Theology 101

Can Christians Flourish While They Suffer?

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Are the notions of suffering and Christian flourishing incompatible? Can a Christian flourish while they suffer?

These are difficult questions needing to be answered if we are to have a truly robust understanding of biblical flourishing.

Christian flourishing stands apart from all other versions in that it provides not only a vision, but also the means by which a person can achieve flourishing.

That means is based on the redemptive work of Christ at the cross where, through his ultimate suffering, true flourishing was made possible for us.

It is clear from the Bible that God desires us to flourish. It is also clear that while we live in this broken world, there is an expectation that Christians will suffer.

One of the crucial yet paradoxical ways in which biblical flourishing is achieved is through suffering. Theologian Jonathan Pennington writes in an upcoming research paper for IFWE that,

But herein lies the genius and profundity of Christian understanding. Suffering is the means to true flourishing because it refines and redirects our hearts toward God.

It is only when our hearts are redirected away from ourselves and the idols of this world that we can embrace the ultimate source of flourishing, our Creator. God uses suffering in the Christian’s life to push us back to relationship with him.

The pastor and hymnist Robert Robinson understood the true nature of our hearts when he penned these words that are as true today as when he wrote them in 1757:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it/Prone to leave the God I love/Here’s my heart, O take and seal it/Seal it for Thy courts above.

It is true that our hearts are prone to wander. This truth can be seen throughout the pages of the New Testament, and is nowhere seen more clearly than in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12). Pennington explains (emphasis added):

In this series of blessings the paradox of Christian flourishing is glaring. The flourishing ones are described with a series of anti-flourishing descriptions — poverty of spirit, mourning, in hunger and thirst, lowly, not receiving justice, etc. — followed by a staggering promise of reversal from God. Thus, quite the opposite of how the world would evaluate the matter and quite the opposite of what we think we want, flourishing is found in this life now by the sufferings of this life which redirect our hearts and hopes towards God’s coming kingdom and New Creation, in which full flourishing will be known.

Certainly there will be no sorrow or suffering in the world to come, yet God uses it today as one of the means by which he blesses his people with true flourishing.

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  • jpcarson

    Christ, as the apostles, and many Christians throughout the ages commended and modeled a moral truth about the universe – that “suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake” is an essential aspect of confronting institutional evil/corruption/malfeasance. Not the only aspect, not a “sufficient” aspect, but an essential aspect.
    But it is not commanded, only commended, despite its essential nature in confronting/controlling institutional evil. It is a privileged type of suffering, though it be suffering nonetheless, for reasons including: 1) it is suffering by choice – one makes a moral decision to take actions to confront institutional evil that can reasonably be expected to put in jeopardy one’s professional standing, economic security, life, and/or liberty (in the work world, at least in America, it’s one’s professional standing and economic security that is “in play” when one confronts institutional law-breaking, corruption, wrongdoing related to how one make a $ – that is enough to silence the majority of Christians the majority of times) – most suffering in world comes unbidden and is unwanted; 2) most suffering in world is apparently meaningless and involved only the one afflicted – one was in wrong place and wrong time; born poor, born in war zone, stricken with a disease, etc, while suffering persecution for righteousness sake has an meaning and impacts the common good; and 3) it was commended and modeled by Christ, apostles, and many saints throughout the ages.
    The church, now as ever, has a regular issue with being “too mobbed up” with power that be. In 2014, these powers include corporations. Christian religious professionals simply do not criticize established legal records of corporate/gov’t agency law-breaking – they are “too mobbed up” with $, and justify it by claiming to want “flourishing” – their own, at least. If only the stakes were not so high – does anything really think civilization has a good chance of making it to 2100, given present facts and trends, including how privileged Christians shun opportunities to “suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake” because it could impact their operative “gods” – their professional standing and economic security? They reason something as “how could a God who loves me so, so, much even possibly ask me to consider “getting my hair mussed” with respect to my $? That’s impossible and anyone who suggests otherwise must be of the devil!!”
    Your turn, please feel free to push back, but please address why no Christian religious professional has yet rebuked, in name of God, BP for its pleading guilty to 11 charges of criminal manslaughter and many other violations of law at Gulf Oil spill. “love of $” is my explanation.

  • Thanks, Hugh, for addressing the issue of suffering and flourishing. I keep hearing a TV ad by an ambulance-chasing law firm that touts, “You deserve to be paid for what you went through.” This view of life is that our suffering is an anomaly, a mistake, an unacceptable occurrence. Our Christian story seems to say that it is the way the people of Jesus lovingly participate in a broken world. I even think the Beatitudes, rather than instructing us to be poor in spirit, mourners, etc., are announcing the good news that the kingdom of God is God’s gift to those who are meek, make peace, and suffer for the right they seek to do. We are blessed because we belong to a realm that invades the world via suffering love.

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