INTRODUCTION to “SUFFERING AND THE MISSION OF GOD”

Suffering for Christ is a part of the mission of God. Suffering comes as a result of persecution of those sent to share the gospel and those who receive the gospel. While human rights issues and slavery are topics held in high esteem in Western society, and the fight for human rights is a seen as very significant work and newsworthy, religious persecution (particularly Christian persecution) is not a popular subject and is not often covered by news media. Recently, however, persecution had become so blatant that even mainstream media is reporting it. While some in the Western world may deny the existence of religious persecution or refuse to acknowledge it, it is difficult for those who have seen it, however, to deny its existence.

Scott W. Sunquist, Formerly the Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and Professor of World Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary and now the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, views suffering as a necessary part of God’s mission to the world. He writes: “Among the basic concepts necessary for understanding Christian mission is “mission has a temporal reality –it participates in the suffering of God.” Mission starts with God and he determines the means by which is done. He continues: “Mission is from the heart of God, in each context, and it is carried out in suffering in this world for God’s eternal glory.” “It may seem strange,” remarks Sunquist, “to raise the issue of suffering.” He explains:

“In contrast to our culture…we believe that God is the one who heals and conquers death. 

We also see, however, that God does not heal all illnesses, and we believe that God enters 

into our suffering and endures our death and alienation. Suffering is inescapable as a

central element in God’s redemption.” 

It was when Sunquist experienced the oppression that new Christians had to undergo in new areas of Christian mission that he was convinced that suffering is indeed a part of God’s mission to the world. “The overwhelming and sustaining image that I came away with is of the massive suffering of Christians as Christianity has developed in each new region. Suffering is very much a part of Christian experience, as well as human existence in general.”  

Theological and missiological Perspectives 

It is necessary to deal with the mission of God and the reality of persecution and suffering for Christ’s sake from theological and missiological perspectives. God’s mission is revealed in the theology of the Bible. We have used the theology of the Bible to derive and teach the great doctrines of the church, and discourse on these great doctrines is in fact theological discourse. As a part of our theological discussion of God’s mission, we should also seek to understand persecution and suffering for Christ’s sake from a missiological perspective or how it is related to missio Dei and how it is integral to God’s revelation of his mission in the Bible. The mission of God is the occasion for persecution and suffering, since persecution arises in response to Christians seeking to share their faith in a variety of circumstances and cultures, some of which are hostile and resistant.

Participating in the mission of God means we will be confronted with cultural philosophies and ideologies, some of which reject Christianity from the start. Philosophy chronicles the thinking and rational systems (or irrational systems in some cases) that move and drive cultures. It is apparent to all missionaries and missional pastors that a particular philosophy or ideology usually dominates the cultures where they are working. By understanding cultures in a profound manner allows the Holy Spirit to use our understanding to guide us with ways to evangelize and disciple most effectively within a particular culture. We will need to understand and deal with deeper issues of culture, like the core values underlining ideologies and world views. When people are converted and come to faith in Christ they will begin to deal with the core values and cultural worldview in which they are immersed and it will become evident that belief in Christ will change one’s perspective and worldview as well as one’s heart and spiritual life. This means that new believers are faced with formidable challenges, spiritually, morally, and intellectually. Christopher J. H. Wright observes:

“Those who come to faith in Christ out of a background of Greco-Roman polytheism embraced the biblical monotheistic worldview. But they still lived surrounded by all the idolatrous reality of the culture within which they were now called to live out their Christian identity. This posed daily dilemmas for them. The thoroughness of Paul’s mission practice is that he was not content merely with evangelism and church planting but was concerned to build mature communities of believers who could think biblically through the ethical issues they faced in their ambient religious culture. His pastoral and ethical guidance to his churches was thus as much a part of his missional task as his evangelistic zeal, and just as theologically grounded too.”

Persecution and the need to explain and defend the faith are real challenges among Christians in many nations. A lot of questions about our faith by non-believers can be answered by a simple testimony or by remaining faithful in times of persecution and suffering. Very few people are won by pure intellectual argument but once a person becomes a Christian, reasonable discussions can fortify and mature their faith. They can construct a worldview and belief system that can give them a more realistic perspective of God and the world and can fortify their faith. And this is being done. Understanding of what it means to be a Christian is different in many countries outside the West.  What differs is that those Christians realized the sacrifice and suffering necessary to keep the faith and to spread the faith, consequently it does not seem unusual to them to include these aspects in a theology of mission. 

Questions about God’s mission and suffering for Christ’s sake need to be addressed in a manner that will allow to us gain depth of understanding and insight into why mission and suffering are related. I wish to echo something Peter Kreeft said in his book Making Sense out of Suffering, “This book is for everyone who has ever wept and wondered.”  We have all wept and wondered why God seems to require suffering and allow persecution to exist. Augustine said “Credo ut intelligam”—I believe in order to know or that I may be able to understand. Certain issues and questions beg for adequate answers. People go for years mulling something (like suffering for Christ and persecution) in their minds but never take the time to get it resolved. Theology and philosophy, then, are tools given to us by God to resolve our questions and do this with more intentionality. 

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