A number of our church members are refugees from Burma/Myanmar. Needless to say, based on their personal experiences with the government of Burma, they have zero trust that anything the government has agreed to recently will actually change the situation for their families, other Christians, and other ethnic minorities that still live in that country.
My associate pastor and his wife are from Syria. They are the only members of their immediate families that live in the U.S. His wife’s parents live in Homs and have had to move to a village in the hills outside of the city–a village that has had the electricity cut off by the military and food and medical supplies severely limited. They don’t know yet whether their home in Homs has survived the bombings.
Suffice it to say that for some of our church members and almost ALL of the refugees that our church reaches out to, government or ethnic oppression has been a way of life. Personal SUFFERING as the result of the decisions of others has been the norm in their lives, not the exception.
Ministering to these people from the truths of God’s word isn’t a great challenge. His word has much to say about the subject of suffering and most of it has to do with suffering that is the result of persecution rather than the suffering that results from disease and so forth.
And in this process, something has become painfully and convictingly apparent to me: I need to tighten up my “theology of suffering” to include that which is the result of animosity from others due to being known as a follower of Jesus.
As I survey the history of the church in the United States even right up till today, outside of a few strands within the African-American church, a ”theology of suffering” has never really been developed and passed on to American Christians as part of that which will help them mature in Christ.
Here’s my take on why this is and what I believe pastors need to consider:
First–In my opinion, America is not now and has never been a valid political and governmental expression of the Kingdom of God. No earthly government or political system can be an expression of the Kingdom of God. If the United States or any other country actually was, then Jesus was mistaken when He clarified to the Pharisees what the Kingdom of God actually is, (Luke 17:20,21).
Second–During the entire history of the Christian church, there have only been a few countries where being a follower of Jesus actually “pays” rather than “costs” in any substantive way. The United States has been the greatest example of this.
Third–If we’re being honest, the sheer fact that we as pastors need to define New Testament words and terms like: ”persecution”, being “reviled”, being “hated”, being “defamed”, being spoken against as “evildoers”, or “suffering for righteousness sake” for our members should tell us something about the odd environment that we live and minister in.
Fourth–If that isn’t clear enough, then the reality that we need to find examples of what this type of treatment looks like from church history or from what is currently taking place in many countries around the world, should set off our alarm bells!
Let’s face it–life for the follower of Jesus in America just isn’t that similar to what is described as the norm in the New Testament or what others in church history or in other countries today experience.
But…….if we’re paying attention at all to what is happening in this country, then we know that radical changes have begun and will more than likely continue–even if the current administration suffers a defeat in the next election.
What kind of changes? Changes that I believe will make it possible for us to give examples of the things above, (included in my 3rd point), FROM WITHIN our own country and perhaps even our own personal experiences.
Personally, I believe that God is permitting things to unfold in such a way that the requirement to find examples from history and other countries will be removed—we’ll be living it. We’ll be fully biblical in a way that we always thought we were, but maybe actually weren’t.
I’m convinced that God is steering the foolish decisions of many powerful and influential leaders in our country so that not only will it be clear to everyone that the Kingdom of God and the United States of America are not one and the same, (which many Christians don’t understand right now), but also so that those who truly are citizens of His Kingdom will know by experience themselves a greater number of the truths of His word.
In other words, I don’t believe it will be long until 2 Tim 3:12 Yes, and all who desire to live Godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution, becomes a description of our own experiences and not just those from history or other countries.
Now please don’t misunderstand me.
–I’m NOT praying that God destroys the country I’ve been blessed to be raised in and have served as part of the military. The country that has probably done a better job of representing some Kingdom principles in its interaction with other countries than most other countries and that has provided resources for me and and thousands of others to go and live in other countries to spread the good news and help with expanding His Kingdom around the world.
–I’m NOT eager to suffer persecution or any of the other things that the bible seems to indicate could be the norm for someone who follows Jesus.
–And, I’m NOT saying that we should abandon the freedoms we have in this country that God has blessed us with so that we really can have a meaningful influence on the political system or government we live under. By our vote, our voices, and many other means, we can and should try to move the government and political system towards standards that are in line with righteousness and are ultimately best for all citizens.
So, because of all the above, I believe each and every pastor would do well to develop a “theology of suffering” and then pass it on BEFORE the reality of what so many others have experienced becomes a part of our experience.