The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
January 2, 2001
Surprised by Suffering
I couldn't help it. The tears began to stream down my face as my friend and I talked.
"Nobody ever told us about this part," she said. "I never realized it would be so hard and there would be so much suffering."
Both of us had grown up in the church. But in the last decade we'd experienced some things we weren't prepared for. On the good side of things, we had leapt forward in our faith in ways we hadn't dreamed existed. But at the same time, we'd lived through some very rough church experiences.
There was suffering each time, emotionally and spiritually. It seemed to follow us around, and it was getting spooky.
We were at a loss. Why did these things keep happening? Was God punishing us for something? Was there any point in seeking out another Christian community, or would the same thing just happen again?
Another friend surrendered to Christ only a few years ago. She experienced a tremendous healing change in her life — and then went through the rough community times with us almost immediately.
One day she said to me, "I feel like I've been robbed. I didn't think I'd have to suffer so much. What happened to me was all wrong."
That's how we feel. If we're suffering, then something must be wrong. Because if we (or the people around us) were doing Christianity right, shouldn't everything be working out? We tend to see suffering, in its many guises (physical, mental, emotional; brought on by friends, enemies, sickness, natural or man-made disaster) as a signal to us that we're failing with God.
We tell people, "When you have Jesus in your life, he comes in and changes your life, and your life is so much better." Absolutely true. It's just that in our minds, we have problems with the definition of "better."
We tend to define it by the world's standards. So we think being with Jesus should mean we will be always happy, our life circumstances will be pleasant, our churches will be healthy, nurturing and growing, we will have fantastic friendships and perfect families.
I wrestle constantly with these expectations in my own walk with Jesus, and I've come to believe they are the underlying, if usually unconscious, assumptions of many Christians.
But when I turn to what the Bible has to say about the Christian life, I see exactly the opposite.
There are two things the Bible consistently tells us about Christians and suffering: we should expect it, and we should rejoice in it.
Jesus was forthcoming about what following him would mean: he told his disciples they could count on suffering just as he suffered (Luke 21:12-19; John 15:18-21). But he also said they should take heart because he had overcome the world, including suffering (John 16:33), and that they would be blessed when they suffered (Matthew 5:11-12). He told them something else, too — that in the midst of suffering they should respond with love (Matthew 5:43-48).
And the suffering did come, both from outside sources and from within the church itself. The accounts of the first Christians are filled with suffering.
The apostle Peter wrote the book of 1 Peter in the midst of persecution, to comfort and instruct those who were suffering. He echoes what Jesus taught: Suffering will come. We can and should rejoice in it. We should always act in love in the midst of it. Peter also reminds us that our sufferings enable us to share in Jesus' own sufferings, and later, in his glory.
Far from thinking they were doing something wrong, early Christians believed God considered them worthy to suffer. (Acts 5:40-41; 2 Thessalonians 1:2-5). How different that attitude is from the conclusions we draw today.
What a change of thinking it takes for us to embrace it.
In the past year and a half I took three different classes with the same seminary professor. He is something of a maverick, swimming against the prevailing current at the school, and takes his lumps for his differing views on theological education.
This fall he watched me suffer and wrestle with despair — not always successfully — while the church I'd been helping build collapsed. Privately, I'd been embarassed by my inability to hold it together and be more stoic in class.
I drove him to the airport after the final class. At the terminal we got his bags out of the trunk and said goodbye. As I drove off, I heard a knock on the trunk lid. I stopped the car. He had one last thing to say.
"I want you to know that your perseverance has been a source of great encouragement to me," he said.
"Thanks," I replied. "I feel like I've been getting a lot of practice."
Afterwards, I thought about our exchange. In the back of my Bible, I'd begun to note the lists of spiritual development in the New Testament. In Romans 5:3-5, Paul writes that we should rejoice when we suffer, because suffering builds perseverance, which builds character, which builds hope — and hope does not disappoint us.
I'd been curious how lists like that worked — whether experiencing one thing really did lead to the next. Now I knew that when I chose to stick with God, instead of killing my faith, suffering led to perseverance.
I'm also realizing something else: when I persevere in trusting God no matter what, something in me begins to change. I have a feeling God is building character in me — which is the next item on the list.
Jesus and the early church leaders tell us the normal Christian life is filled with suffering. They tell us we should rejoice in it. These are things I don't fully understand.
Do I have the right attitude and do I rejoice when I suffer? Not without a lot of effort, and too often, not at all. But I am persevering in wrestling with these truths. Slowly, I am confirming them through my own experiences. And as I do, I am coming to understand my faith better and know Christ more intimately.
Somehow, I think that's what is really meant by life being better with Jesus.
". we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."