Lessons from Suffering


I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

—John 16:33

It’s hard to read the newspaper and think any other thoughts than this: people are suffering. I fear that much more suffering is to come.

Last week, I spent most of Wednesday in agony. And agony is a mild word for what it feels like to have a kidney stone. Worse: when you can’t keep the pain meds down because the waves of nausea are forcing up everything. After a prolonged fight, and a thankful passing of the stone, my day of suffering came to an end.

Just when I needed my parents most, they died. My son will never know my Mom and Dad. That’s a different kind of suffering.

Been through a lot of suffering through a series of career starts and restarts. Can’t really explain why. My wife and I have gone through more than our fair share of downsizings. We’re coming up on 12 years of marriage and in that time have endured seven layoffs between the two of us. We always got stellar performance reviews, too. Suffering hurts even worse when it makes no sense.

Last week, when I was hugging the toilet, my side felt ready to explode, I had a good chance to meditate on suffering. Here’s what I learned:

Suffering stinks.

I find it odd that some sectors of Christianity seem to have a love affair with suffering, as if suffering exemplifies the highest form of spiritual bliss. The photographer later killed himselfSome of those folks even go out of their way to suffer. I think that’s nuts.

This is not to say that one can’t learn from suffering. If you’re severely injured in an accident or happen to struggle with a painful, chronic disease, you understand the torment of the cross. How can any of us hurting that profoundly not think of what Jesus endured for us? People in pain can identify with the Savior and experience the fellowship of His sufferings.

In earthly suffering, each of us gets a taste of hell, even if that taste is a small one. Magnify it a millions times. Now who wants to go to that awful place? The Savior comes to save us from that suffering.

Thoughts of heaven permeate the lives of those trapped in earthly suffering. At least they should. People used to content themselves with heaven—note the past tense. Heaven seems remote to people today, even Christians.

Still, the thing about suffering is that its lessons are learned quickly. It’s like the little kid who sticks his hand in the fire. That lesson is well learned once. The point of experiencing sufferings repeatedly or for years and decades gets lost in the end. We know the lesson. Can we please do without more suffering?

I know that when I was twisting in agony, all the spiritualizing about suffering went out the window. I knew the lessons already. More suffering didn’t help me know them better. It didn’t make me any more holy or more Christ-like. Suffering stinks.

What makes the obsession some Christians have with suffering even more odd to me is that suffering is an aberrant condition. God didn’t build suffering into Creation. There’s no suffering in heaven, either. Suffering is the result of sin. Christ became incarnate in part to end suffering. He came into a suffering world and alleviated suffering. Seems to me He’s no fan of suffering.

J. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to Asia, went to the Far East to bring the Gospel to the lost people there. Today’s blazing Chinese Church, white-hot with revival as it is, owes much of its origin to Hudson Taylor.

But Hudson Taylor buried his family in China and came back to England a different man. Friends who knew him saw the change. A sadness permeated his life afterward.

In some ways, few of us Americans really know anything about suffering, at least suffering for the sake of the Gospel. To me, suffering for the Gospel is the only suffering that makes sense.

However, some better Christians than yours truly don’t see a distinction between suffering from a kidney stone and suffering for the Gospel. I wonder sometimes if they’re overspiritualizing things. If we’re being beaten with a tire iron, it seems to me a great difference if the person initiating the beating is doing so because we’re trying to share the Gospel with him as opposed to his reacting negatively to our complaint about the lousy job he did balancing our tires. A big difference exists between having our heart stop beating because some jungle native drove a spear through it because he didn’t like this Jesus we were talking about and us going into cardiac arrest due to a lifetime of scarfing down buckets of fried chicken.

But that’s just me. Perhaps I’m just not deep enough.

Hyperbolic Missionary Tales and the Exalted American Christian


Normally, I don’t sweat the titles of posts much. However, I thought about this one a lot. Why? Because it says something about where many Christians in this country are today.

But what do I mean by that snarky title? Let me explain by telling five missionary stories.

Story 1:

    A team of young American men are ministering in SW Asia. Evangelizing door to door down a street, they are cautioned by residents to avoid what looks like an empty brownstone. Fearless, they enter the building and note that no one seems to live inside. As they climb the steps, they note Bible verses scribbled on the wall, but certain words in them are wrong. Only when they reach the top apartment do they find the building’s sole occupant: a bent old lady. The woman invites them in, and they begin to share the Gospel. Immediately, one of the missionaries has trouble breathing. Another feels hands around his throat, but there is no one behind him. Another feels something hit him forcefully. The room’s temperature drops. Unable to breath, the one young man falls to the floor and suffers respiratory collapse. The men gather up their fallen friend and beat it out of that apartment. Some have to be hospitalized. Later, they regroup after realizing they’d had an encounter with the demonic, bringing in some older men who have encountered this type of dark power before.

Story 2:

    Another team of missionaries in Asia have been working in a village for some time, but have had no success in converting the villagers. One day, a man comes down from one of the nearby mountains, walks into the village, starts preaching and healing the sick, and the entire village is converted. The man goes back to the mountain, leaving the missionaries to tend the new flock.

Story 3:

    A teen is part of a 10-day mission trip to Russia, but is bedridden after picking up the flu. She spends her entire trip unable to leave the hotel. On her last day there, while everyone else is getting ready to pack, she ventures out for what will be the only time she’s been outside the whole trip. Brokenhearted, she sits on the curb and asks God why this happened. A woman comes by and the Lord tells the teen to go talk with her. She walks over to the women, and despite not knowing any Russian at all, opens her mouth to speak , only to find she is speaking to the woman in a language she doesn’t know. The woman begins to cry, says something to the teen, and gives her a handshake.Back in the United States, it’s a couple months before the youth minister at the church receives a letter (and a translation written by another person) from a woman in Russia who says she had met a teen from the church. That teen had approached her on the street and—in fluent Russian—told her the story of Jesus and what He had done for the woman. The woman had gone home, prayed to accept Christ, and had started to tell everyone she knew about Jesus—all thanks to the fluent Russian-speaking girl from the church.

Story 4:

    A missionary team is preaching to a large crowd in Africa when a wailing family brings in a woman who has obviously been dead for a few days. The family says that if what the missionaries are preaching is true, like Lazarus, this woman could be raised to life. The team is taken aback, but all eyes are on them, so they begin to pray. Soon, the presence of God is heavy on them and they see the dead woman’s eyes flutter, then open. Minutes later, the woman is on her feet praising God.

Story 5:

    A missionary plants a church in a burned-out Eastern European town. One day, a man with AIDS comes in and requests prayer. The church leaders pray and the man is healed. This starts a revival in that town, especially among AIDS sufferers, who are healed of the disease by the laying on of hands.

We’ve all heard missionary stories, right? But do we believe them?

Now I ask you, can you spot the true story among the false ones?

Over my nearly thirty years as a believer, I’ve heard my fair share of firsthand missionary stories. I never fail to be enthralled by these tales, and have long wanted to do missions work myself. Just this last Saturday, Missionary to HawaiiI had folks from my church praying that one day I’d have the opportunity to serve as a missionary in some capacity.

Besides the accounts I’ve heard in person are the amazing adventures of missionaries that I’ve read in books. It’s hard not to be caught up in the glory of God’s working in amazing ways in countries whose culture is not far removed from the kind we see in the Book of Acts.

So have you separated the real stories from the false ones yet? Tell you what, I’ll save you some time by telling you that they’re all true. Not only did I hear them firsthand, but I personally knew most of the missionaries involved. Amazingly, one of the stories (#2) I’ve heard from more than one source, happening 0n two different occasions in two different places. And story #4 had video corroboration!

The problem with these stories is that too few Christians are ready to believe they’re true.

I don’t know when American Christians (and Western Christianity, for that matter) got so smug, but we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we’re the final measure of ALL THINGS CHRISTIAN. We live our comfortable lives in the U.S. free from the burden of believing that anything supernatural occurs anymore, so when we hear these kinds of tales from missionaries—tales that are quite commonplace, actually—we chalk it up to some kind of hysteria. We find ways to explain those stories away. The woman in story #4 wasn’t really dead, even if the missionaries claim rot had set in. The teen in story #3 actually said something to the Russian woman in English and just forgot about it later on. People just don’t come out of nowhere and heal people. A revival featuring converted AIDS sufferers who are freed of the disease? No way.

All I can figure is that those kinds of stories scare the average American Christian. We don’t want to think the demonic is real or that healings and evangelism go together. We don’t see that kind of stuff at home, so why should we believe it goes on in backwater nations? We want to live our Christian life out of our head knowledge about the Faith. We don’t want to confront the truth of these wild stories spun by people laboring in Third World countries because if we do, that truth asks something of us, challenging our careful, comfortable existences. Too many Christians in the West want to make liars out of missionaries rather than accept their tales as true and be forced to deal with the ramifications.

This is not a post about charismata or the continuationist/cessationist battle, but a wake-up call to Westernized Christians that we are not the be all and end all of Christianity. In fact, I would argue that we Christians in America are woefully behind the leading edge of what God is doing around the globe. In fact, the Lord may even have passed us by and gone on to those places in the world that aren’t so cocksure of being the top of the spiritual foodchain.

When missionaries tell us the kinds of stories I shared above, do we really believe them, or do we make them out to be liars by brushing off their encounters with the miraculous power of Jesus Christ?

When did we Christians in America become the sole measure of true faith?