There are broadly three responses from Christians I have observed to the current pandemic and to the widespread fear and suffering it has caused. We have The Rebukers, The Lamenters and The Rejoicers. There is a fourth reponse, The Repenters, but that is for another time. The aim with this article is to help you identify and clarify your own response.
Like with most things with the Lord, the truth lies woven in a both-and rather than either-or answer I believe. You may respond in these ways in progression from rebuking to rejoicing or they may run concurrently or in no particular order. Contemplate your initial response to the pandemic. Which of the responses best describes your reaction?
I’m interested to probe the responses because it will indicate how we may respond to future pandemics. Jesus said in Mathew 24 that the end game will have many disasters, probably worse than COVID-19. The in-gathering must also happen. And the great apostasy ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3) must also happen. Forget end times suffering, what is our view of suffering in times of peace?
What is the churches doctrine and therefore attitude to suffering in general? Covid-19 has now forced us all to think about this white elephant and holy cow called suffering. Will the Great Apostasy happen because the church is confused about the suffering of persecution and other kinds of suffering?
The Great Big White Elephant called Christian Suffering
All of us are all experiencing loss now in one way or the other. Loss of sleep, financial loss, loss of life, loss of contact, loss of hugs and loss of convenience. We are in a season of loss. The winds of change are blowin fiercely. This global disaster has happened and is happening. Jesus said these kind of things would happen. It may be a V experience, quick down and quick up but it has been a deep V!
Coronavirus, that tiniest of microbes, has exposed the mighty so quickly. What has caught me by surprise is the extent and nature of the response of many in the body of Christ to the instant suffering. There seems so much hate for suffering, so much avoidance. So much fervent prayer in rebuke against this wind of change. Not much lament. Little to no rejoicing in it.
Passionate about Passio
Yet the scripture abounds in positive things to say about suffering. In fact the very word suffering in the Greek is pathemata (Str 3804) which essentially means ‘strong feelings” – in a faith context it means “passion, strong feelings”, in a flesh context, it also means “passion, strong feelings”. The the same word having exact opposite meanings, depending if used in acts of faith or acts of flashy flesh – one way or another we will all experience passion. And ‘passion’ comes from the Latin ‘passio’ , which means to suffer.
I am not advocating a fatalistic position but will endeavour to articulate the three broad responses to help us reflect. Paul teaches us to lead circumspect lives, thinking lives. We pray for mercy, we energetically help to mitigate the fallout by sewing face masks, we do the medicine but let us thoughtfully ponder our responses.
Our response has been telling and I believe the Lord is testing our hearts, refining our faith and auditioning for the future leadership of the church.
“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”John Calvin
By being self-aware of our response we can grow and learn to be more like Christ. This pandemic has huge potential to teach us all so much about ourselves. Know thy self. May we not miss the opportunity.
But also know God. The nature of God is good. It is also severe. Moses brought the law, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. Do we know God truly? How do we know the God that is the same yesterday, today and forever? Most of our issues come from not understanding the nature of God and our new creation nature.
ONE – THE REBUKERS
This category of response is the most common and widespread. The Rebuker rebukes and often intercedes away everything that causes pain and discomfort. Jesus paid for my comfort and I will get my comfort and temporal and eternal security now!
Now there are times we need to rebuke and exorcise demons, 100% yes and amen. We should pray for mercy, always. Jesus rebuked the storm on lake Galilee but He embraced the cross. Jesus rebuked Legion out of the man from Gerasene but He told the Pharisees their chance of salvation is slim to none. Not all problems can or should be rebuked. They are what they are.
Peter rebuked Jesus for letting himself be crucified and we know what Jesus said to him … “Get behind me satan!”. Peter acted perfectly reasonably, but was wrong and was used of Satan to try thawte Jesus’s mission to die and suffer on the cross.
We cannot rebuke all bad things that come our way or on others way – we could be used of the devil in this. Good things, like defending your friends could be big mistakes. Peter cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest in defence of Jesus. Big mistake in the eyes of Jesus. There are wrong and misguided rebukes. Rebukes aimed at preservation of self and friends. Sons are called to be spent not spared after all. The ego speaks loudly here. Have you wrongly interfered in others destined suffering?
God give us the wisdom to know what and when to rebuke bad things and when not to!
TWO – THE LAMENTERS
NT Wright wrote an article in Time magazine recently and he used the seldom used word ‘lament’. Lament is packed with meaning. It’s a word that is so taboo these days in a feelgood, me focussed gospel. Yet it holds much value in our solace and healing from bad things. Who laments these days? Where are The Lamenters?
Westermann’s defines lamentation as the ‘language of suffering’. It is the process in grief where we are able to articulate or describe our suffering without becoming paralysed by it. Language is a way we code communication to help the message is conveyed accurately. Lament helps articulate and convey the message of pain accurately.
It is an emo-spiritual language that helps us process suffering without necessarily solving the cause of the suffering. We mourn with those that mourn, that is the most Godly and appropriate response in certain circumstances. We don’t always have the solution for them but we can always offer to co-mourn with them.
“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”CS Lewis
Are we deaf that God needs to shout?
Numbing the Pain
It is a sort of reject word in the church world of prosperity in health and wealth at all costs. Lament has no place in a world of quick fixes. We do not want to face pain. We are the Zoloft, Celexa and Prosac generation that will rather numb the pain then deal with the pain. Lament looks at pain in the eye and finds deliverance despite of it in the eyes of Christ. As we behold Him, we are conformed to the same image. Deal with the tragedy and find Jesus there, resurrecting our broken heart in the midst of the smoke and ashes. If we do not find the redemption and closure that the lamentation process gives us, we just delay our healing.
That said, sometimes we need the numbing, for a time. Even wine and sometimes brandy has its place. I do not want to sound insensitive to those that are on anti-depression medication. I think sometimes for a short period these things can help. But I think if we rediscovered the lost art of lament, the church will be given permission to lament when lament is the best possible way of dealing with the nasty stuff that goes down in life.
Alcohol is for the dying, and wine for those in bitter distress.Proverbs 31:6
Comedy as remedy
Some turn to endless comedy. Laughter is medicine to the bones, we need humour and laughter, lots of it. Yet comedy can also be an avoidance behaviour as we skirt around and avoid lament. We are addicted to comedies as much as anti-depressants. God deliver us to find You alone as our Fix!
‘Brother, don’t be so negative and defeatist. God is good and all He does is good. God will deliver you from all suffering.’ … What if He does not? What does the goodness of God really look like?
The ART that comes from Lament
Yourdictionary.com defines lament as ‘an expression of loss, sometimes through artistic expression.’
The artistic element grabbed my attention. And I thought about how many of the exquisite Psalms were written in response to loss. Arguably, the most enduring and beautiful hymns were also written from a place of Godly lament.
How poor would the church be without Amazing Grace? What about painting? We would be poorer for not having Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son masterpiece. What supremely moving, emotionally delicate and stirring love songs … don’t come from some painful heartbreak? Not many.
Let us learn to lament again. Embrace it. Value it. Not disdain it. Not every adversity that comes our way needs to be exorcized. Let us learn the long lost art of turning bad situations into good ones with a ‘suffering friendly’ attitude as is so clearly displayed in the lives of the apostles. Let us grow our orthodoxy to match scripture, to match the twelve’s attitude to suffering.
Let us weave artistic tapestries of love through the wounds of the unearned trouble that befall us. Let us learn to mourn and lament again, artistically, creatively, lovingly. As Jesus also said; ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we mourned to you, and you did not lament.’
When we short circuit lament we miss the creative pause it offers and so we miss the chance to make those incisive and penetrating insights only suffering unveils to one. Suffering keeps its secrets tightly hidden from the casual and comfortable enquirer. If we miss the lessons, we will also miss the creative and inspirational lament-unction.
There is no healing without the mourning process. Lament is not wallowing in grief, it is facing grief head on. It is redemptive and it is looking to Jesus all the time. The quicker we mourn and lament, the quicker we heal – the quicker the miracle of the exchange of our ashes for His beauty materialises.
Let us use the pain to paint our transcendence over and through and despite the pain. We are not celebrating pain for itself, that is nuts but let us raise our songs above the noise of the voices of fear, panic and desperate self-presevation.
The Lamenter knows Christ as the Painkiller. He heals the broken-hearted, He is close to the contrite but joy comes in the morning! That marriage may not succeed, your partner may walk out, but God heals the broken-hearted. The business may go bust, but you cannot lose your true riches safely vaulted in Heaven.
Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing. Not even loss or pain or disappointment. That is freedom. Freedom is not the absence of trouble, it’s the transcendence with Christ through trouble. It is bringing the peace of Heaven to earth.
Agabus the Prophet gets it wrong
The story of Paul in Acts 21 is so telling. Everywhere he goes the church prophesies he is going to be imprisoned in Jerusalem and they reasonably conclude therefore that he must not go. Agabus prophesies accurately but interprets wrongly.
‘When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.’Acts 21:12
This is an easy mistake to make.
They are in self-preservation mode. Who willingly walks into a first century Roman prison? I think we will hear more echoes in future of “Why do you break my heart?” They wanted him to avoid the pain but he said he must go because that was the will of God for him. Yes the will of God was for Paul to suffer cruelly in Jerusalem and Rome. Tough I know. What! You yell in disbelief.
Jesus said to Paul; ”I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”Acts 9:16
So here is that horrible question: “Are you called and destined to suffer for Christ? Are you willing to suffer for Christ? Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God. The very gates into Heaven are made of giant pearls. What suffering the oyster goes through to produce that pearl! Amen to Lament when Lament is needed.
God give us wisdom to know what to rebuke and when to simply lament for our troubles!
Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.John 16:20
THREE – THE REJOICERS
The third and final type of response I see in the church to corona is what I would term The Rejoicers.
“Count it all joy my brethren when you fall into various trials”, said James. “ I now rejoice in my sufferings for you”, Paul said. “… rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings”, Peter said. All the leading first century apostle’s attitude to suffering in scripture is in stark contrast to much of what I hear and read on church social media.
The response is to rejoice within the suffering, not for it, not justifying it, just in it because in God we have no fear because He orders our every step. Hallelujah! What an attitude the apostles demonstrated to us!
Weaponised Mindset to Suffering
We hate pain and we hate to talk about. It is understandable. But it is the white elephant and holy cow in the room. It needs to be talked about. We should ‘arm ourselves with the same mind” as Christ had toward suffering ( 1 Peter 4:1).
We will do well to weaponise ourselves with this attitude to suffering, before it’s too late, because when widespread persecution inevitably comes, will we deny Christ because the going gets too rough? We all do love to be liked – Facebook and all.
Despite pestilence, we soar as the eagles. Despite being surrounded by fear, we love. We are not paralysed by our grim circumstance because we are seated with Him in Heavenly Places. Our heavenly union with Christ overshadows any earthly disasters.
Like Stephen the Martyr, who while being stoned was overtaken by a supernatural kind of spiritual-physical ecstasy and saw Christ stand in Heaven, in the midst of his earthly torment (thankyou Judy Scott for this insight) – so we pray the same attitude and resolve resides in us – and it does in Christ!
Let us learn to live above the clouds, where He is. How can we learn to do that if there were no clouds? We would be brat Christians, never been loved enough to be chastened by the learning of obedience by things we suffer (as Christ did as it says in Hebrews 5:8).
The Grapevines Endurance
The humble grapevine needs the dry summer months. Those hot January and February months are what sweetens the otherwise sour grape. Only those months ensure the sugar content increases to be harvest ready. We are in the end of the growing time of the harvest of the age. The end time church is going to be the sweetest, without spot or blemish.
But the sun will be hot and the season dry for the Vineyard of God as those final days before the harvesters harvest the best vintage ever. Interesting how the hottest and driest and most foreboding months in the year are what produce the sugary sweetness for the noble vine?
The scorching hot and dry months bring the flavour and colour and sweetness to the grape. No wine without grape crushing. No oil without olive crushing. We will not always be rescued from every adversity. But we will always have Him with us, no matter how deep the pit or how dark the times. He is there and it is enough.
I expect the sweetest things: exquisite movies, plays, revelations and innovations and songs are going to come from this pandemic. Christians lamenting artistically! If God delivers you entirely without a scratch, then you can lament vicariously for those adversely affected.
Strange how the bitter produces the sweet. How the soil is most fertile in the valley and mountaintops remain lonely and quite barren places. The King of Paradox loves to bring sweet from bitter, good from bad, innovation from hardship, strength from weakness – life from death!
The Mystery of Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings
“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”Romans 8:17
We share in His sufferings. We fill up His sufferings.
He gave us the example of vicarious suffering – He died as one innocent for all who are guilty.
[Even] now I rejoice in the midst of my sufferings on your behalf. And in my own person I am making up whatever is still lacking and remains to be completed [on our part] of Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church.Colossians 1:24 AMPC
We need to rethink our attitude to suffering. We need to weaponise our thought life in this matter of destined and innocent suffering. The Rejoicer rejoices in all circumstances.
So revival? Revival costs. Revivals are expensive on the flesh and our comforts. ‘They need to be hosted’, as John Arnott famously said. Hosting a revival will cost your reputation as church history shows. Opposed at the time and praised once dead. One small example from church history. Our Founder, the First Revivalist: Jesus started the greatest revival ever by dying on a cross and then resurrecting three days later. That is God’s pattern and strategy for a revival!
I pray God brings in billions before the end but I know at the very end, many will fall away. I want to be one of those that stand to the end and get saved as Jesus promised in Mathew 24. The gospel you believe in now, the Jesus you worship now … what do you think He says about redemptive suffering?
A seed must die if it is going to multiply. Are you ready to be sown? Beloved, if the reproaches of Him do not fall on us, we are not His.
We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.
Let us rejoice in these temporary sufferings, they are laden with artistic treasures waiting to be sung, danced and written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
We desperately need a theology of suffering in the church. Amen.
God, give us the wisdom to know when to rebuke; when to lament the bad things that happen to us and around us. Lord remind us always to rejoice in all circumstances because we know this is your will. And Lord teach us to practice rejoicing within suffering. Amen.
List of websites showing the benefits of various types of Christian Suffering, here a few lists (there are thousands on the net):