With Jesus in suffering and joy

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joe and Tammy TkachDo you agree that the media seems to be reaching new lows of obnoxiousness? Reality TV shows, sitcoms, news programs (online, TV and radio), social media and political debates (see my letter last week)—they all seem to be growing increasingly annoying. And then there are the unscrupulous preachers promoting the prosperity gospel with false promises of health and wealth. In talking with a person who embraces this false gospel, I asked why the movement’s name-it-claim-it prayers have not brought an end to the world’s various crises: ISIS, Ebola, economic woes, etc. They replied that I was being annoying with my question. Well, I admit to being annoying at times, but my question was sincere.

Jesus, not prosperity, is the gospel

One of the times I truly am annoying (or so my wife Tammy says) is when I’m sick. Thankfully (for both Tammy and me) I rarely am. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that Tammy prays for my health. Prayer does have a positive effect, but the prosperity gospel falsely promises that if your faith is strong enough you’ll never get sick. It also falsely proclaims that if you are sick (or otherwise suffering), it is because your faith is lacking. Such ideas are a perversion of faith and of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

A friend of mine told me about a tragedy that happened when he was quite young. He lost two sisters in an automobile accident. Imagine how his father felt when told by an advocate of the prosperity gospel that the two girls died because of his lack of faith! Such mean-spirited and wrong-headed thinking ignores the reality of Jesus Christ and his grace. Jesus is the gospel—he is the truth that sets us free. In contrast, the prosperity gospel sets up a contractual relationship with God that, through our actions, seeks to condition God to bless us. It also promotes the lies that the aim of life here and now is to avoid suffering, and that God’s intention is to maximize our pleasure.

Follow Me by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)
Follow Me by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist’s permission)

With Jesus in suffering

Throughout the New Testament, God calls his people to share with Jesus in both his joy and suffering. The suffering we’re talking about here is not the kind that results from foolish mistakes and poor choices, or from being a victim of circumstances, or from a lack of faith. The suffering Jesus experienced and which we are called to face in this fallen world is a matter of the heart. Yes, Jesus suffered physically as attested by the Scriptures, but the voluntary suffering he endured was largely the result of his compassionate love for people. Notice a few Scriptures that show his costly compassion:

  • When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
  • “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
  • “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
  • When he approached Jerusalem, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42 NASB)
  • Jesus wept [following the death of his friend Lazarus]. (John 11:35)

Sharing in Jesus’ compassionate love for people often brings suffering, a suffering that sometimes is intense. To avoid all such suffering would mean avoiding loving others with Christ’s love. Such an aim would turn us into self-centered pleasure-seekers. And that is just what much of secular society brazenly promotes: Indulge yourself—you deserve it! The prosperity gospel adds to this unfortunate idea a mechanism falsely labeled faith—seeking to condition God into helping us achieve our hedonistic desires. The tragic, false teaching that we can avoid all suffering by rebuking it in Jesus’ name flies in the face of what the author of Hebrews says about the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:37-38): These men and women were stoned, sawn asunder and killed by the sword. They went about in animal skins—destitute, afflicted and mistreated. And Hebrews declares not that they lacked faith, but that they were believers with great faith—people the world is not worthy of. Despite suffering greatly, they remained in word and deed faithful witnesses to God and his faithfulness.

Following in Jesus’ steps

Jesus, on the night prior to his greatest suffering (prolonged torture followed by crucifixion), said this to his disciples: “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15 ESV). Taking Jesus at his word, one of those disciples, Peter, later wrote this: “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 ESV). But what does it mean to follow in Jesus’ steps? We must be careful here—Peter’s admonition is often too narrowly applied, leaving out, for instance, following Jesus in suffering (which Peter specifically mentions). On the other hand, the admonition is often too broadly applied. We are not called to mimic every aspect of Jesus’ life. Since we are not first-century Palestinian Jews (as was Jesus), we need not not wear sandals, robes and phylacteries in order to follow Jesus. Also (as the context of Peter’s admonition indicates) we understand that Jesus, as the Son of God, was and is unique. The wind, waves, demons, illness, bread and fish all obeyed his command as he performed stunning miracles that testified to his identity as the promised Messiah. Though we are his followers, he doesn’t normally give us that ability.

Yes, Peter does call on us to follow Jesus in suffering. In 1 Peter 2:18-25, he explained to a group of Christians who were slaves how, as followers of Jesus, they were to respond to the unjust treatment they were receiving. In doing so, Peter holds up Jesus as their example. He makes his point by quoting from the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 53 (see 1 Peter 2:22, 24, 25). Being sent by the love of God for the redemption of the world meant that Jesus would suffer wrongfully. He was innocent and remained innocent in his response to unjust suffering. He did not retaliate with threats and violence. As Isaiah says, “No deceit [guile] was found in his mouth.”

Suffering for the sake of loving others

Jesus suffered greatly, but he certainly did not lack faith. Quite the opposite. Out of compassion he came to earth—the Son of God become human. Out of faith in God and compassion for those he came to save, Jesus endured unjust suffering and refused to inflict suffering even on those who cruelly and unjustly tortured him. Such was his love and his faith. When we follow Jesus in suffering for the sake of loving others, we find a measure of relief and comfort knowing that doing so is an essential part of our calling. Note these two verses:

  • Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19 ESV)
  • Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)

When we see others suffering, we are filled with compassion toward them. When our love and God’s grace are rejected, we are grieved. Though such love is costly in that it brings on our suffering, we do not run from it—we do not cease to love others as God loves them. To suffer in order to love is to be a faithful witnesses to Christ. In that way, we follow his example—we walk in his steps.

With Jesus in joy

As we walk in step with Jesus, we will be participating with him in compassionately loving all people. Doing so will often mean sharing in his suffering. However—and this is a paradox—it also will often mean sharing in his joy—his joy that all humanity, in him, is redeemed, forgiven and included in his transforming love and life. Thus to follow Jesus is to actively and deliberately share in both Jesus’ suffering and joy. That is the nature of the Spirit-led, gospel-shaped life. We must not fall for a false gospel that promises all joy and no suffering. Sharing in both is part of our calling and essential to our fellowship and communion with our compassionate Lord and Savior.

Suffering but joyful too,
Joseph Tkach

7 thoughts on “With Jesus in suffering and joy”

  1. I’m not sure how this fits in with what was written a couple of weeks ago regarding Dr. King’s letter from prison. Active non-violent civil disobedience was personified in the life and teaching of Jesus himself. It got him crucified. Peter lambasted the religious leaders of his day. Would he really have expected slaves to docilely take abuse? African Americans have had their difficulties with both Peter and Paul. Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day would all agree: suffering patiently is not enough. Sooner or later someone has to stand up and say “Stop! Enough is enough!”

  2. Jim, I think you make a good point. Suffering is often the “cost” of love. The question is this: Do we love others enough to stand up in their defense, even when doing so means paying a great price personally? That was what Dr. King was willing to do and that is what he taught others. His standing up (or sitting down or in, as the case may be) was, of course, always (per his commitment to pacifism) an act of non-violence, but often a costly act nonetheless. What’s important, I think, is that love is always the motive rather than self-aggrandizement. Such love, of course, is what you see in Jesus. But I think you also see it in his apostles, Paul included. Knowing when and how to stand up is no small issue, but love does take a stand, not merely to grandstand, but to bring relief (salvation) to those who need it.

  3. I suppose another way to expose such false teaching in that Christianity is about prosperity and good living can be in examining the following two questions:

    1. In all my toiling on this planet was I ever happy that I lived? (This is driven by self-centredness and therefore and therefore coming from false doctrine)
    2. In all my toiling on this planet were most people glad that I lived? (Apparently this identifies with Jesus Christ. A person driven by it, may be a true Christian)

  4. Thank you Joe for this article. The line that spoke to me the most and has been on my mind lately is “suffering for the sake of loving others”.

    I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room and read an article by Brant Hansen that speaks to this subject. He recounted a mission trip where he went to Indonesia after the tsunami and noted how when he got there it was uncomfortable, dangerous, and he frankly wanted to go home because it seemed they were not wanted there anyway. Yet Jesus showed up to expose them to His love for those that were hurting. I know that somehow that is where and when I seem to come to know Him more and see Him build my faith and others. Thanks for this, I hope to see Him love others even if it means it will cause me and maybe them pain. In the end, it means we will get meet Him where He wants to be, with us even and maybe especially in our pain.

  5. There is a nationally known televangelist whose critics accuse him of teaching the prosperity gospel in order to attract a following. I have from time to time listened to him carefully and I think his critics are wrong. If you distill his messages you find that he is saying to people “God loves you.” No, he is saying “God really loves you!” This shocking message is rarely presented with authenticity and this is what attracts his following – not the promise of prosperity. People are desperate to hear these words. They want to hear these words. But in mainstream evangelicalism they do not hear these words. Instead they find the Lewisian “Inner Ring”. They find that they are persona non grata unless they meet certain criteria no matter what words on the subject of love are mouthed from the pulpit. God has been too long used as a lever to separate people from their resources and their well-being by the mainstream evangelical denominations and the lay membership knows it. When someone says “God loves you” and means it, people are overwhelmed, like the children of Hamelin.

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