Monday, March 15, 2010

Suffering in Light of the Resurrection of Christ

The Empty Tomb & The Redemption of Suffering
Suffering in Light of the Resurrection of Christ

“Life stinks, and then you die.” This popular phrase explains the reality that suffering is a universal fact of human life. R.E.M. had a major hit with the song “Everybody Hurts”. Everybody experiences bouts of pain, or loneliness, or grief, or sorrow - in one way or another, we all hurt. As a teenaged atheist, I abhorred suffering, particularly for its pointlessness. There was no hope in the midst of grief, no redemption in the midst of pain; nothing to mitigate or offset the severity of suffering in myself or in others.

However, coming to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord has gradually changed the way that I perceive suffering. The resurrection of Jesus Christ informs and transforms our experience of grief, sickness, pain, “senseless” tragedy, and persecution - suffering is redeemed and made relevant through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The empty tomb assures us of our own bodily resurrection and eternal life; it gives us an eternal perspective that looks beyond our temporal situation; and it assures us of God’s ability to redeem our suffering. Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we do not have to mask, hide, or deny our suffering, nor need we self-pityingly wallow in it.

The Bible is surprisingly blunt in its presentation of pain and suffering. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that those who follow God and obey His commands will live a life free of suffering. Indeed, it often appears quite the contrary. When I first began reading the Bible, one of the initial books that I became enamored with was Job. There was something transfixing about the brutal honesty in the account of his life. Job suffered through worse trials than I can imagine enduring. His vast material possessions were wiped out in a single disastrous, senselessly-tragic day, as were all of his beloved children. Then his health was devastated, and he found himself alone, miserably scraping his aching, pus-covered body with a shard of pottery.

But, O, fortunate Job! He was soon visited by beloved friends, who came to comfort him with their presence, their love, and their wisdom. After hearing their pearls of wisdom (e.g. Job 15:20 - “All his days the wicked man suffers torment”, insinuating that Job was being punished for some wrongdoing he committed against God), Job thanks them for their kindness and concern - “I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all!” (Job. 16:2)

It seems to me that there are six intertwined types of suffering, although it is quite possible that I have left out some that others would include. But I identify; firstly, grief at the death of loved ones; secondly, personal sickness or pain; thirdly, sorrow over “senseless” tragedy; fourthly, persecution, that is, suffering endured at the hands of others on account of your beliefs; fifthly, hopelessness; and sixthly, loneliness or feelings of insignificance. Most of us will not acutely experience all of those aspects of suffering in our lives, but all of us assuredly will face one (and probably, more than one).

My maternal grandmother has endured much suffering over the past 20 years. In 1990, my grandfather died while in surgery to clear a blocked artery. He was only in his early 70s, and seemed, to me, to be a healthy and vibrant man. His death was quite a shock, especially to my grandmother. She experienced deep grief and loneliness over the ensuing few years. In 1993, she remarried a wonderful, kind gentleman, and they embarked on a latter-life marriage of friendship and companionship. Several years into their relationship, he began to experience significant health problems. First, he had a series of strokes that left him with limited mobility. Worse, he experienced a rapidly progressing form of dementia, which left him unrecognizant of his own family. He passed away shortly after our daughter (my grandmother’s first great-grand-daughter) was born in 2003. Since his death, my grandmother has been increasingly afflicted by health problems of her own - especially lupus, which flares up randomly, and unpredictably relegates her to a bedridden status.

Our eldest daughter was born 5 weeks premature with a form of spina bifida. In the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), she went through a battery of tests - X-rays, an MRI, bloodwork, etc. One of the spina bifida specialists very bluntly told us that our daughter would never be able to control her bladder, probably would never poop properly, and would quite likely never be able to walk. We were absolutely devastated. It was a time of many tears and much sorrow.

This past winter, a close friend of ours, a single mother, was introduced to a period of intense suffering. She was a foster mother as well as a nurse, and was caring for a severely-disabled 3-year-old boy who died in an accident in her home in the middle of the night. This experience, in and of itself, was awful enough. But our friend was, shortly thereafter, arrested, and charged with second-degree murder in the boy’s death. To witness the death of a child is horrible enough; to be accused of perpetrating that death is an unthinkable experience. As we have walked with our friend in the midst of her suffering, it has brought home again, in an ever-more powerful way, that everybody does, indeed, hurt. In the words of R.E.M., “Sometimes everything is wrong.”

How do we deal with the reality of suffering? What do we do in the midst of pain, grief, tragedy, sickness, persecution, hopelessness, and loneliness? When my great-grandmother passed away (when I turned nine), I remember asking my mom where he was now. My mom said, quite gently, that after we die, there’s nothing else - this life is all there is. I remember thinking, “That stinks.” The Apostle Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19 -

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Paul understood the significance of a worldview which denied an afterlife. If this life is, as many people believe, all that there is, then there is no point and no hope. As a teenager, I remember feeling helpless and hopeless. I was helpless because the world was such an immense place, with billions of people, filled with so much intense suffering and hardship. There was no way that I could make a difference, and alleviate the suffering of people in a meaningful way. I was hopeless, because I felt that life was without purpose, and could never have purpose in the light of our mortality and the immense scale of human suffering. And so I grieved without hope. The Newsboys sing, in “Breakfast in Hell”:

Breakfast clubbers, drop the hankies.
Though to some our friend was odd,
that day he bought those pine pajamas
his check was good with God.

Those here without the Lord,
how do you cope?
For this morning we don't mourn
like those who have no hope.

For the Newsboys, faith in Jesus Christ makes a qualitative difference in how they approach grief. They do not mourn “like those who have no hope”, simply because, as followers of Jesus Christ, they do have hope. This is the transformation which is wrought in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

Our experience of suffering need not be without hope, because Christ has conquered death. “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” is the common Easter Sunday greeting and response. As followers of Jesus Christ, we rejoice in His resurrection, because of what it signifies for us. There is, in my perspective, no greater joy than the assurance of my own bodily resurrection after my death, which is assured by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” I have personally experienced the reality of being dead in my Adamic sin; I now eagerly await the experience of being raised from the dead with Christ with a glorious resurrection body (Philippians 3:20-21).

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

The empty tomb gives us full and certain assurance of our own victory over death.
The Resurrection is integrally tied to the Crucifixion. These two events - Christ’s atoning death and glorious resurrection - are the cornerstones of the Christian faith, and the one only makes sense in light of the other. We must not forget that Easter Sunday is preceded by Good Friday. In His death, Jesus bore the weight of our sins. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Through His death, Jesus takes our sins upon Himself. Only with the removal of our sin does the resurrection of Jesus Christ bring us eternal hope. If our sins are not taken away, then our resurrection is still hopeless - if we are still marred by sin, then we are incapable of standing in the presence of God, and therefore would spend our eternity in the torment of a godless hell. The hope of the resurrection is only realized in our lives through the acceptance of the Cross. Having accepted the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, we then can eagerly anticipate our own resurrection to eternal life.

The resurrection also puts our suffering into an eternal perspective.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. …

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10)

Paul does not minimize our experience of suffering; rather, he claims that the resurrection of Christ, and the correlative assurance of our own resurrection to eternal life, puts our suffering into proper perspective. Some might say, “Well, easy for Paul to say that. He’s never gone through what I’ve endured; he’s never experienced the depth of suffering that I have.” Well, that’s probably true. But it is good to remember that the Paul who puts suffering into perspective is the same man who, seven chapters later, runs through a lengthy list of his own experiences of suffering.

Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:23-30)

Yes, our suffering is real, and it may even be acute. I know people who have experienced far more severe grief or pain than I have. Nonetheless, the suffering of Jesus Christ is arguably deeper still. The only perfect man ever to live, He was wrongfully accused, mocked, beaten, abandoned by all his friends, and executed by crucifixion. Besides this intense physical and emotional suffering, He also experienced deep spiritual suffering - He bore the weight of all our sins, causing His heavenly Father to turn His back on Him. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) - a cry which bursts forth from the isolation, the abandonment, that God the Son feels as God the Father rejects and judges Him because He bears the sins of the world. In Christ, God Himself experiences our suffering – so while I may not know what you are going through, and Paul might not have suffered as deeply as you have; God most certainly knows what you are enduring, and has borne your suffering upon Himself at the Cross.

As seen earlier, Job also experienced a bewildering array of suffering. The point is simply that, in our human suffering, we are not alone. All of the spiritual giants who have gone before us have suffered likewise. Perhaps their exact sufferings have not been mirror images of our own - but they have shared in our sufferings as we have all shared in the sufferings of Christ. And in the midst of our own sufferings, we have the assurance of Scripture speaking to us: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) It is so difficult, in the moment of suffering, to consider our troubles to be “light and momentary;” but it is essential, as Paul urges us, to “fix our eyes … on what is unseen.” It is our hope for our resurrection to eternal life, which is founded upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which enables us to put our suffering into a tolerable perspective.

The Apostle John records the glimpse of heaven granted to him in a vision:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:1-4)

The resurrection that we await initiates us into a new order. Gone are the sources of our suffering. Grief is no more, because “there will be no more death or mourning.” Sickness and pain are similarly done away with. Never again will we experience loneliness or hopelessness, for “God himself will be with [us] and be [our] God.” Heaven, simply put, is a place where all of the things that cause suffering will have been abolished. This is the glorious assurance that the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings to our lives! We are assured of our own resurrection; and we know that our resurrection will be to a place of perfection, without any more suffering. While that does not remove or trivialize our present sufferings, it does put them into perspective, and our future hope enables us to persevere and endure the hard times in this life.

An important side effect of this magnificent Biblical truth is that we do not have to lie about our suffering. We do not need to pretend that everything is okay when it is not; we do not need to wear a mask to hide our very real suffering. It was very liberating to me, when our daughter was born with spina bifida and we received apocalyptic medical prognostications, to be able to share and cry and pray with our senior pastor. We did not need to pretend that we were not suffering. Our assurance of eternal life, our participation in Christ’s resurrection, gives us the freedom before God and His people to be open and honest about what we are going through. We have wonderful examples in the lamenting Psalms, where the Psalmist cries out in pain to the Lord.

When we feel abandoned by God and alone, we can cry out to God with the psalmist.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent. (Psalm 22:1-2)

When we are hopeless in the midst of persecution, we can cry out to God.

Listen to my prayer, O God,
do not ignore my plea;
hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught
at the voice of the enemy,
at the stares of the wicked;
for they bring down suffering upon me
and revile me in their anger.
My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death assail me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
horror has overwhelmed me. (Psalm 55:1-5)

Whatever our situation, we can (and should) honestly express ourselves to God and/or to His Church. After our close friend was charged in the death of her foster child, I visited her regularly in Remand for the month that she awaited release on bail. She felt that the world was out to get her; she believed the authorities had jumped to the conclusion that she was guilty, that she was a murderer, even though she had tried to tell them what happened. She was hopeless, helpless, and alone. I still cannot fathom the full horrors of her experience. Yet in the midst of her suffering and hardship, we would talk and pray together, and I encouraged her to cast her cares, her burdens, entirely on the Lord. I believed that she could not and would not endure on her own strength, and that it was only through trusting in the death, resurrection, and abiding presence of Jesus Christ that she would be able to come through her suffering. She worried that she would never receive justice in court - but there was comfort, however distant, in the assurance that she would receive justice in God’s heavenly court. Here on earth, she is a living example that things are not always right, and that people suffer through deep and seemingly senseless tragedies. But she is also a living example Christ’s resurrection brings us the assurance that wrongs will one day be righted.

The community of faith is intended to share the burden of suffering with one another. When one member hurts, the whole body hurts with them (1 Corinthians 12). When we try to endure suffering silently, without “imposing” on others within the family of God, without openly confessing our pain, loneliness, and grief; then it is exceedingly difficult to maintain a proper, eternal perspective upon our suffering. Things that aren’t very big suddenly seem like mountains of suffering; things that are big to begin with seem monumental and unbearable. Christians, of all people, know the value of sharing their sufferings; Christians, of all people, know that suffering is not the final answer - and yet sometimes Christians suffer in silence, and lose their eternal perspective and hope. The resurrection of Jesus puts our suffering into perspective - it is essential that we maintain that perspective.

In light of the resurrection, we are also able to find God’s redemptive purpose in the midst of suffering. I agree with author Philip Yancey, who writes that God does not (usually) directly cause human suffering in order to “teach us specific lessons.” God does allow suffering to exist, and He uses our suffering to accomplish His good purposes. “But I can’t believe He actively inflicts the pain for a specific purpose.” In relation to our suffering, I draw a distinction between God’s prescriptive will and His permissive will. He does not (generally speaking) prescribe our suffering, but rather permits it. He does not will it; He merely allows it to happen.

God may not cause us to suffer, but He does desire to use our suffering to accomplish something great. Many times when I visited our friend in Remand, I sought to encourage her - “God can and will bring good things out of this experience, if we place ourselves in His hands and allow Him to work in and through us.” And God has, indeed, already brought good out of the situation - a faith which had long been dormant in her has been reignited and brought to life. Romans 8:28 famously says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Again, it is essential to note that nowhere does the Bible minimize or trivialize the suffering that we experience. Rather, here in Romans 8, God seeks to show us that He will redeem our suffering.

So we have seen that everybody suffers in one way or another, but that the resurrection of Jesus Christ transforms the way in which we experience and endure our suffering. We do not suffer hopelessly - rather, we have the assurance of our own resurrection to eternal life. We are able to put our suffering into eternal perspective, remembering that the glory that awaits us in heaven far outweighs the nature of our suffering here and now. We can be honest before God and His Church about the fact and depth of our suffering, turning to them for support in keeping proper perspective. Finally, we are able to see the redemptive side of our suffering. None of this makes suffering something to be desired or to be invited, nor does it trivialize the difficulty and hardship of suffering - but in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are able to face suffering with hope, assurance, and comfort.

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