Updated: Jun 30, 2021
I’m not convinced the church will do well in the Covid19 and post-Covid19 world. There is no guarantee that she will rise up. Certainly, many church leaders (including myself) are using rhetoric such as, “This is the church’s finest hour” and “God will supply all your needs” as we face widespread health and economic crisis. As I write this, the extent of the crisis is yet to be determined. We do not know how many people will become critically ill and die, let alone the massive economic impact that is before us.
This may indeed be the finest hour for the people of God, demonstrating his grace, kindness and generosity to a fear-stricken world. I want to believe that. Yet history would caution us against assuming this. The church through the centuries has both risen to challenges and caved in the face of them. My scepticism lies in my observation that the church in The West has not adequately rooted itself in a theology of suffering; that is, in a biblically rooted belief system that understands that God is still God, even if my life as I know it is snuffed out.
Is The Western Church Ready for Suffering?
A primary yet often hidden narrative of the church in The West is that God will take care of my physical and economic needs and security... Jesus’ version of The American Dream. Too much of the church has attached its view of success to what Mark Sayers describes as “Our culture’s vision of the good life delivered by Jesus in a UPS truck.” When we promise to our churches that God will take care of them and everything will be ok (in this crisis), will God still be seen as good when their spouse dies, their business goes bankrupt, their job is lost and their retirement savings gone? If we haven’t discipled God’s people into seeing his provision as perfect, even in the face of suffering and loss, then the church is at risk of missing this opportunity to be the profoundly distinct salt and light we were created to be.
Certainly, I believe that this season will witness many miracles of provision and supply by Jesus himself. We can expect this. But we can also expect suffering, and the lack of material and physical provision at times. To some this last sentence might land on resistant ears. So let me ask you, was Paul above suffering? Hadn’t he learned the secret of contentment whether in need or in plenty, well fed or hungry (Philippians 4:12-13)? Did he not then go on to declare that “…my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus”(4:19)? Hadn’t he learned of the goodness and provision of God even in the face of shipwreck, beatings and imprisonment? Did he not still view God as good? Paul’s lens through which he viewed the provision of God was not limited to material or physical security.
As We Think about Good Friday, Easter and The Lord's Supper ...
I write this a few days prior to celebrating Good Friday. Was Jesus above suffering? Did he not learn obedience from what he suffered (Hebrew 5:8)? Why should we be any different? I fear that this Good Friday will be like too many I have participated in…where it is more of a celebration of resurrection than it is a sitting in and sitting with the suffering of Jesus. For God’s sake and this year more than ever, please don’t yank Jesus out of the grave until Easter Sunday. The same is required in our remembrances of The Lord's Supper. We first identify with the sufferings and death of Jesus and only then can we identify with his resurrected life. We need to allow our people the formative privilege of sitting with the suffering Christ so they learn how Christ can sit with them in their suffering. His presence is our ultimate provision, not merely what we want from his hand.
I mentioned that history gives us some warnings. The church in Germany in the early Nazi years had adopted a faulty narrative. They broadly equated the success of the nation to the success of the church. As a result, they were too closely aligned to national passions to be able to present a redemptive critique and hold accountable the state. Because their narrative was faulty, they could not see clearly until it was too late.
The church in the deep South of the US for centuries believed a “Christian” narrative that pursued economic prosperity through the enslavement of others. They could not clearly see the evil of their own hands because the version of heaven on earth that they had come to believe necessitated the enslavement of people. Because their narrative was faulty, they could not see clearly until it was too late.
Intellectual Dark Web co-founder Eric Weinstein recently quipped that with the current pandemic and economic crisis, The West is waking up from its 75-year nap. Truly, it hasn't been since World War 2 that the Western world has tangibly experienced widespread suffering and sacrifice. To assume the current narrative of the church has not been significantly impacted by a narrative that equates faith with prosperity, security and minimal suffering would be naïve at best. Our collective narrative is faulty - at least to some degree. I pray that we can see it clearly before it is too late.
So where do we go from here?
We as church leaders would do well to equip our people in the timeless traditions of lament, walking through loss and grief, and seeing suffering not as the primary threat but as the most brilliant of opportunities to experience the resurrected Christ. In the words of Ruth Haley Barton, “For Moses, the presence of God was the Promised Land.”
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