Suffering is a very old phenomenon incontrovertibly affects everyone. Ever since Eden’s gates closed upon the heels of our former ancestors, Adam and Eve, man has been a sufferer. Fergusson aptly noted that “the reality of suffering, especially that of the helpless or innocent, is a problem for anyone who posits the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent Deity” (Fergusson 1988, 667). In other words, “there is suffering, evil, pain, grief, death and depression in the world. It touches everyone’s life at some point” (Simundson 1980, 13). My paternal grandmother has suffered tremendously, burying four of her seven children in the order in which they were born at the time when they were breadwinners in the family. Child A, B, C and D (names withheld) respectively died at the ages of 27, 25, 30 and 42 years in 1968, 1972, 1980 and 1997.
THE INEVITABILITY OF SUFFERING
The twentieth century has witnessed a volume of human misery and suffering of unprecedented proportions. In the face of this enormity, “philosophers and theologians have continued to grapple with the enigma of evil and suffering” (Atkinson and Field 1995, 824).
It seems understandable when the guilty suffer but it is a mystery when the righteous is not also immune. Paradoxically, “Abraham is tested, Joseph is afflicted, Moses is plagued, David is persecuted, Job is harassed, Elijah is hated, Jeremiah is driven from home, Daniel is thrown to the lions, Stephen is stoned, Paul is imprisoned” (Berner 1973, 75-76). This frankness about suffering does not only belong to the occasional works of the collection of writings that we call the Bible. It is to be found not only in Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Lamentations and many of the Psalms but rather informs the whole story. Realistically, “what is from one vantage point the history of Israel’s providential deliverance from evil, oppression and extinction is, from another, the story of Israel’s continuous degradation of suffering” (Hall 1986, 32).
An incontrovertible truth is that “suffering is real, and is the lot of humanity as we know it” (Hall 1986, 75). In January 2002, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah declared an end to the decade-long civil war that had crippled Sierra Leone. The war, fuelled by a power struggle primarily between the government and rebel forces led by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) over territory, conflict diamonds and politics, brought a decade of attacks on civilians, which resulted in the dislocation of over four million people who were forced either to flee to neighbouring countries or become internally displaced. The sufferings of Sierra Leoneans during the eleven-year rebel war (1991-2002) were unimaginable. In addition to hunger and starvation, arms and limbs were amputated, and babies were stripped off the back of mothers and thrown into burning houses.
The researcher has a friend (a committed Christian) who was raped by seven rebels. As Sierra Leone emerges from the trauma of civil war, its people are now faced with the challenges left by a decade of human rights abuses and the conflicts which plagued the region. During the past decade, Sierra Leone witnessed several egregious violations of human rights, stemming from the war. Among them were child abuse, violence against women, and arbitrary arrest, detention and execution, to name a few. The conflict in neigbouring Liberia used to affect the Sierra Leonean people. As Sierra Leone struggles to recover from this decade of tragedy, one way the citizens are suffering is the lingering effects of the past.
The sad reality is that wars, famines, diseases, natural disasters and ultimate death are never easy to rationalize. Cancer, kidney failure, heart disease, sudden infant death syndrome, cerebral palsy, divorce, rape, loneliness, rejection, failure, barrenness, widowhood and countless other forms of human suffering produce inevitable questions that are on the lips of both sinner and saint.
Some of these include the following:
1. If God made a perfect world, why is the righteous suffering?
2. Does God want his people to suffer?
3. If not, why did He allow it?
4. If God is omnipotent, why can’t He stop suffering?
5. If God can stop it but does not, is He malevolent?
6. How can a loving God stand by inactive?
The above questions, always present in the minds of people in general and the researcher in particular, challenged the latter to direct one to look for appropriate answers in the Bible.
One can safely assert that “we live in an epicurean age where nobody wants to suffer” (Airiohuodion 1996, 54). Consequently, “we often regard suffering as if it’s to be avoided at all costs, yet it’s often the best display of a life transformed by Christ” (MacArthur 1991,12).
There is another dimension to suffering. In Paul’s day, when a man became a Christian, he knew what he was getting into. To choose Christ meant to choose trouble. It’s still that way although many Christians today don’t seem to realize it. From about A.D. 100 with Emperor Nero until A.D. 12, “the church experienced ten periods of intense persecution at the hands of Roman emperors” (Horton 1993, 11). These included Nero (A.D. 54-58), Domitian (A.D. 81-96), Trajan (A.D.98-117), Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180), Septimus Severus ((A.D. 193-211), Maximimunus (A.D. 235-238), Decius (A.D. 249-251), Valerian (A.D. 253-260), Aurelian (A.D. 270-275) and Diocletian (A.D. 284-305). Eusebius account could be realistically applied to nature of the suffering of the saints:
We ourselves also beheld, when we were at these places, many all at once in a single day, some of whom suffered decapitation, others the punishment of fire; so that the murderous axe was dulled and, worn out, was broken in pieces, while the executioners themselves grew utterly weary and took it in turns to succeed one another (Frend 1984, 481).
The attitude of the early martyrs is worth mentioning. Persuaded that neither death, nor life would separate them from the love of God, these Christians obeyed the Word of God ‘in spite of’ and not ‘because of’. Counting every opportunity to suffer as joyful, they were confident that God meant it for their good. Since they did not want Jesus to be ashamed of them in the last day, they were not afraid of man who can only kill the body. They were told that their lives would be spared if they would just reject the name of Christ. However, they were prepared to die one by one since they could not renounce His name. At the very hour of death, these martyrs pledged allegiance to the lamb seeking to honour Him instead. This amazed Eusebius who completed his narrative with this inspiring tribute :
Thus, as soon as sentence was given against the fire, some from one quarter and others from another would leap up to the tribunal before the judge to confess themselves Christians; paying no heed when faced with terrors…but undismayedly and boldly speaking of the piety towards the God of the universe, and with joy… receiving the final sentence of death; so that they sang and sent up hymns and thanksgiving to the God of the universe even to the very last breath (Frend 1984, 481).
Christianity however became a tolerated religion in the time of Constantine. Indeed, “to Constantine, the best course was not to suppress Christianity” (Noll 1997, 51) but “restoring to the Christians the liberties they had possessed before the persecution” (Frend 1984, 475). This religious toleration produced several changes. Constantine ordered that Sunday was to be a public holiday similar to other pagan holidays. This made possible wider development in worship and larger congregations in the churches. Realistically, greater leisure meant that Christian festivals tended to multiply. This underscores the point that Christians generally do not want to suffer.
Queen Elizabeth I could be compared to Constantine since she also did not follow the footsteps of Queen Mary (alias bloody Mary). Although “the dreadful fires continued for a while longer in Spain and the countries within her grasp, with the ending of the reign of Queen Mary, the history of English martyrdom was brought to a close” (Foxe 1989, 200).
SUFFERING IN CONTEMPORARY TIMES
The researcher suspects that the relatively peaceful atmosphere in which Christians worship today could be a contributing factor to the fact that they are not willing to suffer. Everyone seems to claim the sweet side of Christianity. The word ‘sweet’ added to ‘fellowship’ in the grace we normally and meaninglessly recite therefore shows how the contemporary Church views suffering. The theology in the church today is to that of prosperity. However, “… between ‘thus says the Lord’ and ‘it came to pass,’ there are several bridges to cross and several mountains to climb” (Madugba 2002, 50).
In the introduction of his book titled Long life : your heritage, the writer observed that “this book sets out to show one thing: that long life is the heritage of the born again. It sets out to teach that the believer has a choice in the matter of his departure from his earthly tabernacle. The believer can claim victory over death. It is one of his covenant rights. Even though it would be a bit farfetched to disagree with the above, the researcher suspects that the suffering-free or problem-free life can only be lived in heaven. Besides, “to claim that God wills our prosperity at all times may not always be true” (Airiohuodion 1996, 60).
The theology of suffering in the contemporary church is also reflected in song. Before the 1980s, choruses emphasized personal confession of faith in Christ and willingness to take up the cross to follow Him. The fact that people don’t want to suffer today is clearly reflected in the songs, slogans and posters advertising for breakthrough. A popular chorus in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria (three West African nations geographically apart) is “Mi a nor go sufa, a nor go beg for bread; God of mirakul, na my Papa o”. The English translation is “I will neither suffer nor beg for bread; my Father is the God of miracle”. This tendency to avoid suffering at all cost has led to the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ which stresses faith in claiming blessings as they name them. At the risk of oversimplification and distortion, this gospel teaches, among other things that:
1. Every Christian is created to be materially and financially buoyant.
2. Christians who are in a state of prolonged financial predicament are ignorant of God’s design.
3. For the manifestation of the reversal of breakthrough, the aspirant must demonstrate his expectancy by blessing the ‘man of God’ first (Awoniyi 2004, 2).
Christians are therefore encouraged not to accept suffering as their portion. Anyone who is suffering is either living in sin or is not standing on the promises of God for his showers of blessing. Hall realistically observes that “there is in fact a general distaste in both society and church for interpretations of human suffering which make use of the idea of sin in a causative sense” (Hall 1986, 75).
The above misconception of the concept of suffering in the contemporary church seems to be contrary to II Corinthians 1:3-7.
Paul gives the praise to the Father for His faithful provision of comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-5). This God is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who so loved the world that He sent His Son to save rather than judge the world. He is the God who, among other things, anointed our Lord Jesus Christ to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and comfort all that mourn. He is also the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. Mercy originates from Him and can only be secured from Him. The words ‘all comfort’ indicates that there are neither limitations nor deductions. God’s mercy results in the comfort He shows.
He comforts us in all tribulation and intends for believers who receive the comfort to extend that comfort to others. ‘All’ indicates every single one – not one Ieft out. Although Paul was referring to a specific set of Christians, by implication or extension, all readers of the epistle are included. It is perhaps easy to mention many beautiful things about God being the God of all comfort; however, unless one knows what it is to be truly comforted, it will be difficult to comfort others. God, the comforter, is not far off in a distant heaven where Christians cannot find Him. It is realistic to state that Rick Warren’s ‘painful experiences’ could be one way God prepared him for ministry. A pastor, John Regier, who conducted a seminar in pastoral counseling at West Africa Theological Seminary, Lagos, Nigeria in August 2004 testified that he is now in a better position to comfort someone who is depressed because he went through depression for twenty years and has received the comfort of God. God does not waste pain. He therefore comforts Christians for a purpose. Having received the comfort of God, they are expected to be conduits of that received from God, not storehouses. Paul in verses three and four illustrates that the ability to praise God in the midst of suffering therefore could only come from an experience of the strengthening comfort of God.
Interestingly, comfort is increased when sufferings are increased. The fifth verse provides the reason why suffering equips the Christian to receive God’s comfort. Whenever Christ’s sufferings were increased in Paul’s life, there was a corresponding increase in God’s comfort through the ministry of Christ. This means that the greater the suffering, the greater the comfort and one’s ability to this divine sympathy with others who are suffering. Perhaps it is a strange conjunction to juxtapose suffering and comfort. Presumably this is more strange when they are put together in the relation of cause and effect, and the latter emerges from the former as springs have been loosened by the earthquake at Messina, as volcanic influences are productive of conditions that feed the most luxurious vines. Realistically, the teaching that links suffering and comfort, the volcano and the vine, affliction and emancipation is preeminently significant of the Christian religion. One can only obtain the wine of life through the crushing of the grapes. Affliction introduces one to the juices and manna.
Christ is the leader and sublime Example of suffering. Christians are not expected to always have very easy lives since Jesus Himself knew titanic suffering. It is possible to evade a multitude of sorrows by the cultivation of an insignificant life. However, when one wants to fulfill Christ’s purpose, sufferings will then be increased.
The central idea in verses six and seven (part of which is in the fourth verse) deals with suffering and the Christian community. Paul, after experiencing an overflow of Christ’s suffering, knows the strengthening of His comfort. Experiencing suffering itself is the basis for assisting others. Suffering is therefore not necessarily an accident. God designs the affliction of spiritual leaders to minister to the affliction of the flock. The welfare of the Corinthians would be promoted by the example of the apostles in their own trials and the resulting consolations they would be able to pass on as a consequence of their afflictions. Christians shall therefore rejoice together if they suffer together.
A clear understanding of the Pauline concept of suffering as contained in the passage examined, (II Corinthians I:3-7) and an examination of the contemporary trend reveals that Paul’s idea is unpopular. This unpopularity is seen in the various interpretations given to suffering by Christians today.
Although the church has responded to the suffering of the people in Sierra Leone, there is more to be done. Programmes on forgiveness and reconciliation should be on-going rather than one-sided. With the message of Paul at the background, Christians who suffered in different ways must be instrumental in assisting those who are suffering since they have been comforted to comfort. The sacrificial duty of the church, its suffering, should become a work of love and redemption. Even before comforting those who are suffering, the inescapable nature of suffering must be realized. Bhikshu is quoted of saying that.
To be born is to suffer; to grow old is to suffer; to die is to suffer; to loose what is loved is to suffer; to be tied to what is not loved is to suffer; to endure what is distasteful is to suffer. In short, all the results of individuality, of separate self-hood, necessarily involve pain or suffering (Bradley 1969, 699).
Consequently, the church must be thankful to God like Paul in the passage studied, praising God in spite of and not necessarily because of since suffering is inevitable. If the Church lives and moves and have its being in Jesus, then it must be ready to suffer.
The issue of shared comfort is very crucial to the church’s understanding of Paul’s thought and motivation not only in the passage reviewed but the entire letter of II Corinthians. Jesus ought to be the medium of comfort and suffering as Paul suggests in II Corinthians 1:5. As Christians identify with Christ, they must be prepared to suffer with Him.
Although the church should not go about ‘witch-hunting’ or searching for suffering, it must be regarded as part of the divine appointment when it comes. This is important even in James 1:2-4 where ‘trials’ and ‘testing’ are used. Fellowship should be seen as a vital relationship between Christians. They will rejoice together since they also suffer together. Paul made the Corinthians understand this mutuality of suffering and comfort.