Spiritual Saturdays: So what is suffering, really?

Yes, Spiritual Saturdays got held over into Sunday yet again…

I spent some time in China back in the early ’90’s. My Dad taught English in a university there; I had finished High School at age 17 and wasn’t ready for college yet, so essentially had the year off. I still look back on it as one of the best years of my life. The freshmen Dad taught were only a year or two older than I was and I became friends with a number of them; I retain close relationships with some of them to this day.

China’s market may be freer than it was 40 years ago, but it is still a Communist country with a firmly materialistic ideology. These kids were schooled in an atheistic worldview from the cradle on up and I engaged many of them with the idea of the existence of God. A surprising number of them had never explored this possibility, either mentally or in a conversational setting. Naturally, there were objections raised, but the one theme that I encountered in these verbal jousting matches more often than any other was the idea of theodicy:

“How could a good God who is all-powerful allow so much suffering in the world?”

My purpose today is not to directly explore this question, but rather to consider what truly constitutes suffering. The Chinese kids I met in 1992 were coming of age in a China that was bursting with new opportunity on so many fronts that I am not sure they even understood the magnitude of it all at the time. They were full of unbounded optimism and a lot of fun to be around. But their parents had grown up in an era when suffering was the norm.

Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution, which lasted throughout the mid to late 1960’s, has not been as embedded into the American psyche as an example of horror and trauma as Hitler’s gas chambers and Stalin’s gulag have been. But the reality is that millions more Chinese people perished because of Mao’s evil and calculated “purges” of bourgeois elements than Hitler and Stalin combined were responsible for slaughtering. Every one of the kids I knew and grew to love could tell stories of terrible atrocity that they had heard from their parents. (Perhaps you can understand why Obama’s White House Communications advisor Anita Dunn’s words a few months ago had a signal resonance for me, when she declared that Mao was one of the philosophers she most admired, along with, ostensibly, Mother Teresa.)

What too few Americans know today is that this maltreatment continues in China and other places such as North Korea, the Sudan and Iran, where Christians dare to proclaim an allegiance to Jesus Christ that is forbidden by the edicts of their native land. I knew a Chinese pastor well who was hung from the ceiling and beaten so severely that he temporarily lost his hearing and ultimately only partially regained it. The 20th century Bulgarian pastor, Haralan Popov, author of Tortured for His Faith, was forced to stand and stare at a wall for several days straight without being given food or water, until his will was broken and he signed a confession of treason, all for preaching the Gospel. He was in prison for 13 years, after being arrested in the middle of the night and quickly bidding farewell to his wife and two small children.

One of the great heroes of the faith in 20th century China was a pastor by the name of Wang Ming Tao. Wang was imprisoned in the early 1950’s and informed that he would only be freed if he recanted his faith. After a period of intense anxiety, he signed a recantation of his faith and was freed…and plunged into the depths of despair. He wandered up and down the streets crying out, “I have denied my Lord! I am worse than Peter!” He knew what he must do; he returned to the police and declared that he was retracting his renunciation and going on the record as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Wang paid a price. The year he was sent back into his jail cell was 1955. It was 23 years later in 1978 before he walked out a free man. In the interim, he was tortured and brainwashed in methods that defy the bounds of imagination.

Richard Wurmbrand, founder of “Voice of the Martyrs” organization and magazine, tells in his book Tortured for Christ of a priest who recanted his faith and signed a confession. When reproached later for this by a sincere fellow-believer, the priest began to sob and begged, “Please don’t judge me; I have suffered more than Christ.” The priest had been forced, among other things, to offer Communion to fellow prisoners with excrement and urine substituted for the elements of bread and wine.

In the “Philosophy and Christian Thought” course that I teach, we often discuss the idea of suffering. I have had the following experiences provided by my students as examples of the suffering they have endured:

1. The death of a family pet

2. Having to file bankruptcy

3. Being passed over for a promotion

4. Not being able to afford a newer car or house

In fairness, I have also had many students who share stories of childhood abandonment, being forsaken by a spouse whom they thought had promised to love and cherish them “till death do us part”, the recent death of a loved one such as a spouse or a parent and yes, genuine economic disadvantage.

My intent is not to downplay the fact that real suffering happens in the United States of America. Suffering is all too real everywhere in this fallen world. I fear, though, the loss of perspective on a grand scale in this country. We have had such significant bounty for so long that we have become accustomed to plenty and feel deprived when our “hoarded resources” are even slightly diminished.

Jesus taught that we should “rejoice and be glad” when we are seen as fit to be persecuted for his sake (Matthew 5:11). Indeed, this was exactly the attitude with which the early Christian church faced opposition, up to and including murder, as seen repeatedly in the Book of Acts.

Yet, speaking for myself, I find it hard not to indulge in bitterness of spirit over the possibility of receiving a percentage cut in my annual cost-of-living increase.

We need, for our own good, to occasionally break out of the cocoon of wealth which we daily enjoy as American Christians and remember the church around the world that has become intimately familiar with suffering.

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2 thoughts on “Spiritual Saturdays: So what is suffering, really?

  1. I like R.T. Kendall’s book about the thorn in the flesh. While the suffering we experience here in the U.S. hasn’t, in general, reached the level of that in China, I can say I have seen or experienced abuse which I would call suffering. And some of it in the name of Christianity. It shouldn’t be.

  2. I am reading that very book by R.T. Kendall right now and it has helped me tremendously. We all have a thorn in the flesh. But having said that nothing I have gone through even compares to what I have read here happens in other countries. However, this is something I struggle with often as I contemplate human suffering. The suffering humans inflict on other humans is what boggles my mind the most and is the most depressing.

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