As much as we would like to think the opposite, life will not be easy. One huge temptation for Christians is to seek to avoid suffering. But sometimes, there are things you have to go through.
Yesterday I shared some words from a pastor who wrote a poetic reflection on what Lent is. The last thought was this:
Not a very happy time,
But it is what
You have to go through
To get to Easter.
Part of life is experiencing not very happy times. It’s simply a reality. But we’ve turned happiness into something more than emotion that we feel sometimes. We‘ve turned happiness into something more like a fundamental human right, and even a virtue. Pop culture has elevated even into a virtue like truth. (Pharell sings a very catchy, but very untrue, line when he says “clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth”. No offence, Pharell, but no one should be clapping along to that line.)
So now, happiness is seen as the highest goal in life. How many times have you heard lines like, “I just want her to be happy”, or “As long as he’s happy, I’m happy”, or even, “God just wants you to be happy”. Anything that infringes on a person’s happiness is seen not just as unfortunate, but as evil.
But happiness isn’t a fundamental human right; it’s an emotion. There are many things in life that do bring happiness, yes, but just because something brings happiness doesn’t make that thing good. We certainly don’t want to pursue unhappiness. But we can’t make happiness the measure of a good life, or even of goodness itself.
As the poet says above, Lent isn’t a very happy time. Christians reflect on their own mortality, on their sin, on the suffering of Jesus for them. These aren’t happy things, but that last thing especially is a good thing. The suffering wasn’t good, but that jesus did it for you is good for you, because it means your salvation. The happiness of Easter can’t happen without the suffering and death of Jesus. It’s what He had to go through.
And so we have to go through things that are unhappy. Some will seek to avoid suffering at all cost, even making a lack of suffering the measure of God’s love for them. So they’ll say things like, “you’re a favoured child of God”, which is true. But what they’ll mean by favoured is really that life will be full of things that make you happy: getting that promotion at work, getting bumped up to first class when flying, being healed of any and all diseases. (I’m not just making these examples up.) So what they really mean is, if you’re “favoured” by God, then life will be easy. There’s a phrase that describes this kind of thinking: a theology of glory.
A theology of glory sounds good on the surface, but it has some real problems (because not being based in the Bible’s teachings, at all). What can this theology say when suffering inevitably comes? What happens when you lose your job, or you miss your flight, or someone you love gets cancer and dies? What does that mean? If happiness is the sign that God favours you, what does it mean in the unhappy times? A theology of glory has no...happy...answer to that, because it doesn’t want to acknowledge the logical answer: that if the sign of God’s favour in your life is a life of ease, then hardship must mean you are not favoured of God, that you don’t have enough faith, that there must be some sin in your life that’s preventing you from experiencing these “blessings”. A theology of glory seeks not only to avoid suffering, and to make a lack of suffering the sign of God’s favour, but it blames you when suffering comes into your life.
And here’s the thing: suffering will come into your life. If never a matter of if, but of when. And a theology of glory, being bad theology, won’t get you through those times. But there’s another way.
Living life under a “theology of the cross” is the answer. A theology of the cross acknowledges that there will be suffering in life. It acknowledges that Jesus had to suffer and die for the sins of the world. It acknowledges, with Scripture, that the sign of God’s love for you is Jesus, crucified and risen, for you. Period. The way to salvation goes through the cross. There’s no other way.
That doesn’t mean that Christians seek out suffering, that they’re masochists. Not at all. It simply means they acknowledge the reality of the world: it’s broken by sin. They acknowledge the reality of their own lives: they’re sinful. They acknowledge the reality of the teaching of the Bible: Jesus says, “in this world you will have trouble...” (John 16:33).
But it also acknowledges Jesus’ promise: “...but take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Lent is something you have to go through to get to Easter. Suffering is something we have to go through. But it’s neither the goal nor the end of the story. It’s something you have to go through; on the other side of the darkness, there is light and life.