I spend a lot of time talking to people in coffee shops. Some share my Christian faith, some are exploring and questioning faith and others have left the church, having had a crisis of faith.
I'm going to speak to an observation I've made on the 'crisis of faith' variety. What I am about to share is not comprehensive by any means and my intention here is not to communicate that this is the reason people have a crisis of faith and leave churches. I do however, think this argument has some merit, and may be worth some discussion.
I am embarrassed to say this, but for many years in pastoral ministry, I sat across from people in real suffering, but because of my own discomfort with suffering, I sought to fix those who weeped instead of weeping with those who weeped. I have since been convicted that the poor doctrines I held at the time had no room for suffering.
I'll never forget a number of years back when Susan and I were out with some close friends. They had some people in their lives going through some really hard times and they asked me, 'what's your theology on suffering?' I fumbled around. In essence, my theology for suffering at the time was, 'Don't. Here's how not to.' A few years after that conversation, the gospel of grace came into our lives and Susan and I have been ruined ever since.
When we adopt the unscriptural idea Christians shouldn't suffer, that it's abnormal when Christians suffer, or that with enough faith and Christian piety God will ensure you don't suffer - we invite people into a crisis of faith.
To borrow from Michael Horton, those ideas are a departure from orthodox Christian faith - it's therapeutic deism. If we teach people that the gospel is 'God has a great plan for your life. Raise your hand if you want a piece of that action.', we invite people into a crisis of faith when their life is anything but great. Whereas the actual gospel offers tremendous hope and strength when all hell is breaking loose and nothing is great about our life.
Therapeutic deism invites our children to to question God every time they go through suffering, whereas an orthodox understanding of grace and faith invites our children to find rest, peace and strength in God in the midst of their suffering.
'Christ suffered so we don't have to' is trite, bumper sticker theology. Not only does it create a false class system in the church between those who think they have enough faith to evade suffering and those who confess they don't, but it's simply not what scripture teaches.
I remember talking to a young man who had walked from his church. He said that from his perspective, there is no distinguishable difference between the amount of suffering in the lives of believers versus non-believers. I couldn't agree with him more. Christian faith does not come with a force-field. As REM once put it, "everybody hurts".
If the God of the Bible exists to make our lives more comfortable, then lots of people don't need Him and globally speaking, He's doing a pretty lousy job. But the God of the bible does not exist for us - we exist for Him.
Christ did not suffer so that in this life we would not suffer. Christ suffered on the cross to receive God's judgement and wrath so that we could receive God's mercy and grace.
The second error that leads people into a crisis of faith (of which I am also guilty of committing) is the assertion that Christians suffer because their spiritual disciplines are lacking.
Possibly, but not universally.
If I live indifferent to God's law, I'll experience suffering in some form because His law is wise and it promotes my flourishing. If I abandon worship to God and I don't endeavour to love my neighbour as myself, then the 'me 1st' disposition of my heart is going to invite suffering into my life. Looking to things smaller than God and making them god never ends well. Loving ourselves more than everyone else in our lives never ends well either.
At the same time, I can endeavour to keep His law (though imperfectly) and still suffer. God's law is not broken, but this world has been broken by our sin.
If we insist that keeping God's law is a surefire way to keep suffering at bay, we don't understand what Godly obedience is for. It's not for earning it's for imitating. Because of the forgiveness, the grace an the inheritance that is kept for us in Christ, we obey God's law from love, not for leverage.
There's nothing for us to leverage through obedience and good works that God hasn't already given to us by grace in Christ.
Just as Job's friends burdened Job in his suffering, our churches can become a place where we further burden those who suffer if we adopt a tit-for-tat view of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian faith. Are you in the Word? How's your prayer life? How's your giving? Your volunteering? Did you walk any old ladies across the street this last week?
The covenant of grace is not an exercise in spiritual lever pulling. It does not invite us to leverage God to deliver us from suffering, it invites us to love God and be strengthened by His grace in our suffering.
A life without suffering is not only poor theology, it's a denial of reality. Christ said that He is our hope in suffering precisely because all humanity is susceptible to suffering.
Every person who walks through the doors of our churches is dealing with a measure of sadness and suffering in some way. They're sick or someone they love is. They're in lack or someone they love is. They're dealing with anxiety or someone they love is. They're fearful about the future and they can't sleep at night or someone they love is.
The gospel promise in Romans 8 says that we are overcomers 'through Him who loved us'. We are not overcomers in and of ourselves. We are not overcomers when our lives are suffering free. We are overcomers, "through Him who loved us" ... even through tears.
The overcoming Christian is not the one with a life devoid of suffering, sadness or tragedy.
Those don't exist.
The overcoming Christian is the one who finds rest and strength as they fall on God's grace in the midst of their suffering, sadness and tragedy.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
II Corinthians 12:9