Jesus himself points to suffering as part of the Christian experience. He tells us that we will experience troubles in this world (Jn. 16:33), and that we ought to rejoice as people treat us with disdain and contempt because of our allegiance to Jesus (Mt. 5:10-12). I think that we understand at some level that we ought not to be surprised when hardships come our way or we experience persecution.
However, do we think of suffering as something we endure or even a powerful force in shaping our spiritual lives as individuals and communities; or, do we see suffering and persecution as fundamental and foundational to our identity as believers? The early Anabaptist Church saw it as part of their very nature as followers of Christ to be sufferers and be martyrs for their faith. To die and suffer was an integral part of their witness and they saw themselves as fundamentally a suffering people. They created a theology around suffering, persecution, and martyrdom out of which came such documents as Martyr’s Mirror. To be the Church was to be a suffering people, and suffering bonded them together in a way that nothing else could. To be without suffering when prosperity finally came in some way robbed them of a piece of their identity and an aspect of theological understanding of what it means to be God’s people.
This is completely incomprehensible from the modern North American/European perspective, and although I am writing about it, I doubt I understand this idea any better than anyone else in the West.
I wonder if we will ever face persecution again in the West. I wouldn’t be surprised if we should expect it in an increasingly post-Christian age. I do not know that it will be any time soon, though it may be within my life-time. So what will it mean then to be the people of God in that context? How will we understand our suffering? I think these are important questions to ask, because if we do not understand the place of suffering in the Christian life, many who have been misinformed will fall away at the first signs of hardships. I can say that because even now it is happening. We have a completely impoverished understanding of hardship and persecution in an age of entitlement, Joel Osteen sermons and teaching from other prosperity Gospel / “living victoriously” people. I know people (and I am tempted to do so as well, being one who has lived in relative ease) who ask “Why me?” when bad things happen (e.g. a relative dies, a job is lost, a test is failed, a house sells for less than was hoped for, cancer comes calling). Admittedly this is a natural response, but how could such things cause us to lose faith? Many lose faith in God because they fell abandoned by God. They have bought the lie, very often implicitly expressed, that bad things don’t happen to Christians because God protects his people. For those who suffer daily under threats of death, such comparatively minor snags are barely worth a second thought, and this lie cannot exist for them. They instead choose to believe that God is with them in the midst of and despite the suffering. This was the great promise of Christ: that he would walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death and encourage us to face the trials that lay before us, guarding our souls until he should return or call us home.