Our Sufferings Benefit the Church
(This is an excerpted chapter from a devotional book project called “Holy Forsaken” that I am still very much in the middle of)
To me the most amazing thing about Job’s story is how it ends. Many people remember that he got everything back and then some. But what amazes me is that God literally makes him the agent of his friends’ reconciliation with God.
“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. 8 So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.”
Twice he says Job spoke well of him, but the friends did not.
When bad things happen most of us take the route of the friends. We try to see the justice in it. Elihu the mysterious fourth speaker who is not one of Job’s friends comes probably the closest to articulating actual truths about God in the midst of suffering. But he isn’t even included in the epilogue. Whatever purpose Elihu serves in the book it doesn’t seem to impact Job’s journey. And the reason for that is a Christian theology of suffering isn’t dependent on “truth” so much as mysticism. Suffering can’t be resolved with the mind. The sufferings appointed for us must be actually suffered. And as Michael Card puts it Job isn’t going to let go of God. He wants an answer. He won’t stop asking why. And asking why is a deep sign of trust, not really a search for an answer. Asking why is a search for relationship with God, not philosophy.
The pain we experience in the church, from our biological families, from our friends when we suffer is something we will have to forgive. But as Job shows it is also an opportunity, to literally be put into the place of Christ.
American Christianity focuses too much on the benefits of Christ for us. And there’s a good reason for that, Jesus is the heart of the Gospel. And the Gospel is all about our salvation, aka how God benefits us. But the Gospel is supposed to shape your life not just benefit it. It’s supposed to transform you not merely “save” you.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews ends his magnificent Sermon by saying:
“The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
The Christian’s journey is the journey of Jesus. And that journey involves isolation, confusion, and sadness. It means having bad friends. Jesus is constantly upset with his disciples. They are insensitive to his needs, especially when he needs them most. But we are tasked with leaving the safety and security within the city and required to go to Jesus outside the camp, at the place of sacrifice. That means that we can’t just leave the church behind when its been bad to us. I left an abusive church at one point, there’s a big difference between an abusive church and a frustrating church. All churches are frustrating. They’re full of sinners. Not all churches are full of abuse. It is not loving to the abusers to stay in that community, and it will not benefit you spiritually to try to remain. Leave the abusive churches behind, commit to the frustrating churches.
But our sufferings are tough on the sufferings of others as well. Look at Jobs’ friends response. Their response is horrendous pain. But look at how they benefit from Job’s sufferings. They get to be reunited to God by Job. They too gain deeper wisdom and understanding of who God is because Job invited them into his sufferings. Our tendency is to run and hide. We are ashamed of our childlessness, our infertility, our lack of normalcy.
As I write these words I’m currently separated from my wife, living in a small room with no air conditioning during a particularly hot California October. The family I’m living with couldn’t be sweeter. They’re the kind of people I always wanted to be. They have a wonderful home that they can use to bless others because their children are all successful and moved out. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be a pillar within my community holding it up. But I’m not. I’m the opposite. I’m totally dependent upon my spiritual family, the church right now, unable to do very much. But what sufferers don’t see is how their openness to the Church actually aids the church. The family I’m staying with gets to help me. They get to serve me. And that’s not an amazing blessing because I’m so great, its an amazing blessing to them because they get to serve Jesus.
We never know what others need, not the way God knows. But allowing others into our lives benefits them more than we realize, even if it just means they get to benefit us. Job’s friends needed Job’s suffering. They had a very specific view of how God relates to us, and it was a view that is very false. God rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior and that’s it. Thats all they understood. The struggle of Job is that outcomes aren’t indicative of moral quality. Our sufferings were not given to us to punish us. We know that because Jesus was punished for our sins. The penalty has been paid. God disciplines us through suffering, but that needs to be seen as discipling not retributive punishing.
In my immaturity I couldn’t see this. I couldn’t see that my immature friend (an earlier day of this longer devotional recounts a story where a friend was very unsupportive of my struggles with infertility) actually needed confrontation. I felt like I needed to worry about his feelings and when you have to “care” for someone while going through a crisis, its simply too much. He needed me to tell him that he was being insensitive and selfish. But I didn’t have the energy to do it, I was simply too immature
This is how suffering publicly in the church benefits everyone. Americans are so naive and immature when it comes to suffering, and sufferers know this so they hide. But this keeps the church immature. The church actually needs our pain just as much as we need the fellowship of other believers. Without it the church cannot grow.
America is a kind of paradise, a place where people expect good things to happen and when bad things happen they’re surprised. That’s not normal. Most human experience has been the exact opposite. And that means that you and I, the childless sufferers, are actually one of the most important people in our churches. Don’t let this go to your head. It’s not a compliment, it’s a duty and a painful one. Without us our churches cannot grow. I know, its not a nice thing. It stinks. Having to deal with the immaturity of others. But we must do it. We must despise the shame and do it for the joy of knowing that our suffering exposed in public will create greater maturity in our often annoying brothers and sisters. Following Christ actually means following him. Up onto the cross, down into the grave, and finally out of the tomb into resurrection life. The church needs our sufferings. You cannot hide, it will not make things better, only worse.