A Response: God Does Not Call Us to Suffering

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Notes on Revelation

satan Passion of the Chrust

This semester, I am taking a class on the book of Revelation. It’s been a fascinating and illuminating journey as I learn the cultural context and the cultural meanings of all the visions and symbols in the book, and what John, the author, is trying to convey as his message (Inspired by God, of course).

We haven’t touched much on the futuristic aspect of Revelation and how much of it might be literal when it comes to the end times and all that. I’m not going to talk about that in this post, either.

But two particular discussions we had in the last few classes made me thoughtful.

We were talking about Revelation 12, the chapter in which John tells the story of the woman and the dragon and the story of Michael and the angels defeating the dragon, who is Satan. My professor took this opportunity to comment on Satan’s origins. Many people believe that Satan’s previous name was Lucifer, an angel, and God cast him out of heaven because a) he loved God too much and refused to bow down to humans as God’s ultimate creation, or b) that he became proud and wanted to be God’s equal.

Neither version is in the Bible, my professor said. The name Lucifer is not in the Bible. The story actually originates in a Jewish apocalypse, a book named 1 Enoch, which was written in the intertestamental period.

I confess: I had always thought that Satan used to be Lucifer and God cast him out of heaven, taking one-third of the angels with him. I don’t remember learning that at church or hearing it from anyone in particular, but now I’m rather embarassed about my ignorance.

My professor cited several Scripture references that lead people to believe this story, such as Revelation 12:9 (“And the great dragon was thrown down … to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”), Isaiah 14:12-15, in which the title “Day Star” can be translated as Lucifer, and Luke 10:17-18, in which Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven.

Contextually, my professor said, Revelation is talking about ultimate spiritual defeat, not some event at the beginning of history. Isaiah is actually talking about the king of Babylon, not Satan, and Jesus is also talking about spiritual defeat, not a literal event.

Now, I’m no Biblical scholar. I don’t know ancient Hebrew or Greek, and I cannot claim to understand Revelation or any of the prophetic books very well at all, let alone everything Jesus said.

But my professor’s explanation of the Scripture references made sense to me, and I started wondering why the Jewish people would give Satan an origin story at all.

After all, he is evil incarnate, isn’t he? Why would anyone want to dwell on him more than necessary?

Well, this is what occurred to me.

1 Enoch was written in the intertestamental period, approximately (like I said, I’m not a Biblical scholar). This was a period in which God was silent. He was still present, still working in the lives of his people and the events of history, but he did not speak through prophets or judges or leaders.

This would have been a period of spiritual uncertainty for a people who were so accustomed to hearing the words of God spoken through his prophets, even if they didn’t like what they heard. History rolled onward in these four hundred years, often trampling God’s people. I’m sure they wanted an explanation for their suffering, just as Christians today ask “Why?”.

If Satan is evil incarnate, he was certainly present and working against God’s people during this period. The Bible does not tell us where the serpent in the Garden of Eden came from, just that he was there. Well, God created all things, so does that mean he created the serpent, Satan, too? That’s a disturbing thought.

The Jews must have thought so. Giving Satan an origin story in which evil was his choice, defying God was his choice, removes the blame of the creation of evil from God and puts it in the hands of free will, the same thing that humans have.

So if Satan never started off on God’s side, and has always been evil, does that mean he came from God?

That’s a terrible thought. The Jews didn’t like it either, I’m sure, thus the origin story.

I believe that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and that he created everything. Better minds than mine have philosophized about the origin of evil and God’s role in that. I don’t have an answer; I just came up with a reason as to why anyone would give Satan an origin story.

The other discussion that sparked some thought for me was related to God’s incredible wrath and judgment described in Revelation. My professor has noted throughout the class that many scholars do not like Revelation and tend to try to explain it away or disregard it as part of Scripture because of the wrath. If God is love, than how can he also be so wrathful?

We are discussing the final chapters of Revelation, in which God brings justice and judgment to the wicked, those who belong to the “kingdom of the earth,” as John described them. My professor said that he sees wrath as necessary for justice. God’s people have been persecuted by the wicked, and now he is bringing justice to them by passing judgment on the wicked.

I think one reason people are so uncomfortable with the idea of God as a wrathful God, not only a God of love, is that that wrath has a target: the wicked. “But God loves everyone! He shouldn’t have wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah or the Canaanites!” people say. Well, he does love everyone. Often, his judgment is designed to bring people to repentance. But he cannot allow those who do not repent to avoid justice.

I think of it like this: Love is the beginning. Wrath is the ending.

God offers chance after chance for humanity to turn its back on evil and follow the Christ. He loves us more than we could ever imagine. But those chances are not unlimited. If humanity keeps its heart hard and refuses to accept Christ and persecutes God’s people, that does not go without consequences.

The inhabitants of the kingdom of the earth. In the context of the Bible, they are the ones who have not accepted Christ as Redeemer and Savior.

I think that those who are uncomfortable with the idea of God judging people and bringing his wrath down upon them feel that way because they don’t want to acknowledge that humans are sinful creatures; that they are sinful. God’s love is so much more attractive than his wrath because his love takes us as we are while his wrath demands repentance.

God brings judgment on those who deserve it, who have rejected him. People don’t like to think that anyone deserves judgment because that would mean admitting the sin and darkness that all humans are capable of.

God is just, however, and whether we like it or not, he will bring justice in the end times.

Remember, I’m no theologian or Bible scholar or philosopher. I’m sure people can find holes in my thought process here and pick apart my conclusions. But these two ideas needed to be written out, so that I could think them through.