Theology of Suffering: MIA
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” Hebrews 13:3
I recently attended a worship celebration led by a nationally recognized professional team. The event was held at a large church. The auditorium was dressed in stone and dark, rich wood. A color coordinated cushion topped each theater-style seat and uniformed security guards patrolled throughout the event. It was a state of the art venue. The music was flawless. Eight modestly dressed worshipers gave their every fiber to the effort or glorifying their Master. Perhaps three thousand well-to-do 20 somethings added to their efforts and the result was unforgettable. This was no performance. It wasn’t a concert or a show, not a display of musical virtuosity: this was a no-holds-barred celebration of the King of kings.
In one conversation with a friend of mine directly afterward, I discovered that despite the fact that not a word about sin was mentioned or sung from the platform, the Holy Spirit had pressed his finger on both of our hearts over specific items. I wonder how many others heard His gracious, crushing whisper.
My soul was stirred over the affluence that I saw around me. Nearly everyone in the room (including myself) possessed a smart phone. Designer clothes and fashionable haircuts. Late-model cars filled the lot outside of the strategically located multi-building campus. Nagging the back of my mind was the disparity between the upper-middle class brothers and sisters nearby and the members of my spiritual family in the 3rd world. This perspective brought me to an unhealthy place of judgment toward American church culture, and for a part of the time, robbed me of worship to my Savior. We are the bride of Christ, warts and all. I don’t have any place to stand in judgment, my own sin being just as hideous to the One who took it upon himself.
But what of the disparity? Isn’t there something wrong with the picture I described? Recently, I traveled to southeast Asia with a team whose purpose was to learn how we might effectively minister to that part of the world. While there, we witnessed the grinding poverty and malnourishment that is wholly absent in the U.S. Many people in the towns we saw struggled to find adequate employment to feed their families. The resulting economic instability has resulted in the increase of child-trafficking as a means of income. Can’t feed your children? Sell them.
I can’t imagine that kind of desperation. Yet in the midst of that brokenness, we encountered faithful Christians, who would gather around a lone guitar or two and praise with such fervor that I thought the angels must have wept! What depth of faith those people must possess, who face sickness, starvation, corruption and depravity with an unaccountable joy. Surely, they possessed the “peace that passes all understanding”.
In contrast, we in America never miss a meal. We have climate controlled houses. We don’t generally worry about sickness. Many of us have become so accustomed to the comfort and ease of middle-class life that we miss out entirely on sense of desperation that drives deeper the faith of our 3rd world spiritual family. Another friend pointed this out when I shared my burden concerning the affluent church. He said,
“Living [outwardly] as a Christian is easier for us. I would contend that following Jesus is probably easier for them. They know Jesus on a level that most of us probably never will. They may be materially poor, but they are far richer spiritually.”
A legendary conversation echoes this sentiment. I don’t remember where I read or heard it, (perhaps Watchman Nee?) but the story is told of a Chinese pastor who visited the United States. While here, he attended several worship services. On his departure, someone asked him what stood out most about the American church. His reply was damning and accurate, I’m afraid. “The amount that they are able to accomplish without the power of the Holy Spirit.” Brother Yun, a house church pastor from China, is quoted extensively here http://dontwaitforme.wordpress.com/2009/07/07/brother-yuns-appeal-to-the-western-church/ and explains with much more authority the paradox I’m trying to communicate.
The poor church is rich in Spirit. The rich church is poor in Spirit. What is missing? What is wrong with this picture? I suggest that, in our haste to banish suffering we have cultivated a church that lacks depth and empathy. (I say this with trembling, lest I again fall into the sin of judging). In many churches, the subtle hues of prosperity teaching have crept into the message of the gospel. “Come to Jesus so he can fix your life.” Even in the worship service I attended, the thoroughly evangelical worship team sung mostly about what Christ does for us and not much about who he is. But is this the gospel?
Paris Reidhead, in his sermon titled “Ten Shekels and a Shirt” addressed this question thoroughly. (http://followthelamb.net/20/SID20383.mp3) He begins with an even more basic question: what is the chief end of being? “Humanism” says Reidhead, “says that the chief end of being is the happiness of man. Christianity says that the chief end of being is the glory of God.”
I once heard an interesting question, asked by an earnest and dear brother in the Lord. “Why wouldn’t you want to come to Jesus?” He wondered. From our 21st Century American perspective, we see Jesus as the one who saves us from hell and lines the road to heaven with daisies so our lives are that much more pleasant. I’ll not deny that God promises to provide for our needs, but I can’t help but think of Youcef Nardakani, the pastor who is serving time in an Iranian prison for simply being a Christian. He might urge the fence-sitters to consider the cost of discipleship. Multitudes before him have endured suffering and death on the behalf of Christ. In fact, it is a relatively rare historical space that we find ourselves in. The Bible makes it clear that persecution for followers of Jesus is to be expected. It is normal. It’s even good.
“we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5
This is probably why the Chinese church is rumored to pray that persecution toward the church will break out in the United States. They have caught the significance of baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6). They, like many before them, have discovered that the chief end of being is to “know [Christ] in the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Their hope is not in a higher standard of living, or relief from persecution. Their eyes are fixed on Christ and their hearts are anchored to a future hope.
How can we, the church, combat the lie of humanism without falling into the ugly sin of judging the Bride of Christ? How can I remove the speck from our brother’s eye without first removing the log from own? Perspective is not easily learned from an angry person, and suffering well can’t be taught from a pulpit. I wrestled with this question for some time before remembering Hebrews 13:3. The part of the body that is free from suffering is to remember the part that is not. We are to pray for them as though we were in the same predicament!
The key to this type of empathy starts with understanding the issues that the 3rd world church faces. You can find some helpful resources on the list of links below, and share what God speaks to you with others. Pray together and listen to how God would have you partner with your spiritual family abroad. Let us fight complacency in our own hearts, and be prepared to face our own suffering and sorrows with the faith that finds it’s anchor before the throne of God, seeking his face instead of his hand.