Suffering and Hope

After their parents died, three brothers living in New Jersey were cleaning up the estate. They saw a painting hanging up in the dining room that had always creeped them out as kids.

It was the image of a young lady who was either unconscious, or dead as two adults wave smelling salts under her nose to revive her. While growing up, the brothers thought the painting was weird. One said, “As a kid I thought, ‘Why did we have a painting like that in our dining room?’”

So while cleaning up, they shoved it in their basement with some other junk. A couple years later, they decided to see if they could sell their parent’s things and make a few bucks. They took the painting, along with several others, to an auction house.
They were hoping for a few hundred dollars. An art collector wasn’t at all impressed with the picture, saying, “It was remarkably unremarkable.”

The Unclear history, unknown artist, unknown date, and morbid scene made it unappealing. But he decided to include it in the sale anyway. The auction house estimated that the work would sell for $250.

It sold for $1.1 million. The seemingly unremarkable painting was the long-lost work by the 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt—one of his earliest known works he painted as a teenager—and signed. That painting had been missing for nearly three centuries. Collectors have spent their entire lifetime searching for it. It was the unicorn of art work. “The Unconscious Patient” is now hanging in the Getty Museum in LA.

Of course, the brothers have changed their tune about the artwork that lay hidden in their basement under a ping pong table. “It’s one of Rembrandt’s best!” laughs Ned with a smile on his face and a large sum of money in his account.

I believe the truth Paul argues for in Romans (justification by faith alone in Christ alone) may very well be like that missing, priceless Rembrandt painting—and the key to suffering well. What do I mean?

How does your faith shape your life and give you perspective on suffering, evil, and death? It has to be more than, “I’ve been forgiven for my sins and I'm going to go to heaven when I die.” What about facing suffering?

Everybody suffers. We all have that in common. But Americans seem to suffer poorly. I don’t mean we suffer more than other people in the world. Truth be known, we suffer the least. We have modern medicines, conveniences, luxuries, and comforts; like cutting edge technology, top-of-their-field doctors, and modern medicine. We suffer little in comparison with others. But when we do suffer, we fall to pieces. Why is that?

Peter Berger, a famous sociologist, says every culture in history has attempted to provide its people with “a worldview that gives meaning to suffering and evil.”

Sociologists and anthropologists agree that modern Western culture, (that’s us), has been one of the worst cultures in history at helping people face suffering. We have no resources to weather it.

Western culture virtually gives people no explanation when it comes to suffering. We have no coherent way to understand, prepare, face, or respond to suffering. Our culture does not help us. That’s why so often the verbal response to tragic suffering is “I’m so sorry.” Or “I can’t imagine.”

At least, in their scientific drive to be objective, those cultural anthropologists and sociologists admitted that Christianity (as a worldview) has helped people deal with suffering the best. Consider why:

Only Christianity has a God who came and suffered in the place of His enemies. Only Christianity has a resurrection that says evil will not ultimately triumph over good. Only Christianity has the most evil thing that’s ever happened (the crucifixion of Jesus) bringing about the most glorious thing that’s ever happened (redemption of sinners)— therefore giving deeper meaning to all suffering.

Some religions generally think of troubles as evils to be endured as stoically as possible. But in Romans 5, Paul views suffering not simply as a hardship to be endured, but a place in which to grow, which is why we can glory, exult, and rejoice in them.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. —Romans 5:1–5

Catch the force of Paul’s words—“We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God...we rejoice in our sufferings.” The word “rejoice” means to boast with a sense of jubilation— exultant rejoicing. What religion, what culture, what worldview can help you rejoice in your suffering? Only Christianity.

So why do we in the West, and we in America wither when we suffer? Could it be because the average American has no clue what is offered in Christ? And hitting closer to home, could it be that many Christians hold only a vague sense of what they’ve been given through their Justification?

In Romans 5, Paul reminds us what we have in Jesus Christ: An unbreakable peace with God, an unlimited access into God’s presence, and an unassailable joy in suffering. Sound appealing? Peace, Belonging, and Joy. Every human being pursues those, but often find only dead-ends. Jesus offers us so much more than this world can promise. We’ll be digging into these realities the next few posts.