O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
Part of what makes civilization civilized is its abiding interest in limiting human suffering. We fight against disease and restrain the unjust. We seek to check aggression and root out oppression. We seek both to deter and end violence. All these are an attempt to alleviate unnecessary suffering, an attempt predicated on the notion that human flourishing entails a curtailment of pain.
So when we consider the sufferings of Jesus and the call to follow in His steps in 1 Peter 2:21—Dr. Oh’s most poignant and pregnant theme this last weekend—we recognize at the outset how counterintuitive and countercultural is this central feature of the mission of both the church and her Lord. And in its contrariness to the trajectory of civilization we might conclude—at some unspoken level—how patently absurd or counterproductive the enterprise of purposeful suffering seems. If the point of progress is reducing suffering, why then would any reasonable person willingly enter into it?
For that matter, why would God, whose power has no limit according to the scriptures He saw fit to inspire, ordain suffering as a primary means of accomplishing His will? Wouldn’t it be more congruent with His majesty, more expedient to His purposes, and less agonizing for those He loves to exert His potent power against whatever impedes His plan? Why must suffering be the foundation upon which He builds—and prefigures—a new and lasting civilization? Has Christianity, as Nietzsche vehemently argued, gotten it backwards in how it exalts self-denial over self-assertion? Is what Jesus typified, and what Dr. Oh underscored, on the wrong side of reality and history?
Or does it have to do with the very nature of love, itself a central feature of the nature of God?
By definition love defers. It forgets itself for the sake of another. Love sets aside a claim to its own interests so that the interests of others might be upheld (Phil 2:4ff). And each act of loving deferral exposes one to the possibility, if not the inevitability, of pain. Loving, rather than protecting oneself, makes one vulnerable to rejection, revulsion, or persecution. Love doesn’t suffer for suffering’s sake, but accepts suffering for the sake of limiting another’s. So, part of what explains the call to suffering is what we know of the essence of love.
By revelation God is love (1 Jn 4). His steadfast love endures forever (Ps 136). His self-attested mercy and slowness to anger (Ex 34:6) bespeak love in extending of kindness through forbearance. And it was an immeasurable forbearance demonstrated in the Son that forms the pinnacle of God’s expressions of love. That He died for those who would seek to kill Him—or simply consider Him dead by denying His glory and authority—can only be explained by love. The place of suffering is housed in the nature of love, as the nature of love is housed in the nature of God.
That is why suffering is not antithetical to the idea of civilization. While civilization exists in part to enhance human flourishing, it depends on those willing to forget themselves, expose themselves, sacrifice themselves—to suffer—to see a new, lasting city wrought. Not for the city’s own sake, but for the sake of God who births a people to find their greatest joy in His singular glory.
The sun doesn’t need the earth, but when the earth considers the sun it recognizes its dependence upon it; the earth’s luminosity comes entirely from that light and life giver. Likewise, God does not need us (Acts 17:25) but in seeing His glory we recognize our greatest need is in Him. We need to witness His glory in order to benefit from it. And His glory now goes forth most mightily and enduringly through expressions of God-centered self-forgetfulness.
It is therefore never pointless to ask, from pulpits and prayer closets, why we are hesitant to forsake what is comfortable in order to assure the divine comfort of those who do not yet know Him. Our answers typically follow from a forgetfulness of the abiding comfort His suffering secured us. Meditating upon His comfort transforms our hesitancy into expectancy as we then ask ourselves: Where might we go, what might we give, whom might we send with resources adequate for the task?
And what might we suffer in order to see an imperishable civilization coalesce around rejoicing in the loving, suffering God?