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.

On Being an Introverted Christian

I’m an introvert.

I’m a fairly classic introvert, who is not outgoing or comfortable in large groups of people I don’t know, who requires lots of alone time to function, who could easily become a actual hermit if I lived alone and didn’t need to work for a living. Parties where I only know one person are very stressful. Fictional people are so much easier to deal with than real people.

Small talk is so hard. What do I say? What questions do I ask? Oh no, did I just come off as a crazy person?

Walking up and starting a conversation with someone I don’t know is enough to give me heart palpitations. I did that at church recently, with people I don’t know personally but who know who my family is, and my hands were shaking through the whole conversation, my heart was pounding, and I was praying I could get the words out without tripping over them and stuttering and saying strange things. Corners are the best place to be at events, because then people come to you if they want to talk to you.

If you see me at an event and I don’t talk to you, please know that I probably think you’re really cool but have no idea what to say to someone that awesome. If I speak to you I’ll end up saying strange things or just laughing a lot. It’s not you, it’s me. Seriously.

Phone calls are the bane of my existence. I’m extremely blessed to be in a job where I rarely have to talk on the phone. If I call you, I have probably given myself a script to start off the call, because there are only a few people on this earth I don’t get anxious about being on the phone with, and most of them live in the same house as me.

Making friends is like climbing a hill with no guarantee of ever reaching the top, complete with awkward conversations and heart palpitating moments along the way. This chart, found on tumblr, sums up most of my friendships:

Sometimes I feel like you have to be an extrovert to be a good Christian. (A horrifying notion.) Jesus loves people. He came to earth and spent so much time loving on people and meeting new people and being surrounded by crowds. He tells us to feed His sheep and go into the world and make disciples. So many people!

Being real here–people stress me out. A lot. 

So it seems like I’m not qualified for this being like Christ business. Especially when you need to show His love to people you don’t know. Believe me, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone to do this and for someone who gets anxious about asking a worker at a store a question, it takes a lot of fear and trembling before God to do that.

Oh God, do I have to? Maybe someone else could do it? I’ll just show your love to the middle school girls I already know, and maybe another leader can talk to the new ones. I know, I know. I’ll go over and introduce myself in 3, 2, 1…

It has gotten easier, in some situations. Middle school kids don’t seem to care how awkward I feel when I talk to them. I actually hold short conversations with the moms who have babies in the church nursery where I volunteer.

But I am so much more comfortable in the background, with the people I already know. Church event coming up? Great! How can I help in the kitchen or with the kids? I’ll tell people what to do if there’s no one else to do it, but it makes me nervous. And please don’t make me a greeter…

So there are the two sides of the situation. On the one side, God made me who I am. I can’t force myself to be a people person, and I will never be someone who meets someone and bam! Instant friend. I have my strengths as an introvert–great with small groups, great listener, absolutely ready to pray or talk one-on-one, overwhelming love for my middle school girls–and I have learned (am learning) how to balance those with my weaknesses.

On the other side, God has called me to love people. Maybe not as a greeter at church events, or as the one who goes out into the lobby to find the moms new to the church and encourage them to bring their babies to the nursery. It’s so easy sometimes to avoid talking to people and tell myself it’s because I’m an introvert and it’s exhausting and anxiety inducing.

But when that middle school girl walks in to the student center and looks lost and uncertain, I can get over myself and my insecurities and go welcome her. When standing in a Jamaican nursing home with instructions to go into the residents’ rooms to pray with them, I can pray, Oh God, I don’t know how to do this and I’m really freaked out, and then do it anyway.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to be people we are not. He does ask us to trust Him to change us and grow us into Christians–little Christs. And to do that, we need to lift our eyes off our own insecurities and fears, turn to God, and say, Ok, God. What do I do next?

I will always be an introvert, and Jesus will use me just as I am. I don’t have to worry about being different. All I have to do is turn to Jesus.

Jesus and Minimalism

bluepaintRecently I watched Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things on Netflix. I’ve been a minimalist for a few years now, ever since discovering minimalism shortly after graduating college. Depending on the picture that comes to mind when you hear the word minimalism, you might not agree with my self-label if you saw all my belongings. (So many books. And notebooks. And–I confess–horse toys.)

Minimalism, however, is not about having as few things as possible and having a cold, bare home. Minimalism is about editing your life to contain only what brings you joy and adds value to your life. This is often most visible in your physical possessions, but it also plays out in how you spend your time, how you spend your money, the relationships you cultivate, the job you choose, and the activities you fill your schedule with.

As an introvert, I naturally tend toward minimalism in my schedule, but it was a revelation to me that I did not in fact need to own all the books to have my own little library. I only need the books that bring me joy, which are usually the books I read over and over, or the books I read dozens of times as a child and want to keep for nostalgia and any future children of my own.

The anti-thesis of minimalism is consumerism, which is more than just shopping a lot. Consumerism is a worldview, a mindset, that affects your finances, your career, your schedule, your hobbies, and your relationships, just as minimalism does.

This is essentially the thesis of the documentary, which I found to be a refreshing, calm film that inspired me to be more intentional about life: how I spend my time, my money, and my thoughts. I highly recommend it.

One aspect of the documentary that caught my attention was the interviews. Most of the major minimalism bloggers that I am familiar with were interviewed for the documentary, and as each described their journey to minimalism, I heard the same phrases over and over.

“I felt so empty.”

“There was a hole that I was trying to fill with buying things and doing things.”

“I climbed the ladder and did not find fulfillment at the top.”

These are general sentiments, not exact quotes, but nearly every single person experienced a variation of this. They then discovered minimalism and shed loads of excess baggage, weight, mental turmoil, and schedule craziness, and did a complete 180 in life.

Now they all described a slower pace of life with fewer possessions and commitments, with time to focus on what was truly important to them. Fulfillment and contentment, found in minimalism.

I am quite certain these bloggers have found fulfillment and contentment and joy having edited their lives and possessions. I am equally certain their original problem was emptiness, not consumerism.

As a Christian, I know there is emptiness without Jesus. Every Christian can tell their own story of life without Jesus, and life with Jesus with that emptiness filled. Emptiness is the condition of a life without Jesus, and consumerism is a treatment of the emptiness that soon becomes a symptom of that same emptiness.

Minimalism is another treatment of the original problem, and most people who give minimalism the side-eye do so because of minimalists who count their possessions and exult when they have only 100 things, or minimalists who are always skating through life by borrowing everyone else’s belongings and generosity in order to have as few things as possible. At that point the treatment has once again become a symptom.

But although minimalism is not Jesus, I think it comes much closer to filling that void than consumerism, and that’s why minimalists do feel so much happier and content with life.

Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV) says “19 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

I will not label Jesus a minimalist. Trying to pin modern labels on the Son of God is a silly exercise, in my opinion. But I do think minimalists are on to something that Jesus was telling people about 2,000 years ago.

Jesus valued people, not possessions. He spent His time building relationships and focusing His energy on God’s purpose for Him. Those of us who have been in church for a long time are familiar with the idea that Jesus did not come to be the warrior king the Jewish people expected, but instead a savior of souls. But if we look at this from a slightly different angle, what do we find?

Jesus did not come to earth to accumulate material possessions or see how much activity He could fit in one day, no matter how worthwhile that activity might be. Luke 12:15 (ESV) says, “15 And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”

The young man who wanted to know how to have eternal life was not interested in giving up his possessions and wealth in order to have that eternal life. Jesus’ response speaks volumes about what happens when we value the wrong things.

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24 ESV)

The point is not the wealth or possessions, but what matters to us. In minimalist terms, what we spend our time, money, and physical space on.

Do we prioritize buying the newest gadget over giving to an organization that feeds the hungry and brings the gospel to the far corners of the world? Do we spend time organizing our lives and our belongings or spending hours on our devices and put off spending time with our families? Are we too busy running from one activity to the next to notice the gorgeous sky God created or the joy of splashing in puddles? I’m certainly guilty of all this.

If Christians are on this earth to be a reflection of Christ, then living with a consumeristic mindset simply will not work. Our lives ought to be lived intentionally, with our priorities on people and God’s purpose for each of us. This includes doing things that feed our souls instead of sucking us dry and making the days flash by in a haze. This might be as simple as spending less time scrolling the internet and more time reading a book by C.S. Lewis, or as big as putting an stop to endless planning or dreaming and taking the first practical step toward your dreams and calling.

Courtney Carver, of bemorewithless, often says minimalism is love.

Jesus is love, and minimalism only works when it reflects Jesus’ values, whether the minimalist in question realizes it or not.

Emptiness, a life without God, is the problem. Consumerism is a treatment turned symptom. Minimalism is a treatment that mimics the cure.

Jesus is the cure.