It feels a bit hypocritical to talk about suffering as an American who lives a lower middle class lifestyle. As I've gone through my first year of studies at Denver Seminary, I've been really challenged in several areas, including my views of suffering. Obviously, if I were to compare my life with a poor person living in the third world or even on the streets of America, I am clearly rich beyond reason (even if I live in debt). But, does this exclude me from some form of suffering?
It is clear to me when I turn to scripture that suffering is part of the Christian life. Usually, Christian circles link this to suffering persecution from others for Jesus' namesake as the dominant, if not only form of suffering. However, It think there is more to it than this. Last week in chapel, the speaker preached out of the book of Daniel, specifically the story of Shadrach, Meshack and Abednigo (I know those are spelled wrong!), but he took an angle that I'd not heard before and really resonated with me.
Chapter 3, verses 17-18 record that the three answered that their God would save them from the fiery furnace, but even if he didn't, they would still not bow down to the golden statue. The speaker asked what would we do in the times God didn't not save us, would we still remain faithful? Most likely, these times usually manifest in suffering of some form and are hard to deal with, challenging our staying power in faithfulness to God. It is in these times that build our character and foundation of faith to carry us through to harder times.
Sometimes the disappointment of failed dreams or expectations can crush us and make us bitter. However, we must remember that God has called us to be faithful so that His purposes are accomplished and to His glory, not for our happiness or glory.
When God fails to answer our prayers or fulfill our hopes and dreams, we often feel that we are suffering needlessly. But, God never promised to fulfill the 'American dream' of material happiness, fulfillment and prosperity. Nor did He promise that what we want most will come to us. For those of us who have grown up in a culture where we are taught a form of the prosperity gospel, it is truly a form of suffering when we are hit with the realization that we may not get what we wanted. This may even come in the form of unrealized hopes or dreams for a certain direction in our lives or the realization we will have to work harder than we thought.
When this reality hits we must suffer through it and come to a place of contented trust and faith in God. We must shift our focus off of ourselves and back on to God, laying aside the things which are selfishly our hopes and dreams. This produces personal anguish and suffering, but they are necessary steps to take so we can understand the true spiritual power of suffering. This suffering strips away the unimportant and leads us to a place where we can have compassion for the less fortunate and understand in at least a detached way, what they are going through. I would hope this would then lead to a desire planted by God to care for the oppressed and suffering people in a way we do not do now.
Suffering for me may look easy as pie to someone who struggles to eat each day, but as I suffer through the loss of the superfluous and unnecessary, my eyes will begin to open to what true suffering is and will lead me to a place where I can truly serve God in a meaningful way.
In light of all these ramblings, I hope that I may develop a solid theology of suffering and rejoice amidst the pain it causes in the knowledge that God is at work to form me into the man of God He wants me to be so that I may serve Him and not myself.