I wonder if the Protestant manifestation of “faith alone” has led to, or at least contributed to, our anemic theology of suffering. I recently heard Gerald McDermott speak and he presented the contemporary idea of faith alone as clinging to an intellectual assent that Christ died for my sins. Therefore, this act of faith makes no change in who I am and this justification is the crux of the Gospel. I think McDermott has accurately identified the contemporary evangelical Protestant position. What I want to examine is not his assessment, but its effects when we face suffering as Christians.
If justification is the core of the Gospel, and “nothing happens” to us upon confession of faith other than a change of eternal destination, then sanctification is a future event, not an ongoing process. This goes against Scripture and most church teaching. It also contributes to a non-sacramental view of the Eucharist and baptism.
It is this anti-sacramental shift that strips suffering of its meaning. If there is nothing we can do, and nothing that can be done to us, to make us more holy, then suffering is just prolonged pain with no purpose. If, however, we see that God desires us not only to be “saved” but to be holy, and to work toward that goal in this life, then a sacramental theology has meaning.
Suffering allows us two opportunities. First, it allows us to identify with Christ. If we are to become more Christ-like, we must suffer. Jesus suffered, and did so without any just reason. He is without sin, unblemished and perfect, yet was scourged and crucified. Not only that (which is outside of most of our experience), he lived as one of us. He slept on the ground and ate what at times was probably gross food. He dealt with bugs, body odor, and bad breath. He was heckled and misunderstood.
The second opportunity comes because we are not Christ-like. We all like sheep have gone astray and there is no health in us apart from God’s grace. We are sinners and deserve condemnation and death. When we suffer, we are reminded of this and, if God gives us the grace, we can understand that whatever suffering we endure is totally justified.
These are not easy words, and they are certainly not popular words, but centuries of saints tell us the same thing. From Paul’s thorn in the flesh onward, Christ’s disciples have, until recent times, understood suffering as what we deserve. They have seen suffering as a chance to share in Christ’s sufferings — which Paul again mentions in a few places — and in so doing to be made more like Christ.
Suffering may devastate our body, but it can cleanse our soul. We defeat the enemy when we receive his blows not as an unjust attack, but as a reminder that we are unworthy sinners before God. This requires humility before God and in the face of suffering. It turns the “problem of pain” on its head. We will look at that next.