The German pastor/theologian Helmut Thielicke once observed about American Christians: “They have an inadequate theology of suffering.”

Who could disagree? How could we expect a theology of suffering to emerge from a society that has survived two centuries without a foreign invasion, solves all meteorological discomfort with “climate control,” and prescribes a pill for every twinge of pain?

At least part of our difficulty may come from how we read the Bible. I have found at least five biblical approaches to suffering, and if we focus on one of these approaches exclusively, we risk not only an inadequate, but a heretical, theology of suffering. Because they appear progressively through Scripture, I call these five approaches the Hardship Stages.

Stage 1: A person living right should never suffer. We experience this stage, often dubbed the “prosperity gospel,” almost as a reflex. A 30-foot golf putt rims the cup but does not fall: “You must not be living right!” A Christian leader comes down with cancer: “How could this happen to such a saint?”

We should at least acknowledge that similar sentiments do appear in the Bible, especially in the Book of Proverbs, which implies that right living will earn its reward in this life. And consider the sweeping promise of Psalm 1:3 to the righteous man: “Whatever he does prospers.”

You would have to go back to Exodus and Deuteronomy to understand the source of this theology. In his covenant with the Israelites, God guaranteed prosperity if the people would follow him faithfully. But the Israelites broke the terms of that covenant, and a book like the Psalms reveals the Jews’ anguished adjustment to new realities. Almost a third of the psalms show a “righteous” author struggling with the failure of prosperity theology.

Stage 2: Good people do endure hardships, but they will always find relief. Many of the “hardship psalms” take on an insistent tone of self-defense. The author seems to believe, “If I can just convince God of my righteousness, then God will surely deliver me.”

I have come to see such “self-righteous” psalms (which may grate on the ears of those raised on “Amazing Grace”) as psalms of preparation. They help an entire nation understand that sometimes righteous people do suffer, and sometimes they do not get delivered. In that sense, these psalms are truly messianic: they prepare the way for Jesus, a perfect man who, as Hebrews says, “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.” But Jesus was not saved from death.

Hebrews also records a list of faithful persons through the centuries. Some received miraculous deliverance: Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, David. But others were tortured and chained, stoned and sawed in two. This latter group went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated, wandering in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. The author makes this blunt assessment: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”

Stage 3: All things work together for good. That famous phrase appears in Romans 8, and is often distorted. Some people think it means “Only good things will happen to those who love God.” Ironically, Paul meant just the opposite. In the remainder of the chapter, he defines what kind of “things” he is talking about: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword. Paul endured all those things, and in the end succumbed to them. He was not “delivered.” Yet, he insists, “in all these things we are more than conquerors”; no amount of hardship can separate us from the love of God.

Paul found a neat way to resolve the contradictions raised by the first two hardship stages. Hardship is part of the human condition, and no one can claim an exemption. But for those who love God, the condition is temporary. One day the “groaning” creation will be liberated, and all hardship will be abolished. We have a timing problem, Paul says. Just wait: God’s miracle of transforming Bad Friday into Easter Sunday will be enlarged to cosmic scale.

Stage 4: Faithful people may be called to suffer. The Book of 1 Peter introduces this new twist on hardship. Far from stage 1, where the righteous expect an immunity to suffering, this theology assumes that those following “in His steps” will, like Christ, suffer unjustly. History bears out Peter’s words. According to tradition, 11 of 12 apostles died martyrs’ deaths, and the spilled blood of such martyrs became the seed for the church’s growth.

Stage 5: Holy indifference. The apostle Paul reached this exalted state, as expressed in such a passage as Philippians 1. Paul can hardly decide whether it is better to die and be with Christ or to stay awhile and continue his ministry. Clearly, prison is desirable: he lists many good results from that hardship. Wealth, poverty, comfort, suffering, acceptance, rejection, even death or life—none of these circumstances mattered much to Paul. Only one thing mattered ultimately: the surpassing goal of exalting Christ. And that goal could be accomplished in any set of circumstances.

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It bothers some people, I know, to list a series of biblical “stages” without a tidy formula resolving them into a grand scheme. For those people, I simply recommend contemplating stage 1 in the light of stage 5. Curiously, Paul’s advanced state of holy indifference to pain puts him right back in stage 1. For Paul, a person living right did not suffer—not in any ultimate sense, at least. Rather, suffering offered a way to participate in “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.” And God prospered all the events of Paul’s life by using pain, like pleasure, as one of the tools to advance his kingdom.

I have met few people who have attained the lofty state of stage 5, which may confirm Helmut Thielicke’s comment about America. How can a nation so singularly blessed be expected to master such advanced faith? We must turn instead to the Christians in El Salvador, or South Africa, or North Korea, or Iran, for a lesson in the advanced school of suffering. Alas, it seems we devote more time and energy debating the possibilities of stage 1—or at least yearning for those “good old days” when America won all its wars and the stock market soared.

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