The Suffering Formulary
The Bible we subscribe to and the God we serve daily consistently informs us of, through His reverberating Word, the theme and reality of suffering. It is not long into the narrative of Holy writ that the subject and pain of suffering crashes onto the scene of creation. From that point forward, Genesis through Revelation, suffering is inescapable. The Christian cannot evade the reality of suffering, for it is through grappling with pain that we are sharpened, refined, and tested for next-level living and occurrences.
Those who operate outside the embrace of Christ, find this fellowship and purpose strange. It is hard for them to understand a God that would allow His elect (or humanity in general) to suffer. As strange as it may sound, there is a grand and beloved connection between love and suffering. Granted, suffering does not look the same for each believer, but Paul informed church members in his Corinthian congregation that “Love suffers long” (1 Corinthians 13:4). As a premise we will use some of the theological concepts to help us with biblical study principles and the wisdom, glory, inspiration, and suffering nexus. Without understanding the interplay between the four concepts, and especially the trilogy of wisdom, glory, and suffering, Christian praxis appears futile. To move us into 2017, introductorily, we shall say a bit about suffering here.
There are a few scriptural occasions where it is emphatic, but thematically the connotation of suffering being closely connected to the outcome of glory is sweeping and biblically pervasive. The Apostle Peter said, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1). The Late Dr. Kenneth Bailey gives us a glimpse of this suffering connection in his book The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey From Psalm 23 to the New Testament. He said, “The secular Greek word glory (doxa) means no more than ‘an opinion’ expressed by a speaker or writer. But doxa in the Greek Old Testament translates the Hebrew word kabod, which has to do with weight” (p. 255). This golden nugget for understanding and expanding the New Testament text is superlative. It takes glory out of the realm of just divine illuminating radiance and places it in the sphere of foundational heaviness, weight, and gravitas. Bailey says about this suffering that engenders glory, followed by life-impacting wisdom, “Will it [suffering] be the trail that leads to bitterness and revenge, and brings forth death, or will they follow the way into wisdom and weight that can give birth to forgiveness and reconciliation even in the middle of a continuing struggle for justice?” (p. 259).
In the text above Peter is exhorting elders, but he is using the formula of Jesus and His suffering as the means by which glory/wisdom is produced. Without suffering there can be no glory, the crucial experiences that weigh us down and ground us in spiritual maturity. This is the thesis the world, and maybe even the church, misunderstands. The pain and suffering is designed to produce glory and wisdom. Remember Peter also said, “Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Peter 1:11). Glory is always designed to follow suffering. Spiritual maturity cannot be developed or exacted without an honest battle with suffering. And as it is displayed in Romans 5:1-6, the cycle repeats throughout earthly Christian existence.
The world seeks to gain wisdom through an institutional epistemic process, but again, Dr. Bailey discusses in his book Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, the way in which persons with a biblical worldview seek to capture that which is beyond mere institutional wisdom, knowledge, logic, and reason — as was the case with the philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22). Bailey said, “Logic and reasoning are not enough. There is a component in the gift of grace that equips the believers to understand things of God. Paul moves in a world that cannot be reconciled to the worldview of enlightenment. We are back at the cross that the world sees as weak and foolish, but for those who are being saved—it is the power and wisdom of God” (pp. 117-118). Suffering as a heavenly principle is seen as unnecessary, problematic, and unloving, but for the elect of God, despite its difficulty, it is embraced through faith.
The way people understand God really is deduced to the transforming work of the Spirit and our willingness to be opened by the Word of God. About his own Christian experience as a scholar and theologian, Craig L. Blomberg shares in his most recent work (2016), The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs, “I attempt to limit myself to arguments and the presentation of evidence that does not depend on being a Christian. At the same time, I am aware that the extent to which a given person will find various arguments more plausible than not has a lot to do with whether they are inclined toward Christianity at all” (p. xxvii). The interpretation and understanding of a required aspect toward suffering is similar. Every member in the church that belongs to Christ must be prepared for their biggest ordeal of pain and betrayal to be birthed through a church encounter. That will not be the time to engage in flight, it will be time to transform the weighty experience of suffering into glory and a cemented wisdom.
While some brush off and contort the Christian faith into their own perceived foolishness, the child of God embraces and lives the Word with zeal, fear, trembling, and reverence (through suffering). Some will continually struggle to come to faith because they will resist the connective tissue of suffering and faith, casting doubt and aspersion at every turn. Thus Craig L. Blomberg also said in his book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels:
“Is the miraculous possible or not? Should we be a priori more sceptical of the biblical material due to its theological nature or not? Some involves varying criteria or varying uses of the same criteria, which in turn often relates to the question of how similar or dissimilar we expect Jesus to be from the Judaism of his day and the Christianity that followed him. Still other differences stem from the broader philosophical questions surrounding the relationship between religion and historical investigation” (p. 19).
For the disciple of Christ there is a blessed outgrowth of suffering that launches us into our next levels of spiritual existence. Similar to crisis, this suffering cannot be ignored. Crisis is never intended, it always arrives as an untimely and uninvited crasher. Yet suffering and crisis is truly necessary, for in them we learn of our character, and even more importantly, the character of those around us. Crisis and suffering teaches us who we can take into battle and war. Without crisis and bouts of suffering, everyone looks like a battle-tested warrior. These are painfully hard lessons to encounter and learn experientially, but of vital importance. Embrace suffering in faith; it is a sign that God is testing and moving His elect to more fertile ground.
Again it was Dr. Bailey who expounded upon the circumstances, revolution, imprisonment, and release of the Late Nelson Mandela in The Good Shepherd by saying, “He is a living witness to the reprocessing of anger into grace! With his presence, his gravitas/glory shines invisibly in the room, and that glory rests on his personal sufferings” (p. 260). In terms of the Jesus/Peter link, Bailey said, “Peter saw Jesus suffer painful rejection, and also saw how Jesus responded to that rejection. As a member of the apostolic band, Peter was united with Christ in that suffering” (p. 258). He was not just talking about the cross, he was speaking of the suffering and rejection (even from His own house and people) before the ultimate cross and crucifixion. Dr. Bailey went on to say “We need to retrain our reflexes. When we hear the word glory as applied to people, we should instinctively think of wisdom born of suffering, not wealth or power” (p. 258).
Once the above paradigm is engaged and received at the core level, inspiration is the propelling result for the person and witness(es). It is at that point inspiration is joined to the wisdom, glory, suffering formulary. Admittedly or not, we are all inspired by someone or something. Jesus is the ultimate example of transforming life circumstances into glory, followed by His Apostles. Yet we shall conclude with one last modern form of inspirational transformation through Mandela:
“…Mandela transformed his suffering into gravitas (kabod). He managed to reprocess his anger into grace, and that grace flowed from his life into the life of his nation and out into the wider world. He was a sterling example of what the Middle East (and the Bible) calls ‘a heavy man.’ At the same time, his glory (as wisdom/gravitas) included splendor—a quiet splendor born of suffering that needed no expensive trappings” (The Good Shepherd, p. 260).
Be inspired to make the most of suffering through glorification. Make sure the biblical text and code of suffering is real in your life. You are the clay In the Potter’s Hands and God has paved a way to save you today!
Dr. Ammar Saheli