The Sermon I Wish I Didn't Have to Preach

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: 5th Week of Easter
May 17, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: When we face suffering, we reject the prosperity gospel - the understanding of suffering as punishment for sin - as well as a martyr's complex. We seek God's strength in the midst of our suffering, and we hope for the resurrection.

We Christians can't seem to get suffering right. We don't want to talk about it, perhaps because we know how much can go wrong. If we start a conversation about suffering, some people won't stop. We can even get a competition going about whose suffering should take top prize.

Even though we don't want to talk about suffering, and we can veer off track too easily, we nevertheless need to because we have so many problems with it.

The early church, out of which First Peter arose, knew things about suffering most of us can't imagine. I hope we never have to learn what they knew. Even if the kind of suffering First Peter talks about arose out of a situation of persecution from Rome, what it teaches us about suffering can help with the kinds of suffering we face as well. If we typically misunderstand suffering, maybe the insights of First Peter can help us make progress toward getting it right. We might explore some of the ways that our thinking can be unhelpful, and even unfaithful.

A wrongheaded idea

There is a line of teaching you may have heard from televangelists and some other preachers called the "prosperity gospel" that, by overemphasizing a few Bible verses and disregarding others, makes claims not supported by the gospel of Jesus. It maintains that if we have enough faith, we will succeed in everything we do. Some verses in Proverbs seem to support this idea: "My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you."1 Most of us know that even the advice of the sage of Proverbs doesn't always work. Health, wealth and success have many factors behind them. We can all name people who have all three, but do not claim the faith. At the same time, we know others who have great faith, but struggle to pay the bills. We remember Jesus saying that he had no place to lay his head. Suffice to say, we don't buy into the prosperity gospel.

Nevertheless, we do think and say some things that sound a little like the prosperity gospel. If an illness or an injury slams into our lives, we can respond with, "What did I do to deserve this?" If we watch someone we care about in pain, we often ask, "She's such a good person, how could this happen to her?" We would not call ourselves followers of the prosperity gospel, but we still assume that God will protect good people. We act as though a person's goodness forms a shield around them to block any suffering or pain from a faithful life. The belief that success and failure, suffering and happiness depend on the quality of our faith leads us down the wrong path in our thinking about suffering.

The guilt trip

Closely related to the prosperity gospel message is the notion that all suffering happens as a punishment for sin. We must admit that the prophets seem to talk this way sometimes. Amos thunders at the people: "For three transgressions of Judah and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the LORD, and have not kept his statutes"2 The punishment the prophet invoked was intended to get the attention of the people. But we cannot use an example of God's punishment of wayward people as an affirmation that all suffering comes as a punishment.

Nevertheless, we all might know people who heard some misguided soul tell them that their illness was a punishment for sin, and if they confess and repent, the illness will clear up. And we sometimes think that if we can find a "why" behind our suffering, that will help us. We often find that "why" in the idea that our suffering comes as a punishment from God.

But if we see all suffering as punishment from God, two negative consequences can result: We can add guilt to our suffering, and we can become angry and resentful at God. Any suffering we might experience in life - whether we bring it on ourselves or whether it comes to us for no reason we can discern - can lead us to repentance. But we should not see all suffering as punishment for sin.

Nonetheless, here's a truth many sufferers have discovered: God sustains us in our suffering.

We have known people who loved the Lord, treated everyone with kindness and yet still faced terrible grief or anguish. The troubles that afflict all of us are part of life. We cannot always know the "why" behind our suffering, and we should not try to lift a load of guilt onto whatever else it is that we have to carry.

A martyr's complex

We can understand our suffering in another unhelpful way that is a close cousin to the guilt trip: We assume a martyr's complex. We imagine that some problem we have is our "cross to bear." This attitude often crops up in the context of a bad or abusive marriage, for instance. One partner will stay in a marriage that is genuinely toxic out of an assumption that enduring the abuse is part of his or her witness as a Christian. He or she interprets Jesus' words about taking up the cross as including suffering this spousal abuse. Some in the church even reinforce this notion. In fact, some women's shelters will not allow pastors to serve on their governing boards, because too many women have heard from a pastor that they should stay in bad marriages and be submissive.

God does not will abusive relationships! Sometimes walking away from a bad situation is the most Christian thing we can do. God wills emotional health for us, and healing from the hurt we experience from other people. God does not will toxic relationships. Some Christians hang in there with an adult child who causes them pain. If the Christian is strong enough, and has support, then "tough love" for a grown offspring can be a Christian witness. Nevertheless, such a Christian parent has no obligation to endure abuse.

Sustained by God

If we reject the prosperity gospel - the understanding that suffering comes from unconfessed sin - and a martyr's complex, then we can look at First Peter to help us understand the role of suffering in our lives and find resources to cope with it. I do not offer these words as one who has mastered the process of dealing with suffering on a personal level. I offer these words as one who knows that God can help us rise above suffering. I offer these words as one who trusts God not to let suffering have the last word.

With God's help we can keep suffering from defining our character. Instead, we allow God to heal us of the bitterness that can twist our souls into something we don't want to become. We allow God to heal us so that we do not become angry, vindictive or callous souls. We will indeed feel anger at our suffering, but we do all we can to keep that anger from warping our characters.

We must acknowledge that some suffering will just happen within a fallen creation. We will face injury, illness and money problems. These things affect people in this world. We do not necessarily deserve them; God does not directly cause them. We may not find reasons why they happen. We can only trust God that we can rise above the suffering life brings us. Some suffering comes because we resist the evil of the world. If we stand up for the poor, for the exploited or for those on the margins, we may suffer backlash. We do not seek suffering for its own sake, but we may suffer if we speak out or if we stand up.

We do our work and we trust God so that our suffering can bring out courage. If we handle suffering well, we can become stronger. That is not the purpose of suffering, but it can be the result. Suffering can draw us closer to God.

Most of us today do not suffer because of persecution, as the original readers of First Peter did. Yet we will encounter suffering. We will meet pain, grief, trouble, rejection and hardship. We in the church should support one another. We in the church should work for those who suffer because of poverty, racism and oppression. We in the church can draw on God so that our suffering brings out the best in us. We in the church trust in God for the resurrection, when all our suffering will be swallowed up in joy. In the full presence of God, we will put away our suffering, and experience God's healing and peace.

May that hope sustain us in whatever life brings.