Two Things the Gospel Does for Us When We Suffer
The gospel does two things for us when we suffer: it comforts us, and it calls us. In my last post, I surveyed the glorious hope our identity in Christ gives us in the face of suffering:
“Suffering says we are small versions of the whole: sin and suffering in a chain reaction that perverts all the good and perpetuates all the bad. God, quite to the contrary, says we are small parts of the whole: sin and suffering being subverted to highlight the good, punish the bad, and produce an eternal weight of glory that cannot be compared with our present, light and momentary afflictions. God’s word is final: we are sons, adopted and loved, and our suffering is not a contradiction to that word, but a means to its fulfillment.”
Thus, evil never has the final word. God is bringing good from bad and life from death so that no part of our lives is ever truly wasted in God's economy, but every part brings Him glory and bring us good. This is our hope in suffering, and this hope is our comfort.
But quick on the heels of the gospel’s offer of comfort in suffering is the gospel’s call to love when suffering. God comforts us because He loves us, and then he calls us to love others with the love with which we had been loved. Consider how Peter holds out the hope and comfort of the gospel as the foundation for love in 1 Peter chapter 1. Peter wrote his first letter to a suffering church, and he begins the letter with a litany of reminders of the hope they have in Christ: “you’ve been given a new birth into a living hope…and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading…the genuineness of your faith…may result in praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3-7). He then begins to apply that hope to their situation: “with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ…you were redeemed from your empty way of life…with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:13-19) And then he implores them, “By obedience to the truth, having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again…through the living and enduring word of God…And this is the word that was preached as the gospel to you” (1 Peter 1:22-25). Peter starts his letter off with hope for sufferers and concludes the first chapter with a call for sufferers to love in light of their hope.
What's Peter doing here? Peter is aware of what so many of us experience in trial. He knows that when we suffer we face uniquely intense temptations to forget and to return. We forget what we were redeemed from, what we were redeemed with, what we were redeemed for, and Who we were redeemed by. We forget that our former way of life was empty, vain, and meaningless. We forget its consequences, both eternal and temporal. We forget what God is like and what He’s worth. We forget the cost to save us and the hope that was bought for us. We forget how He loves us. We forget…and then we return. We return to the empty way of life from which we were redeemed. We return to easy pleasures and shallow catharsis. We try to cope as the world copes, and we forget that God hasn’t called us to cope, but to conquer. This looks differently for each of us – we each have our own peculiar set of temptations. We all have our go-to’s, our defaults, our knee-jerks. But the overall pattern is the same: we shift from an outward-facing life of loving attention to God and others towards an inward-facing life of self-referential nearsightedness. As the early church fathers wrote, we “curve in” on ourselves.
Hope Tells Us We Are Loved. Hope Helps Us to Love.
Thankfully, the gospel speaks to both the particulars and the big picture. It speaks to both our big picture “empty way of life” and our particular “works of the flesh” (Gal 5). It confronts our forgetful hearts with a redemptive reminder of the hope we have in Christ, so that we can resist the urge to return to what is easy, empty, and futile. It’s this ever-repeating reminder of hope through comfort that keeps us on the path of love in the midst of personal pain. This means that love in suffering happens when hope moves us from coping to conquering, from consolation to calling, because we know that love in the midst of pain reaps greater reward than love in the midst of ease. Thus, by telling us we are loved when it seems that suffering says we are not, the gospel gives us a reason to keep loving when suffering says we should not.