This summer I heard a sermon that upset me deeply. This message was spoken to Christians about Christians, and it declared that God calls some to suffering and some to victory.
This article responds to the teaching in that sermon, because I believe it was unbiblical and harmful. I am not questioning or discussing the speaker’s intentions with the sermon, only the message spoken and implied. For anyone who has heard this sermon or others like it, this article is for you.
The sermon itself was about Hebrews 11:32-40, and I have no objection to the majority of it, until we reached verses 35-40. The speaker said, supposedly based on these verses, that God calls us to suffering. He went on to say that God calls some of us to suffering, some of us to victory.
I do not agree.
First, the only victory we have is Christ. He triumphed over death, and by choosing him, his victory becomes ours, regardless of the suffering we endure in this life. (Hebrews 10:12-14) The entire book of Hebrews talks about enduring suffering in faith, not being called to it!
Christ’s victory means we have new life and freedom from our sin and shame. It does not always mean we see freedom from everything we struggle with in this life.
Second, it’s often those of us in a position of “victory” who feel free to use the deterministic language that God calls some to victory and some to suffering.
I myself speak from a position of “victory,” to give it the implied definition: I have suffered no trauma, no abuse, and no immense loss. I have never experienced discrimination, never been assaulted or mocked, never worried about having food to eat or a warm place to sleep. My family is stable and intact; I live in the wealthiest country on earth; I have never battled mental or physical illness.
A person who survived the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust, a person who was molested as a child, an African slave who lived and died never knowing freedom – were they called to suffer? They were certainly not experiencing the “victory” implied in the sermon.
Suffering versus victory is a false dichotomy. As I said above, Christians always have victory because we are in Christ, while we also experience hardship and pain in our lives. We suffer and we are victorious simultaneously. It is not an either/or proposition.
Victory in Christ doesn’t always look like we think it ought to when we are dealing with pain and anguish in our lives, so we struggle to recognize it. This adds to the false dichotomy, because then we do see it as victory versus suffering, rather than the two existing alongside each other.
But even if we were to use the “victory” definition, one can have a loving family and also battle debilitating illness. New moms often face both the joy of a new life and the deep darkness of postpartum depression. Rachael Denhollander suffered sexual abuse, the effects of which are deeply scarring, and also fights for other survivors as a lawyer today while she raises her own children.
By separating suffering and victory, we do not allow either those “called to suffering” to have victory or those “called to victory” to suffer. This concept hurts everyone, regardless of the level of “victory” in their lives.
Third, when we speak of suffering, if we don’t acknowledge different types of suffering, we are not correctly addressing the subject. By no means am I a theologian or philosopher, but I have identified at least three different varieties of suffering.
- Suffering as a result of a broken world. (Romans 8:20-22). Natural disasters, cancer, disease, aging, depression. Our world is deeply wounded and broken; God did not intend for humans to starve to death or take their own lives because their brain chemistry is unregulated.
- Suffering as a result of human evil and sin. (Romans 1:28-32) Slavery, abuse, child molestation, genocide, war, PTSD. Humanity is capable of great evil. What humans do to each other is far outside what God created us to be. We must be mindful, however, that the sin of humans exists on a spectrum: a child hitting his brother does not in any way compare to a grown man abusing his family. To say that it does is sin leveling. While we are all sinners, some people have embraced wickedness, some sinful acts are far more destructive to other people, and true acts of evil are often committed by people who profess Christianity and yet are wolves in sheepskins, who do not know Christ at all.
- Suffering as a result of choosing Christ. (John 15:18-21) Persecution, martyrdom, imprisonment, torture. Jesus warned us not only that we would suffer, but that we would suffer in his name, for him. Christians around the world have died, are dying, and will die because they love Jesus. People have lost their entire families when they were disowned for following Christ.
Obviously these three categories overlap: the Haitian people suffer from diseases and starvation, both elements of a broken earth, imposed on them by the terrible legacy of colonialism, the evil of humans.
Free will and demonic evil also play significant roles in our pain.
Free will means that you can choose to live in a state regularly affected by tornadoes or hurricanes, that you can lie to your boss and be fired, or marry someone who chooses to abuse you. You can also choose to follow Jesus even when the path leads to a prison cell or death, yet you can always turn away.
I don’t think we can truly know the role of demonic evil in our suffering. What illnesses or accidents or disasters are the devil’s handiwork? What human evil does he prompt or spread? When is he persecuting followers of Christ through unwitting human puppets or willing abusers?
Finding him in every heartbreaking circumstance denies the fact that humans are capable of great evil all on their own, but to dismiss him as inconsequential is to be spiritually blind. (1 Peter 5:8)
To say that God calls us to suffering without also describing some of the nuance and variety of suffering and its causes is inadequate. It traps people in abusive situations and tells them that suffering is God’s will for them and plan for their life, and that is spiritually abusive. It tells people that God arranged earthquakes and hurricanes specifically for them; that God chose their baby for SIDS. It places concentration camps in the same category as forest fires without accounting for the differing causes of each.
Suffering is not straightforward. There’s no easy answer or clear reason. Saying that God calls us to suffering jumps past all the complexity and tells us that God has a plan that requires our pain.
If we take this concept to its logical extreme, people who seek treatment for physical and mental illness and people who flee from abuse, war, genocide and slavery are thwarting God’s will and disobeying his call on their lives. This logical extreme leads people to say, “Sometimes children dying is godly.” Ideas like this wreak heartbreaking devastation upon people’s faith in Jesus.
These are the problems with saying that God calls us to suffering. I do not believe God ever calls us to suffering.
The only possible type of suffering we might say God calls us to is suffering for Christ, but that elevates suffering to a level it was never meant to attain. God calls us to him, to follow him, to be loved by him. That path may lead to suffering and through suffering, but the suffering is not the point and it is not the destination.
Jesus warned us over and over that persecution comes when we choose him. But that’s all he said. He did not tell us that he calls us to suffer for him, only that it will happen because of his name. (Matthew 10:22-23)
When we imply that suffering is holy, do we then extend that to mean Christians fleeing persecution in Iraq or China should stay and endure? Do we mean that escaping persecution is wrong?
The believers in Jerusalem fled persecution at the very beginning of the church – are we suggesting they should have stayed? From our vantage point 2,000 years later, we can see that God used the Christians escaping from persecution to spread the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, just as he brings light from the darkness of our own lives. If they had all stayed in Jerusalem and Israel, the world would look very different today.
There is no one answer; each Christian must follow Jesus’ leading for their own life. Sometimes that will mean enduring persecution for Christ’s sake, sometimes that will mean fleeing.
But we must not confuse suffering because of Christ with suffering of any other kind.
They cannot be addressed as if they are the same, because enduring persecution for sharing the Gospel is not the same as battling chronic illness or grieving the sudden death of a son or daughter, although they are equally devastating and difficult.
Natalie Hoffman spent twenty years in an abusive marriage. Jesus did not want that for her. He led her to freedom through divorce. Did good come from that marriage? Yes – she has nine children and a powerful abuse ministry that has helped hundreds of women break free from their own abusive marriages. God brings beauty from ashes in a million different ways, but he does not require or plan your suffering in order to do so.
If you have heard this sermon or others like it and…
…you see God as abusive for orchestrating your suffering…
…you feel that God wants you to stay in your abusive marriage, relationship, or spiritual community…
…you believe God caused your abuse or sexual assault or trauma…
…you think that God chose you for suffering above and beyond what other people suffer…
…your soul is bleeding and your heart breaking because you have been told that God took your child or gave you an illness or tore apart your relationship…
I am so sorry.
These ideas are not of God.
Jesus loves you and he wants you to be safe and free and to know that you are precious and beautiful to Him. God weeps and rages on behalf of the wounded, the abused, the grieving, the poor, the bullied, the oppressed. (Psalm 34:18) He is a God of justice and love and one day he will judge the wicked for what they have done. (Psalm 37:28)
If anyone who claims spiritual authority over you has told you that God’s will is for you to stay in your suffering, run from that spiritual community. It is not safe for you or anyone else who has been abused or broken.
Search for books and resources and communities that will help you find freedom and truth in Jesus and please, reach out to people who understand abuse and trauma who can support you.
If this is the God, the Jesus, that you believe in as a Christian, a God who calls people to suffer Alzheimer’s, child molestation, emotional abuse, or miscarriage, my heart breaks for you.
This is not the Jesus I know. The God who breathed life into us and created salvation just for us does not call people to suffer. He calls us to him.
My fellow Christians, we ask why people are leaving the church. Before we blame secular culture, we need to assess the church with brutal honesty. (Luke 6:41-42) This goes beyond hypocrisy. Why would anyone want to follow a God who wants them to suffer?
If someone came to church because they are trying to be faithful, trying to love their abusive spouse as he destroys their soul, and heard a message like this, why should they stay in church? Why would they want to?
The church should be full of more abused, wounded, and broken people than anywhere else in the world. We carry the love of Christ and should be loving the lost and hurting, who need it desperately. Jesus came for them! Sermons that tell people that God selected suffering as their life path, their calling from him, leave room only for the “victorious” within the church.
While I am happy to agree to disagree with Christians of all theological backgrounds, if your theology traps people in their pain and suffering, if it leads you to say and do anything to another person that does not reflect the way Jesus loves and cares for people, you need to take a good hard look at what you really believe.
We must always consider the painful stories of others before we express our theology. If we don’t speak to others with compassion and love because of what we believe, we are not loving people as Christ calls us to.
Humans do not have an answer to suffering. Oh, we have ideas and philosophies and millions of words about suffering and why and how and who. Many of those ideas and philosophies and words are healing and clarifying and of the Lord; many are abusive and wounding and false. But we just don’t know the full truth.
I heard this sermon months ago and am still deeply affected by it. Can you imagine looking in the eyes of your neighbor who is dying of cancer and telling her that God called her to suffer? Or a child who has been molested and abandoned in the foster care system?
I don’t want anyone to ascribe this false doctrine of suffering to the God who loves us so deeply that he died for us. Jesus suffered for us; he doesn’t need our pain for his work. When no one else wants us, God does. When this life tries to destroy us, he is with us.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this:
Jesus loves you.