“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:14-19
During my recent trip to visit my daughter and her family, my son-in-law got me hooked on Leah Remini’s A&E show, Scientology and the Aftermath. Remini, who was a lifelong Scientologist, left the organization in 2013 and has since dedicated herself to exposing Scientology in the hopes that no one else will be caught in its web.
Prior to viewing this show, I knew very little about Scientology. I was aware that several prominent actors were members, and I had heard rumors about a belief in aliens, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I wondered what could possibly attract people. Now, after watching, I understand the appeal.
What Scientology offers is escape from suffering. Those who “evangelize” approach people with the intent of finding the source of their greatest pain. They then hold out the promise that they have the answer to dealing with and ultimately removing that pain, and all pain. By leading you through a series of steps, they vow to help you learn about and overcome your obstacles until you finally reach a level of perfect peace and mastery over your life. They also tell you that you can be a part of their movement to offer this same relief to others, with the goal of one day saving the entire planet. Liberation from personal suffering and the opportunity to participate in a noble, world-changing cause is pretty tantalizing stuff!
While I was in the midst of learning about Scientology, a friend began a conversation with me about Buddhism’s approach to suffering. As it turns out, there is a lot of similarity. Buddhists believe that humans suffer because they have not learned to accept the impermanence of life, and continue to grasp at and hold onto fleeting pleasures. Enlightenment will bring the understanding that we must accept life as transitory and develop the ability to receive things as they come, and then to let them go.
Neither of these two religions involves a god. While Buddha and L. Ron Hubbard may be treated like gods by their followers, their similar message is that we, with no divine aid, hold within ourselves the keys to ridding our lives of suffering. We need only to discover those keys and learn how to use them to unlock our prison cells.
In the discussion about Buddhism, I remarked that, in some ways, dealing with the idea of suffering was much simpler without a god involved. Suffering is the starting point. It’s just a fact and the question is, how you will attack it. You are in control.
Once you involve a deity, however, things get messy. The starting point is not the suffering itself, it is the deity. Does God send the suffering? Is he a bully? Does he want us to suffer in order to make us better people? Is suffering mainly a punishment? Or, does suffering just happen and he simply helps us deal with it and occasionally rescues us from it? Does he just intervene from time to time as he sees fit? How much does God care? What can we expect from him?
All of this led me to wonder what is unique and helpful about what Christianity has to offer in the face of suffering. I asked my friend whether he believes there is such a thing as actual divine strength or comfort given to humans, which has a genuine effect, as opposed to the placebo effect of believing there is something when there isn’t. His answer was a simple, no.
Although there are some who try to peddle a brand of Christianity that sounds eerily similar to Scientology and Buddhism with a sprinkling of Jesus dust, promising us a life without suffering as a reward for having the right amount of faith, careful reading of scripture actually promises us suffering. We are told not to be surprised and to even find joy in the various trials we will experience in this life, because we can view them as something that will strengthen and deepen our faith in God. But, what does this mean? Is this the message of Christianity? Is the message that ‘we can be grateful for suffering because it will make us have more faith in God’ what Christians have to offer a broken and suffering world? Why would that be appealing at all? How would that address any felt need humanity possesses?
Religions like Scientology encourage people to look deeply within and to purge the evil that is hurting them and others, and Buddhism hopes for humankind to come to a place of peace with and acceptance of what we have, rather than expecting and demanding more; but Christianity wants all to look to Christ.
What, then, does Christ have to offer to those in pain? What does he have to offer to those who, for example, lost everything during Hurricane Harvey, or Irma, or any of the other horrendous tragedies people suffer?
To begin with, he offers us himself, someone outside of ourselves, who can do for us what we are incapable of doing. In offering us himself he gives us unconditional love that, unlike any other love, we do not have to work for or earn. As our creator and sustainer, he looked at our helpless condition and had compassion on us, and in his love and mercy he came to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. He takes all of the mistakes and failures that haunt us. Every hurtful, shameful thing we ever did that torments us in the middle of the night, he removes from us and makes his own, and in its place he gives us credit for his flawless life. He accomplished that for us by loving us enough to die for us, even when we didn’t know or care. Every one of us longs for that kind of love and, no matter how hard we might try, no one can give himself or herself a love like that.
As a part of that love, Christ also offers us total understanding. Don’t you long to be completely understood? One of the great sources of pain in my life is being misunderstood and judged unfairly. In Christ, we have someone who comes to our defense because he really knows what we feel. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin.” What great news! He not only totally understands what we are going through, he already weathered the storm perfectly and credits us with doing exactly the right thing, no matter how badly we might blow it!
Christ also offers us rest. Have you ever tried to offer yourself rest in the midst of your struggles? We all know, from our sleepless nights, it does not work very well. In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” What a beautiful invitation! But, how exactly does Christ give us rest? Here I must differ with my friend who did not believe that there is any actual, effective divine gifting of power. In addition to the amazing security that comes with the knowledge that Christ has removed all of our sins from us and has made us right with God, there is also, as Philippians 4:7 calls it, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” which is supernaturally given to us. It is something we could never conjure up for ourselves. I have experienced it when, being the emotional person I am, there was no other explanation than this divine rest which Christ promised to give.
I could go on and on, but the verse with which I began, Ephesians 3:14-19, sums it up perfectly. There is more that Christ gives us in the face of our suffering than the purely intellectual enlightenment we derive from the study of scripture. We are literally “strengthened with power through his Spirit, in our inner beings” in order that Christ himself can come and dwell in our hearts through faith. And for what purpose? So that we can have the ability to improve ourselves? So that we can learn how to avoid suffering? No, so that we can come to know the only true thing that can touch us in the midst of our pain and offer us hope, that thing which surpasses knowledge, that thing which will fill us with all the fullness of God—The breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ for us. That is the unique and priceless gift Christianity offers in the face of suffering, Christ for us.