Sunday, April 19, 2009

An Excursus In Suffering

The central theme in the first letter of Peter is that of suffering. At some point, sooner or later, in varying degree, all believers must come to grips with suffering. The problem that must be addressed is the fact that the Greek word for suffering in the New Testament is so obscured by our English definitions.
For example, the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines suffering: “to undergo pain or grief or damage or disablement…to undergo martyrdom” Webster’s New Seventh Collegiate Dictionary includes the same but also adds: “to submit to or to be forced to endure martyrdom, to feel keenly, to endure death pain, distress, or handicap, to sustain loss or damage, to be subject to disability.” It seems that the basic idea that we derive from this word is pain, loss, grief, defeat, change punishment, or wrong. It seems that the church as a whole deals with these meanings in a singular fashion. In other words, when we think of suffering we think of pain, discomfort, or hardship. We tend to focus on pain from sickness, disease, or even the grief we experience from death. If we are not careful we will “read” these same definitions back into our exegesis of first Peter. It goes without saying that we need to have a biblical understanding of suffering, in other words we need to develop a scriptural definition of suffering. So let’s look at the …
A. DEFINITION 1. Classical Greek The typical Greek word for suffering is pascho. This is one of the two words used in I Peter. In classical Greek it originally meant simply to experience something, something that came from outside of one’s self and came upon one self. Something encountered you, or something came upon you was a basic meaning. It meant to undergo, to experience. In classical Greek it meant to experience things like: · Misfortune · Blows of fate · Disfavor of men or of gods What I find interesting is at first this word had no thought of painful feelings. Let’s look at this idea from the … 2. Biblical Usage Suffering is a very complex issue in the bible. It is approached from several different angels: · You can begin with a particular type of human suffering – this can be things like testing or oppression
· You can begin with a particular relationship to suffering and theology – affliction produces endurance in our lives
· You can look at the total vocabulary of suffering
Suffering is used some 42 times in the NT. The word that is typically used is pascho. Another word used in a secondary manner is flipsis, which means oppression or affliction.
In First Peter our study is easy, only pascho or a form of this word is used in First Peter. In the Old Testament our study is much harder, there is no single word that can be translated from the Hebrew into English for suffer. The closest is seems is the word that is used to translate poverty, or oppression. It seems that the Old Testament speaks of suffering by concrete types of suffering rather than “suffering” in general.
B. THE OLD TESTAMENT 1. There is a connection in the OT between suffering and sin For example, both the Adam and Eve experience labor and pain as part of the curse placed upon them for their sin in the Garden of Eden. Also, you can see how the law of God connects suffering to sin very explicitly by looking at Deut 2:15-68. In Joshua you see a connection between the defeat at Ai and the suffering of death by Achan and his entire family as punishment for his sin. The biggest connection or link between sin and suffering is probably seen in death itself. Death is very definitely connected to sin in Genesis 3. So, the idea is this in the OT, that suffering mentioned in the OT is connected with things like sickness, military defeats, untimely or violent death. The think to keep in mind here, is number one, none of these things were to be the norm for Israel, but they did occur, and they usually resulted in some form of suffering due to the sin. And secondly, suffering in the OT is the norm for sinful humanity. So the problem of suffering isn’t that sinful people suffer, but that holy or pious people suffer. So, we can plainly see a connection between suffering and sin in the OT. But we also can see that … 2. God is the main agent behind the suffering. First of all, yes there are some places where Satan is connected with suffering, like in Job, or hinted at in Daniel. But look carefully in the OT, it doesn’t hide the fact that God sends suffering. If God sends suffering, He must have a reason or a purpose for sending it. So the idea developed in the OT that suffering was view as testing or for discipline. Second thing to keep in mind then, is that when suffering falls on a person as testing or discipline, that person now has to make a decision. One either obeys God or does not obey God and suffers the consequences. What test can you think of in the OT that might be the epitome of all tests? Abraham in Genesis 22 when He was told to offer his only son Isaac as an offering. What test was the cardinal example of failing a test? Israel who failed to obey God after the 12 spies returned and suffered the consequence of disobedience and died in the wilderness rather than entering into the land promised to them by God. Third, we also see that suffering in the OT is mainly persecution or oppression by Israel’s enemies. How many times was Israel attacked, ransacked? Of course they eventually went into captivity, first the north and then the south. Fourth, when we see that suffering is usually the result of sin in the OT, we are always faced with the question, well why do the righteous suffer? Right? · Job God calls Job righteous. We mistakenly define his suffering as “innocent suffering.” Even when we see that it was God initiating the contest that horribly affected Job.
· Psalm 73 In Psalm 73, the righteous are suffering and it appears that the wicked are not. This leads Asaph to almost madness. So suffering in the OldTestament seems to be connected with sin. It is retributive and educative. God also seems to be the one in most cases who sends suffering, primarily on those who sin and disobey Him. Occasionally the righteous suffer leaving us to wonder why? [Lets transition to the NT and take a look at suffering.] C. THE NEW TESTAMENT 1. We seem to have more clarity in the NT. · There seems to be a break with the sin-suffering equation. Lk 16:19-31, for example we have the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man did not seem to suffer in his luxurious life time, but it was obvious he was not righteous. It is also obvious that Lazarus who suffered his whole life was not unrighteous. My main point here is that sin can not be used as the defining reason why someone is suffering in the NT. Now some real discernment must be used. · We see in the NT a development of the concept of innocent suffering. Jesus is our prime example. He was an innocent sufferer. He was without any sin. The early church as a whole suffered untold persecution and suffering, not for sin, but simply for being the church. So, I Peter is written to encourage believers who are suffering as a result of being a Christian and do to no sin on their part. James states that suffering is a test of one’s faith. Hebrews addresses the issue of suffering for one’s faith as a means of discipline or instruction. Now, in the NT we see an almost totally new idea of suffering than we see in the OT. In the NT we rarely, if ever, see God specifically as the one who brings the suffering. Tests of faith and even discipline are evident, but it is more that God allows Satan, society, or even sin to bring persecution or affliction in order to further mature His children. Not only does He allow suffering, but He overrules its original intent and uses it as a tool or means to purify, make more holy, and mature His children. So, while God allows or permits, and uses suffering, God is seen in the NT as the one who comes along side of us on or side arming us and delivering us and even limiting Satan in our suffering. Don’t forget we have been looking at the idea and concept of the main word used in I Peter for suffering and that is pascw. This word refers to that which comes upon us from outside of us and we it is something we experience. Of course, usually in our definition, we experience something evil, painful, or hurtful. The other word that is used is thlipsis. This word and its derivatives is used some 55 times in the New Testament. It is used once in John 16 as a reference to childbirth, which is the closest that it comes to describing sickness. All the other uses refer to persecution or oppression. The reason that this is important is that we today think of suffering in connection with illness. We think of those who suffer with cancer. The NT does not connect suffering with illness. It connects it with persecution. The English word suffer is misleading. It includes to much. The problem with this then is that we read our definition back into the NT and come up with ideas and applications that are not there. So our caution then, is not to read into I Peter a concept of suffering that is not in the text. [Let’s move from the NT to church history as a whole and take a quick peak.] D. CHURCH HISTORY The early church maintained the basic distinction between sickness and suffering. Suffering was to undergo persecution or martyrdom for the faith. Many, unfortunately thought so highly of martyrdom that they sought it out and desired it. As a matter of fact suffering for the faith and dying for the faith were exalted to the point of raising a person who so suffered to ha higher status in the church and presumably in heaven itself. So the church developed three classes of people: · Outcasts – they compromised the faith in order to avoid suffering or death · Majority – who did not suffered much persecution or fled to other areas to avoid it · Confessors – who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith Persecution stopped when Christianity became legal and acceptable. This happened with Constantine around AD331. Now believers could build buildings, meet openly, and as a matter of fact, you were persecuted if you didn’t accept Christianity. Now a new problem developed in the church. First, the unsaved were forced into the church. Second, standards dropped dramatically. Thirdly, wealth and marks of privilege were seen in a positive light and became the benchmarks of blessing. Suffering no longer was strictly associated with persecution or oppression. It began to be associated with loss, pain, poverty, sickness, etc. Today, we still think that if we are healthy, full, clothed, own our own house, free from most sicknesses that we are blessed. We think if we loose our job, get sick, or the car breaks down, either we are have lost the blessing of God or we are suffering. We run to the bible looking for comfort and answers to our suffering. CONCLUSION So, what is our conclusion then? The need today is to recapture the biblical meaning of suffering. The doctrine which I have tried briefly to establish is the eschatological necessity of suffering. Suffering, because of our union with Christ, is consistently represented in the NT as a fruit and proof that we are united with him. Because we are Christ's body, and the antithesis between Christ and the World continues, the world pours out its hatred for Christ upon us. We in turn receive assurance of faith, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit as we fill up and share in Christ's sufferings. Christian suffering, which the Apostle Peter distinguishes sharply from suffering for the sake of wrongdoing, is part and parcel of being a Christian. It is to be expected. Inasmuch as it is a mark of this age, for the Christian, it is necessary. Therefore we ought to expect it. We ought not be surprised when "fiery trials" come upon us. This sort of other-worldly behavior invites suffering because this world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). When the life of heaven is invited to earth through our words and actions, the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10) seeks us out. We have caused an interruption of his usurped dominion, and have irked the “rulers ... the authorities ... the powers of this dark world and ... spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood...” This is the true meaning of spiritual warfare.
Therefore, when you encounter this type of suffering, endure it “like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). And take heart, your suffering will end and you will be vindicated, because Christ has “overcome the world” (John 16:33). So we need to meet sickness properly, with prayer. We need to face persecution with endurance We need to ask what is wrong with our faith and our lives if Satan or society is not bothering to oppress or persecute us. I am not encouraging us to look for or to scare up persecution
We are not to act sinfully or obnoxiously which would result in persecution It is the need to understand the biblical information about suffering and live by Scripture rather than reinterpreting scripture to fit our own ideology.
So, this is the concern that we bring to the text of First Peter. We need to read from the text the concept of suffering that is there, and not read into it a concept of suffering that is a product of a worldview foreign to the New Testament.