“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,” – Romans 5:3-5
American Christianity, for the most part, does not know suffering the way Paul knew suffering. We have freedom of speech and laws to protect it. So when we publicly declare that we believe in Jesus, we might get a few people here and there who criticize us for believing a Bible full of scientific inaccuracies (as if it was written as a scientific text) or who simply believe something else entirely. Maybe we lose a friend or two on Facebook. What is unlikely to happen, though, is us seeing jail time for declaring Jesus as Lord.
I’m certain there are the few exceptions in America who’ve received physical violence due to their beliefs in Jesus. I haven’t heard of them, but perhaps they’re out there. And even though their stories might stand as evidence that American Christians suffer at times, their testimonies do not speak for the overwhelming majority of Christians in America. For the most part, American Christians do not suffer much physical violence – if any at all.
However, this does not mean we do not experience different forms of suffering. Paul was imprisoned and eventually executed. I don’t believe that will happen to me, but what has happened to me is depression. What has happened to others is financial insufficiency. And plenty others have suffered bouts with cancer and various life-long diseases that have no known cures. In these ways, we do suffer, but it isn’t due to our Christian convictions.
And I don’t think Paul predicated this passage from Romans on that belief; that suffering only happens because we’re followers of Christ. I think Paul would be one of the first to say that suffering happens whether you believe in Christ or not. It is with this fact in mind that I move on to what kind of irks me about American Christianity.
I am sorry if others are offended by this, but I have never been a fan of Joel Osteen. I can’t say if he’s a false prophet (not even sure if we mean that terminology as the early Christians did, really), but I can say that his style makes me feel really awkward. He often talks as though he’s constantly holding bunnies or kittens (or both). But what truly nullifies me as a fan is his support of an idea called the “Prosperity Gospel.”
It’s a common idea amongst many American Christians – an idea that once you believe in Jesus, God will bless you with social, financial, emotional, material success and prosperity. It’s the belief that once you hand things over to God, you’ll be forever happy from that moment onward. What isn’t addressed is that no matter what, we’re going to experience some form of suffering – and Christ even promises us so.
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few,” – Matthew 7:13-14
If we choose to follow Jesus, it isn’t going to be easy. We’d be gravely mistaken if we thought our lives were going to instantly improve once we accepted Christ. Why then should we follow Jesus? If things aren’t guaranteed to improve, but most likely get worse, why should we want that for our lives? If that’s true, then, as Paul says, “We are of all people most to be pitied,” (1 Cor. 15:19).
And yet, that’s far from the full story.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world,” – John 16:33
Oddly enough, things are guaranteed to improve, but it won’t be comfortable. There will be pain, there will be emotional turmoil, and there will be unrest, but the end result will be worth more than all the suffering we experience. It is something that cannot be snatched away from us: suffering to endurance, endurance to character, and character to hope. As C.S. Lewis says, it’s like having a cavity-filled tooth removed rather than capped or filled; though the process is painful, the end result is pain-free.
Not only is my life not as I would like it to be, it’s not as it should be. None of our lives are; Christ hasn’t restored all things yet. Therefore we’re still prone to doubt, stumble, and wander – all of which have painful consequences. And we must suffer them. Even if we didn’t doubt, stumble, or wander, we’d still suffer. But Paul says that if we believe in Christ Jesus, then our suffering is cause for rejoicing because of what that suffering produces in the long run.
Following Jesus is more than an endurance race; it’s an eternal race. At some point, because of how deeply Jesus heals, we’ll outrun our spiritual aches, pains, and injuries. We’ll run unhindered. We’ll run free in Christ.
Prosperity in this life might come our way, but it won’t be because of some promise from God. Pain will come our way because of part of a promise from God. Prosperity in God’s Kingdom is the other part of the promise. It’s simply prosperity of a different kind in a world of a different kind. And it’s far worth the pain.