In these four articles (part 1, part 2, part 3), I have suggested that the Western world is moving from a guilt-innocence to a pain-pleasure worldview. In this final article, I want to explore how the Bible engages the theme of pain and pleasure.
Pain-pleasure or suffering-glory?
The Bible’s answer to pain-pleasure is not Joel Osteen’s answer. Its answer is not that Jesus will bring you pleasure and take away your pain. The Bible’s answer is to reframe pain and pleasure in terms of suffering and glory. The pain-pleasure worldview tells people to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Prosperity teaching says that Jesus will take away your pain and bring you pleasure. But the Bible says that Jesus’ disciples will follow the path of the cross―the path of suffering and glory―the cross before the crown.
The pain-pleasure worldview tells people to avoid pain. Prosperity teaching says that Jesus will take away your pain. But the Bible says that Jesus’ disciples will follow the path of the cross.
The right response to the pain-pleasure worldview is to reshape our expectations of what the Christian life feels like. On the one hand, we need to know that living the Christian life is not living the Australian dream. It is not the house, beach house, boat, and early retirement. But at the same time, the Christian life is not painful toil and endless drudgery until we die and go to heaven. Walking the path of the cross is walking the road of both suffering and glory. And living that life is living life in all its fullness.
The pain-pleasure worldview tells us to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. But the Bible says that suffering can be redeemed and transformed into glory.
The risk of drifting
There are two reasons why it is so important for us to know what it means to walk the path of the cross―the path of suffering and glory. The first and most obvious reason is because we live in a world that is increasingly hostile to Christianity. We therefore need to be equipped to stand firm in the face of persecution.
The letter to the Hebrews is a special help to us here. Hebrews tells us the risk when faced with hostility and persecution. The risk is not that I face a single massive crisis moment that causes me to relinquish my faith. Rather, Hebrews says that the risk is drifting―not one big crisis decision to abandon Jesus but a hundred little decisions.
And the key to getting those hundred little decisions right is to value Jesus more than the world. The trajectory of persecution is a challenge to my faith that begins with embarrassment, moves on to humiliation, and ends in suffering. If I’m to persevere through the suffering, it is vital that I don’t drift in the early stages.
So in Hebrews 11, Moses embraces the disgrace of Christ and renounces the treasures of Egypt. In Hebrews 12, Jesus endures the cross, despising its shame. We must be ready for the times when our faith in Jesus confronts us with the potential for embarrassment and humiliation. We need to be ready, in those moments, not to step away from the disgrace but to step into it―to embrace it
Following a God of love
The second reason to walk the path of the cross is about reframing. We desperately need to reframe the way that the world views us. As I’ve said, the perception, the Game of Thrones lie, is that Christianity is abusive, coercive and manipulative.
I don’t think we are going to counter that narrative simply by saying it it isn’t true. We need to demonstrate that following Jesus is not abusive, manipulative and coercive. We need to demonstrate what it means to follow a God of love.
I don’t think we are going to counter that narrative simply by saying it it isn’t true. We need to demonstrate that following Jesus is not abusive, manipulative and coercive.
Our challenge is to put Matthew 5:16 into action, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Or 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Isn’t that exactly our situation? We are being spoken against as evildoers, haters and bigots. Given that this is exactly our situation, we have clear instructions: Keep our conduct honourable. Make our good deeds visible.
The world needs to see God’s love in us. Our love for one another and our world is supposed to be visible. But why does that mean we must walk the path of the cross? Why do we need to reframe pain and pleasure into the language of suffering and glory? Why does suffering and glory help us to love people? Well, because Christian love is suffering love.
God’s love is other-person-centred. God’s love is, in its very essence, focused on someone else. The Father loves the Son. The Son glorifies the Father. The Spirit magnifies the Father and the Son. And the very heart of our faith is the moment of God’s sacrifice of himself on the cross. God’s love is self-sacrificing, suffering love. Read Nicholas Wolterstorff:
“In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer. God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our suffering sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffering. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love. So suffering is down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.”
If the world is to see our love, we have to embrace suffering. There is no other way. Loving people means giving them our time―our most precious resource. It means sacrificing ourselves and letting go of the things that we hold dear. It means putting other people’s needs before our own. God’s love is costly and our love is supposed to be costly.
In Australia, we live in challenging and hostile times. We live in a society that has an increasingly negative view of Christian faith. Our neighbours are falling for the Game of Thrones lie. They are believing The Handmaid’s Tale. Our great temptation is to withdraw, play it safe, and keep our heads down. But if we do those things, we are selling out to the pain-pleasure worldview. If we withdraw, play it safe and keep our heads down, we are just avoiding pain and prioritising pleasure.
But we are not pain and pleasure people. We are suffering and glory people. And the only way to reframe the Game of Thrones lie is to show people that it isn’t true. So we need to do exactly the opposite of withdrawing. We need to engage. We need to engage our world with the suffering love of the Lord Jesus―because Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.