict that marked his public ministry. No-one before or since Jesus has experienced the Spirit like he did, yet his life too is cut short by violence, desertion, physical suffering and death.
I’m not at all saying that suffering and hardship are good things in themselves. That would be some form of spiritual masochism. But I am saying that for the Christian there is no contradiction between the cross and the Spirit, between suffering and power, between weakness and glory.
For it is in suffering and in weakness that the power of the Spirit can make manifest the glory of God.
Do we long for a deeper and more powerful experience of the Spirit? Well maybe we also need to recognise that such experience will most likely to be worked out in and through hardship and suffering. Because for the Christian, suffering can be, and is, redeemed by the Spirit. It is in suffering that the believer is strengthened, helped to mature and grow in their faith – and in such a way that onlookers can only say ‘There is the grace and power of God’.
That sure was the case with Sandra.
The power and gift of the Spirit is a paradox – the Spirit is given to believers to live out their faith in their Lord Jesus in a context of a broken world, full of injustice, opposition to the gospel, sickness and death. Suffering comes to everyone sooner or later and some seem to endure unimaginable suffering and others hardly any at all. (I’m all too aware that I’m not really qualified to talk about this subject at all).
The challenge of faith is to understand and see suffering as something that can be faced even with joy and hope because God is greater than these ‘light and momentary troubles’. (can you imagine a more counter-cultural perspective in the West than calling persecution and suffering “light and momentary troubles”? I don’t think I can).
And it is in and through suffering and persecution that the church has most often grown. And when the church is satiated and comfortable, it becomes complacent and spiritually dull. And I dare say the same can be said for individual Christians. The church (or individual) which does not suffer or experience hardship, and even thinks it should not happen, is a bizarre anomaly in the history of Christianity.
BUT it is the good news of the gospel that God has triumphed over suffering and death through the resurrection and ascension of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Death and suffering do not have the last word. Jesus, the present reigning Lord, will make sure of that.
But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. [Roms 8:10-11]
Comments, as ever, welcome.