"O the bliss of the man whose heart is broken for the world’s sufferings and for his own sin, for out of his sorrow he will find the joy of God.” So runs one translation of the second beatitude (Matthew 5:4).
“Suffering is the natural state of a Christian and so becomes an inescapable part of the joy of redemption.” The words of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) likewise link suffering and joy.
Christians have traditionally believed that at times of suffering they can experience the presence and power of God at a deep and profound level that is impossible to attain at other times. They believed that suffering would strengthen their faith, help them to grow more Christ-like and better prepare them for heaven and glory. Suffering was also a means to the closer fellowship with Christ for which they longed. He, the Man of Sorrows described in Isaiah 53, was their model of how to suffer – uncomplainingly, in service to others, and in obedience to God’s will.
Such an attitude to suffering has long gone out of fashion in wealthy countries. Yet it was the description of Jesus’ suffering for us in Isaiah 53 that drew me, as a Muslim, to commit my life to the Jesus whom I had despised.
We live in a world wracked by disease, hunger, war and natural disasters; a world in which millions of Christians encounter daily discrimination and hostility; a world in which secular humanism is tightening its grip, so that there are few if any countries where Christians, currently free, may not expect pressure and persecution in the foreseeable future.
It is time for us all to re-learn what our Christian forefathers knew so well and what many Christians living as minorities in places of persecution today also know – how to embrace suffering and use it to grow in faith and to glorify God.
Doctrines that brought and still bring comfort and strength to Christians in contexts where life is difficult and uncertain have tended to be neglected in contexts where safety and luxury are the norm. We must re-claim these teachings so that we do not give up the faith when hard times come.
The article on pages 11-13 looks at how to cope with suffering of many kinds. In a later magazine, we shall look at how to prepare to suffer for Christ – that is, how to prepare for persecution. This is a skill we need to learn if we do not yet have it. Allen Ross, commenting on Isaiah 53, has written:
The Lord may call us to suffer and even perhaps to die. If that should be his will, then we must seek to suffer and to die well. It is far more important for us to do his will, to please him, than to have a comfortable, carefree life.
If we Christians have learned to see in sufferings the purpose of God, and in vicarious suffering God’s most holy service; if patience and self-sacrifice have come to be part of our spiritual life – the power to make this change in our faith has been Christ’s example. To submit to God’s will and to sacrifice self are the hardest things for us to do; to accept suffering and death without complaint or doubt demands a living faith that sees suffering and death as a prelude to glory. But if we submit to God’s will and sacrifice self for others, or for the building up of the faith of others, we shall then be living out the love of Christ in this world, and please our heavenly Father.