Urgently Required: A Theology of Suffering.
I’d like to kick off with a quote from Todd Bentley. Now please note, I’m not making any comment about what is happening at Lakeland – others can argue about that.
“Miracles and healings are evidence. They are signs of the Kingdom, and if we don’t have signs then all we have is a bunch of theology.”
As I read this, Todd seems to be implying that if we don’t have miracles then there are no other signs of the Kingdom. Whatever the value of Todd’s ministry in Florida, I am concerned that this statement seems profoundly uninformed and doesn’t stand up against the evidence of experience or the Scriptures. What’s more, it risks being harmful to the Christian Gospel. I have no problem with miracles and wonders as signs of the Kingdom, but I’d have been much happier if Todd had mentioned some of the others.
I remember being shown round an AIDS hospital in West Africa by a highly qualified Christian doctor who could have been earning a fortune in the West. Patiently, and lovingly he helped care for babies who were born HIV positive and who would be very unlikely to live beyond three years old. I didn’t see any healings, but I did see a lot of self-sacrificing love; the sort of love that caused the Son of God to humble himself and be obediant to death. If anyone thinks that this sort of action is not a sign of the Kingdom, they really need to get out more.
As a Bible Translator, I’d have loved it if a miracle had put the whole of the New Testament into Kouya with a single word of power. It would have saved a lot of work, isolation, tiredness, malaria and sheer intellectual effort. But God didn’t do that; nevertheless, the example of a plainly fallible English couple who were prepared to sacrifice themselves had an impact on at least one young man who is now in a major leadership role in his country. Oh, and the New Testament was translated and is being read. No signs, wonders or miracles – sometimes more or less the opposite – but God’s Kingdom was being revealed!
What do the Scriptures have to say about this? Yes, in Jesus ministry miracles are very definitely shown as signs of the Kingdom – John even uses the word sign to describe them. I’m not knocking miracles. But look at these two sections taken from Hebrews 11.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.
They were living by faith, but they hadn’t received the things that God had promised them. The sort of theology of faith which tells you that if you believe enough God will give you exactly what you want just can’t stand in the light of a verse like this – much less in the burning intensity of the whole Scriptural witness to God’s people being called again and again to suffer. But let’s take it a step further…
33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Faith in God allowed some to conquer kingdoms and administer justice – I’m not sure that those are miracles, but they are good. Others stopped flames and kept lions’ mouths shut – that definitely is miraculous. But how much faith does it take to be tortured and refuse to be released, to be stoned to death, to be jeered, to be sawn in two. Sawn in two! Now that is real faith – truly the world wasn’t worthy of people who were willing to go through that for the sake of their God.
Yes, there is a place for miracles in the Christian life, but there is also a place and a time for patient endurance and suffering.
I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. (Revelation 1:9)
I don’t want to seem to be proof texting here and I could add lots of other passages about Christians being called to suffer, but the blog post would get too long.
And this is why I think that statments like the one that Todd Bentley is reported to have made in USA today are dangerous. If you take the view that either we have miracles or we don’t have the signs of the Kingdom, then you leave out the whole area of suffering for the Gospel. Much more, you leave out the God who himself suffered for his people. Jesus ultimate gift to the people of the world was not miracles – each of the people he healed or rose from the dead eventually got sick again and died – his gift was unimaginable suffering on the cross and a ressurection from the dead. The miracle of ressurection could not have occured without the years of humiliation, the faked trial and the hideous death. You can’t have one without the other.
One of the weaknesses of the Church in the West is that we no longer seem to have an understanding of the reality of suffering. There is nothing wrong with a ‘bunch of theology’ if that theology helps you understand the realities of the world we are living in. I genuinely feel concern for the people who are being told that Jesus will solve all of their problems at a stroke – what happens when they go home and find that their mortgage has been foreclosed (as is happening all over the world at the moment). I hear reports of healings, I don’t hear many reports of money suddenly appearing in Bank accounts. How do you cope with suffering and hardship when you have been told that such things shouldn’t happen to Christians? (Please note, I’m not saying that Todd Bentley is saying this – I simply don’t know – but I have heard plenty of others say it.)
Not only is suffering part of the the Christian life, but Christians actually seeking out hardship in order to witness to Christ is one of the most potent signs of the Kingdom. Paul went to Jerusalem, despite a clear prophecy that he would be bound and imprisoned if he did (Acts 21:10-13). Rodney Stark in his excellent book The Rise of Christianity attributes much of the early growth of the Church to the willingness of Christians to minister to people during plagues which struck the Roman Empire. They did not flee to the hills to avoid the plague and they did not miraculously heal thousands of people – but they showed the love of Christ by ministering patiently and graciously to the sick and dying. Hamo has a nice little post today about missionaries needing to be willing to suffer for the Gospel.
In ch 15 Mark presents to us a ‘king’ – 6 times Mark tells us Jesus is the ‘king of the Jews’ – but a king who rules in a very different way over a very different kingdom. He allows himself to die for others when he could have summoned angels to his rescue. He suffers abuse, ridicule and abandonment when he didn’t have to. This king calls his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross to follow him. He seems more in synch with those old missionaries than with most of us today.
I tend to think we have replaced the cross with the couch and the life of discipleship with what Bonhoeffer called the ‘happy religious life’. Even those of us who would hope to live differently are still trapped in a culture that has formed us and shaped us to look after our own needs first and to trust ourselves rather than God. We hope to live differently, but not so it impinges on our comfort.
It was Kierkegaard who said ‘It is much easier to be an admirer of Jesus than a follower’.
Whatever we think of the lives of those of those old missionaries and the sometimes bizarre choices they made, there was no question who was calling the shots in their lives. I fear for the generation to follow us, that they will know nothing of a gospel of sacrifice and self denial. If nothing changes in the contemporary Christian psyche then we are in deep trouble.
Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. What seed will the church spring from if we have a generation of Christians to whom suffering is a foreign concept?
Praise God when he does the miraculous and people are healed, but praise him too when he gives the grace and patience to his people to suffer without cursing his name.