No More to Suffer? – By Dr Roland Chia (Dated 11 Sep 2021)
One of the most common criticisms levelled against the so-called Health and Wealth Gospel is that it has nothing to say about suffering except that Christians should be immune from it. To be more precise, health and wealth preachers insist that Christians should never suffer sickness and disease. Some would extend this to include failures, accidents and tragedies.
In an article entitled ‘Must Christians Suffer?’ the father of the Health and Wealth Movement, Kenneth Hagin, writes thus about his understanding of suffering in relation to the believer:
When Christians get into the area of suffering, they get tangled up. Many think all suffering is the same. But when the Bible talks about suffering, it doesn’t mean ‘sickness.’ Christians have no business suffering sickness and disease. Jesus redeemed us from that. A lot of times people who are sick say they are suffering for the Lord. No! They are not suffering for the Lord.
The only kind of suffering that the Christian could experience, Hagin asserts, is persecution. ‘We can see that Paul did not suffer with pneumonia, a bad cold, or the flu’, writes Hagin. ‘If we suffer like Paul suffered, we will suffer persecution and all those things that go with it!’
Joseph Prince echoes the teaching of the health and wealth guru in his article entitled ‘Is There No Suffering for the Believer?’ He maintains that Christians might suffer persecution because of their faith, but ‘this persecution doesn’t involve terminal illnesses, tragic accidents, or premature death.’
Referring to his sermon on Job, Joseph Prince states categorically in this article that ‘what happened to Job is not something that will happen to you who are IN CHRIST today’ (emphasis in original). According to Prince, Job suffered in the way that he did because ‘he didn’t have a mediator.’
But Christians do have a mediator, whose atoning blood that was shed for sinful humanity has ‘cancelled all the rights that the enemy had against you and your family.’ This means that Christians ‘don’t have to live afraid that [they] will be like Job.’ In Christ, Prince argues, Christians can ‘look forward to a future full of his promises, blessings, and protection (See Ps 23:6)!’
What are we to make of this teaching that those who believe in Christ should never have to experience ill-health, failures and tragic events? What does the Bible have to say about suffering and the Christian?
Suffering in the Bible
The Bible indeed has much to say about human suffering in general, and the suffering of Christians in particular. In the history of Christianity, many theologians and spiritual writers have addressed the topic of suffering and the Christian.
None of these writers deny the reality of suffering in the lives of Christians, but try in their work to discern its meaning and purpose from the standpoint of Scripture and Christian tradition. Indeed, their writings offer invaluable insights on the mystery of suffering, and how Christians should respond to the trials of this present world.
How should we approach this phenomenon as Christians, then? Where should we begin?
We begin with the Bible and its portrayal of the God who brought the world into being. In 1 John 4:8, we find the most profound description of our sovereign and all-powerful God in all of Scripture: ‘God is love’.
Because God is love, he could not have created a world filled with evil and suffering. In fact, Genesis repeatedly tells us that when God looked upon every stage of his great work of creation, he declared what he has brought into being to be good. On the sixth day, when he surveyed everything that he had made, God declared that creation was indeed ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).
It is only when we arrive at the third chapter of Genesis that we discover how God’s good creation came to be marred by suffering and death. The latter is not the intention of the good and loving Creator, but the consequences of human rebellion and sin against God (Genesis 3. Cf. Romans 6:23).
Thus, theologians throughout the history of the Church maintain that although God did not cause suffering and death – for God is love, and there is no darkness in him – he did allow it. In other words, evil, suffering and death exist in our world because of God’s permissive will.
But why did God permit suffering to enter into his creation?
God allows the fall and all its terrible consequences because he has endowed human beings with free will, that is, with the ability to authentically respond to his overtures of love. However, if human response to God is to be truly free, it must include the possibility of rejection, disobedience and rebellion – and these sinful acts have their consequences.
Thus, it is because of human rebellion that we inhabit a fallen reality in which life is marked by pain, suffering and death. Insofar as Christians are part of this sin-marred world, they are not immune from the dire consequences of the fall.
In his epistle, James provides a long (but by no means exhaustive) list of the ‘various trials’ that Christians might face as they sojourn in a fractured world awaiting redemption. They include:
· powerlessness (1:26-27)
· poverty (2:1-7, 14-26)
· oppression by the rich (2:5-7)
· persecution (2:5-7)
· exploitation (5:1-6)
· serious illness, to the point of death (5:14-15)
· injustice (2:5-7)
The list can be easily expanded.
Note that James was writing to Christians. Note also that, according to James, Christians suffer from many different trials – including sickness and tragedies – and not just persecution, as the new antinomians and prosperity gurus claim.
The good news is that God has sent his Son to redeem this fallen world. Those who put their faith in him will be saved (healed, in the fullest sense of the word) when God’s kingdom is fully consummated. They will enjoy everlasting fellowship with God in a redeemed and transfigured creation where ‘there will be no more death or mourning or crying’ (Revelation 21:4).
In the meantime, Christians are to live in hope. Together with the apostle Paul, they are to consider that their ‘present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory’ to come (Romans 8:18).
Now, while God is not the author of human suffering, he can use it for good. The suffering Christian should therefore never despair because he knows that the sovereign God is at work in his life – he is in control.
It is for this reason that we find some of the most counterintuitive statements in the New Testament about how Christians should respond to suffering. Here are some examples:
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5).
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may rebound to praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7).
To be clear, the Bible does not enjoin Christians to seek suffering for its own sake. Neither does it suggest that they should relish in or take pleasure in the experience of suffering. That would indeed be morbid!
Furthermore, the Bible does not urge Christians to passively resign to their predicament, and to make no effort at alleviating or eradicating their suffering where it is possible to do so. The Bible in fact teaches the exact opposite. For example, Christians are urged to seek medical treatment and pray for healing when they are sick (James 5:14-16).
But the Bible insists that Christians can rejoice in the midst of suffering because they know that God is at work in their lives. He can use the trials they are going through for their ultimate good (Romans 8:28). Christians do not glory in suffering, but in the sovereign God who can use even the evil of suffering to accomplish his purposes.
Suffering in Christian Experience
Christians have always understood this. Church history holds many testimonies of Christians who have faithfully served the Lord in the midst of all kinds of trials – sickness, distress and tragedy. In this section, I would like to very briefly tell the stories of three Christians who have remained steadfast in the face of tremendous challenges.
Readers of this article would, I’m sure, recognise the following classic hymns which have had such an enduring impact on Christians since the nineteenth century: ‘To God be the Glory’, ‘Blessed Assurance’, ‘All the Way my Saviour Leads Me’, and ‘Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross’.
Their composer is Francis Jane Crosby (Fanny Crosby), who wrote more than 9,000 hymns and over 1,000 secular poems. Not many Christians who sing her hymns today would know that Fanny Crosby became blind when she was only six weeks old due to a botched treatment for an eye infection.
However, she did not allow her disability to hamper her service to her Lord. At the age of eight, Fanny wrote these words (her very first verse) that clearly showed how her faith in God has enabled her to surmount her disability.
Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t!
The next Christian whose life and testimony I would like to highlight is Joni Eareckson Tada. At 18 years of age, Joni had a diving accident that fractured her fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, leaving her paralysed from the shoulders down. During her rehabilitation, Joni was assailed by doubts, anxiety, depression and anger. She even harboured suicidal thoughts.
But her faith in the Lord prevailed. She did not allow her disabilities to prevent her from serving the Lord.
In 1976, she wrote her autobiography, Joni: The Unforgettable Story of a Young Woman’s Struggle Against Quadriplegia and Depression, which became an international bestseller. She went on to write more than forty books and numerous articles. She also established the Joni and Friends International Disability Centre in 2007, a Christian ministry that reaches out to disabled people across the globe.
My final story brings us closer to home. On May 20, 2018, The Straits Times published an article about a Christian family in Singapore that had to cope with enormous challenges. David Lang and his wife Loo Geok have children who suffer from Niemann-Pick disease type C, which causes serious and irreversible degeneration of cognitive and physical functions.
Their middle son, Timothy, died at the age of 10. Their oldest child, Justina, now 30, and their youngest son, Titus, 24, are unable to walk, stand, sit without support, eat, drink or swallow their saliva. They have to be tube-fed and they are unable to breathe unassisted. According to another ST article, the family needs about $7,000 to $9,000 each month for medical fees and helpers’ salaries.
I have known David, who teaches at the Singapore Bible College, for many years. Despite the immense challenges that he and his wife face, their faith in the Lord remains steadfast and resolute. Like Fanny Crosby and Joni Earecksen Tada, the Langs are a testament of the grace of God.
Their Christian realism has enabled them to accept the predicament that marks their lives and remain resilient in the midst of unimaginable adversities and trials. Their faith is simply too mature and too robust to entertain the infantile triumphalism of health and wealth preachers such as Hagin and Joseph Prince.
Together with countless Christians across the globe who remain faithful to the Lord in the face of enormous challenges, Fanny, Joni, David and Loo Geok teach us what it means to trust in God in a fallen world that still awaits its full redemption.
Their lives demonstrate that the grace of God is truly sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9), and their faith rests on the indefeasible truth that nothing can separate them from God’s love. They can echo the words of the apostle Paul:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, not depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).
And it is their unwavering trust in God and his promises that gives them strength and hope in the midst of adversities. For they know that evil, suffering and pain – which are undeniably a part of our fallen world – will never have the last word. God will have the last word!
In one of his blog articles, Joseph Prince writes: ‘Believe right and you will live right. The opposite is also true: Believe wrong and you will live wrong.’
Joseph Prince is absolutely right! I completely and unreservedly concur with his statement!
And this is precisely why we must categorically reject what health and wealth preachers like Kenneth Hagin and Joseph Prince teach about suffering and the Christian!
The teaching which says that ‘Christians have no business suffering sickness and disease’ (Kenneth Hagin) and that those who are in Christ will never suffer like Job (Joseph Prince) is blatantly false. It is a false doctrine!
It is delusional and dangerous.
It results in wrong belief. And wrong belief will not only lead to wrong living, as Joseph Prince has correctly pointed out; it will also ruin lives!
Dr Roland Chia
Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine
Trinity Theological College
Theological and Research Advisor
Ethos Institute for Public Christianity