Suffering and the Gospel

Thomas Schreiner, commenting on Galatians 4:12-20:

schreiner“The Spirit was given [to the Galatians] through Paul’s suffering, not in spite of it…Their warm reception of Paul [in the past during his first visit to them] did not merely represent their kindness and humanity but also has theological significance…Their response to Paul signified their reaction to Christ himself…The welcome Paul received among the Galatians was remarkable because his presence among them was not attractive.  He apparently suffered from sickness when he proclaimed the gospel to them.  Hays suggests that Paul needed ‘to recuperate from being flogged, beaten, or stoned’…

Paul’s sickness, however, was not a liability for the spread of the gospel.  Rather, he considered it to be a corollary of Christ’s sufferings.  In other words, Paul did not think his diseases and sufferings should be separated from his calling as an apostle.  The weakness of Paul, manifested in sickness, was the pathway by which Christ’s strength was manifested through them (2 Cor. 12:7-10).  Indeed, Paul regularly teaches that his sufferings were the means God used for the dissemination of the gospel (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:3-11; 2:14-15; 4:7-12; 11:23-29; 13:4; Col. 1:24-29).  God’s regular pattern is to display his strength in and through the weakness of his servants.  Therefore, Paul’s sickness and suffering are not astonishing or surprising to him but precisely what he expects (Acts 9:16)…Such weakness was a temptation to the Galatians, for it seemed to be a sign that Paul’s message was not from God, for surely a divine message would be accompanied by the strength rather than the weakness of the messenger.  Nevertheless, the Galatians were granted spiritual perception, for they did not reject or loathe Paul for his suffering [footnote: Hafemann suggests that the Judaizers may have argued that Paul’s suffering shows that he was under the law’s curse.]…Instead, they realized that he was God’s messenger in and through his suffering, that Christ Jesus was speaking through him…

The labor pains Paul endures as an apostle characterize this present age.  When Paul speaks of his labor pains, he has in mind his suffering as an apostle, for his apostolic sufferings are a corollary of the gospel and the means by which the gospel became a reality among the Galatians…The progress of the gospel is accompanied by the suffering of its messengers.  Such has been the story throughout church history, and God intended that it be so.  When the world sees that Christians are willing to suffer and die for their faith, it understands that something incredibly precious (i.e., someone wonderfully delightful) is at stake.  Tertullian rightly said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, that the church advances as it proclaims a crucified Lord and lives a crucified life.  The beauty of Christ is reflected in the humble and glad suffering of its messengers.  No one delights in suffering inherently, but if suffering begets complaining and grumbling, the distinctiveness of the Christian faith is lost.  It is the gladness and courage of the messengers, despite the pain in their bodies, that heralds the goodness of the gospel to the world.” (Thomas R. SchreinerGalatians, pp. 284-91)

O'Donovan“In the view of the New Testament, what grounds justify a deliberate breach in communion [formal unity] within the church?  Two contradictory answers press themselves on us, each with apparent inevitability.  On the one hand, we are never justified in breaking communion within the church of Jesus Christ, for schism is sin; on the other hand, communion implies and requires fundamental agreement in the gospel.  Those who ‘go out’ from the church of Christ declare that they were not of it (1 John 2:18).  Yet disagreement is not something we are free to relativize or set to one side.  So unity in the truth turns out to be a commitment that may pull us in opposite directions to opposite conclusions: there is no communion-breaking moral disagreement, on the one hand; on the other, any disagreement is potentially communion-breaking.  The one answer we cannot find is the answer we set out to find: this, rather than that, is the specific cause that will justify a breach.

It is worth pausing to make a comparison with a similar moral antinomy, much discussed in the Scholastic period: Is it right to obey a mistaken conscience?  On the one hand, obeying one’s conscience is, apparently by definition, something it is always right to do.  One the other hand, a mistaken conscience is, again by definition, a conscience that instructs you to do the wrong thing.  So doing what a mistaken conscience tells you is to do right and wrong at the same time.  There is a lesson to be learned from the deft way Aquinas, confronting this paradox of ‘perplexity,’ thrusts it aside.  ‘One can withdraw from the error,’ he tells us [Summa Theologiae II-1.19 ad 3]. Commentators have expressed bewilderment at this, for it is, of course, not an answer to the question, but an evasion.  It does not tell us what to do when our conscience is mistaken; it tells us not to have a mistaken conscience.  Is Aquinas merely saying, ‘If that was where I wanted to go, I wouldn’t start from here’–always a bad answer to a practical question, since ‘here’ is where all practical questions start from?  No: he means that there is something that the framing of the question has left out of account; the alternative is wrongly posed.

It beguiles us into imagining a helpless innocent pathetically trapped between the devil of dutiful wrongdoing and the deep blue sea of guilt-ridden right-doing.  Moral reality is simply not like that.  The perplexed actor always has a further recourse: she or he can reconsider.  The conscience is not a fixed and unnegotiable natural force, but precisely ‘the mind of man making moral judgments.’  It can therefore be made use of, and if it leads to bewildering conclusions, it can be made use of again, to reflect on the validity of its own deliveries [moral conclusions/intuitions] and hold them up to reflective scrutiny.  On the best scenario further thought will correct the initial mistake; even on the worst scenario the effort of critical reflection will break up the illusory appearance of conscience as a moral dictator, imposing just one course of action upon us, perhaps the wrong one!  The very possibility of moral thinking transforms our experience of the conscience, which is directed to forming judgments, not delivering commands.

Just as Thomas cuts the Gordian knot with the proposal, ‘one can withdraw from the error,’ so we may suggest, ‘one can address the disagreement.’  Communion should not be broken, but that does not mean disagreements can be ignored.  There are ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew communion by proven willingness and determination to resolve them.  And the very attempt to reach a resolution transforms our experience of the disagreement.  Disagreements are no more unnegotiable natural forces than deliveries of the mistaken conscience are.  They are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.

This kind of proposal is, of course, easy to mishear.  It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation.  When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae [‘the issue/state on which the church stands or falls’] begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning.  It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation.  It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure.  But that is all a trick of the light.  None of this is implied in the search for agreement.  The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape–a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how.  I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced.  The only think I have to think–and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!–is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail.  In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart.  God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked a common will to search for its unity in the truth of the gospel.  And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression.  Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ.  But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass.  It cannot be an act to produce a result.  The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character.  It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time.  Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come!  There is no right, or duty, of schism.  As unity is given to the church as a gift, so it is taken away as a judgment.  But on no account can disunity be a course of action that the church may embrace in pursuit of its mission or identity.  The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert, the one that lies on the far side of every conciliar process that can be devised.” (Oliver O’DonovanA Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy, pp. 30-34)

Heschel“One of the greatest sins of contemporary education is to give the impression that you can solve all problems, or that there are no problems.  Actually, the greatness of man is that he faces problems.  I would judge a person by how many deep problems he’s concerned with.

But is that not the quest of religion, though, to give one a sense of inner peace?

You have to understand the meaning of inner peace.  Let me give you first an example of a person who has no problems.  Let me give you a dramatic, fictitious picture.  Here stands a man–and I’ll tell you this is a man who has no problems.  Do you know why?  He’s an idiot.

Because a man has problems.  And the more complicated, the richer he is, the deeper are his problems.  This is our distinction, to have problems, to face problems.  Life is a challenge, not just a satisfaction.  And the calamity of our time, to a Jew’s life, is to experience pleasure only.  I’m not against pleasure.  But the greatness of life is the experience of facing a challenge rather than just having satisfaction.  I would be frightened if I were to be ruled by a person who is satisfied, someone who has the answers to everything.

In a very deep sense, religion is two things.  First of all, it’s an answer to the ultimate problems of human existence.  And it also has another side.  It is a challenge to all answers.  It is living in this polarity of these two points.

But there are so many religions that say come to us and you will have no problems, we will solve your problems.  Here’s the word of God, He will solve your problems.  You don’t accept that.

I don’t accept it, because it contradicts everything I have learned from life, from experience, from philosophy, from history, and from the Bible.  If I look in the Bible, God is full of problems.  He made and created man.  He created man with his own will, with his own freedom.  And man is a problem to Him.  Look at the Bible.  God is always wrestling with the problem of man.  Even God has problems.

This is a deep ingredient of existence–problems.  And the tragedy of our education today is that we are giving some easy solutions: Be complacent, have peace of mind, everything is fine.  No!  Wrestling is the issue; facing the challenge is the issue.” (Abraham Joshua HeschelMoral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 402-03)

Heschel“I must say that in the tradition of Judaism, I have a very high estimation of the nature of man.  And frankly, I do it in defiance of many theories current in the academic life of America, in the contemporary literature of America, and in other countries.  Yes, if I were to say what challenges me most in the Hebrew tradition, it is the high view Jewish tradition takes of the nature of man.

You say there is a uniquely Jewish view of man?

Yes.  Let me first stress one point.  The point is what is mentioned in the beginning of the book of Genesis, that God created man in His own image.  Frankly, if Moses had consulted me, I would have told him, ‘Don’t say it.’  It’s an impossible statement.  First of all, it is absurd to say that man is created in the image of God.  And second, it contradicts a major principle of the Ten Commandments. It says, ‘Thou shalt not make an image of God.’  So God made an image of God Himself, against His own law.

It is a scandalous statement.  Upon thinking about it further, I realized that I have to understand its meaning.  And this I believe is its meaning.  You see, God is invisible, totally invisible.  Any thought of Him is so inadequate, He’s almost unthinkable.  Any time, any moment I think, I know, I assume that my thought of God is adequate, then I know that I fail.  He’s so mysterious and so surpassing the power of the human mind that I always have to live in the paradox around Him, pray often.  And realize that I am capable of being, of experiencing being thought of by Him rather than thinking of Him.

Now, God is invisible.  But you can’t live without God.  So God created a reminder, an image.  What is the meaning of man? To be a reminder of God.  God is invisible.  And since He couldn’t be everywhere, He created man.  You look at man and you are reminded of God…What is the mission of man, according to the Jewish view?  To be a reminder of God.  As God is compassionate, let man be compassionate.  As God strives for meaning and justice, let man strive for meaning and justice.” (Abraham Joshua HeschelMoral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 401-02)

AllisonIt is virtually impossible to be a truly wise reader of Scripture without understanding something of how “echoes” and “allusions” work, without grasping both the presence and the mechanics of intertextuality in human speech.  All texts have meaning in relation to other texts that have preceded them (a fact which is itself bound up with the larger phenomenon of meaning and language in general in human experience, both of which are always dependent on something more/else outside of the isolated “moment” of direct communication taking place in the here and now).  This holds true especially for the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, which aim to communicate with us through–among other things–implicit allusions to other prior biblical texts that bring to mind connections and create interpretative frameworks that we would otherwise never be able to grasp, conspiring together to create a complex of meaning that would otherwise elude us.  Here is how I would state the principle: allusions [veiled references to other known texts] activate [generate a new awareness in the reader’s mind] associations [thematic or emotional links between ideas, events or persons that might otherwise not be recognized or intuitive to the reader].  And a deeper, richer meaning otherwise impossible to either comprehend or communicate is thereby evoked.

Here are two quick examples.  First, Jesus regularly refers to himself as “the Son of Man” in the Gospels.  While some still argue that Jesus means nothing more and nothing less by this expression than “I” or “generic human being,” the phrase is clearly meant to lead the reader to make connections between Jesus’ identity and vocation and the broadly human mission in Psalm 8 (to rule the world on God’s behalf, which itself echoes Genesis 1) and the specifically Israel mission in Daniel 7 (to receive the kingdom of God over and against the pagan empires that oppress them).  Words from each prior Old Testament text (“authority,” “on earth,” “coming on the clouds,” “glory,” “birds of the air,” “all the nations,” etc.) are regularly brought into association with Jesus’ self-ascription as “the Son of Man” in the Gospels.  What are we meant to do in response to the recognition of these allusions?  Simple: rethink who Jesus is and the significance of what he is doing through “framing” his story through the prior story of humanity (Genesis 1/Psalm 8) and Israel (Daniel 7).  Soon the realization dawns that what God was trying to do through them (and in which tasks they failed) He is now seeking to accomplish through Jesus.

Second, consider the final (and, I would argue, summarizing and climactic) statement in the ‘body” of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).  Apart from a recognition of the echoes of Scripture in this statement, the profound and astonishing depiction of the true meaning of the church’s mission in the world will be missed.  To the reader familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the distant memory of two key passages ought to be “activated” by Paul’s language in Romans 16:20.  First, the promise of Genesis 3:15 that God would one day crush the head of the serpent (Satan) through the faithful seed of the woman.  Second, the observation (now tragically unfulfilled because of the fall) in Psalm 8 that God intended to place all things “under the feet” of image-bearing human beings when He originally created them.  The defeat of the ultimate source of evil in the world (Satan, who rules through the dark powers of sin and death) and the accomplishment of this coming of God’s kingdom through a faithful, image-bearing humanity (in keeping with God’s original intentions in the universe, ala Genesis 1): this is what is truly happening through the church’s Spirit-filled obedience to God and sacrificial service of her neighbor in the world as she imitates her crucified, risen Lord Jesus (Romans 16:19).  What might otherwise seem ordinary and uninteresting (the faithfulness of small Christian communities in stark contrast to the idolatry and immorality of their pagan neighbors around them) is now cast in a new light which gives the presence and mission of the church in the world cosmic significance in the sovereign and mysterious purposes of God.  Through us the kingdom of darkness will eventually fall and the reign of Christ forever established (cf. Luke 10:17-20).  Yet none of this can be perceived empirically by viewing the story of the church in splendid historical isolation from older stories that have preceded it and which provide it with both meaning and motivation.

Dale Allison provides a helpful illustration of how “echoes and allusions” can still work powerfully in human communication today. He points to Martin Luther King Jr.’s penchant for evocative allusions in his rhetorically powerful speeches.  In this, as in so many other aspects of his public career, King was simply imitating the strategy of the Scriptures he held so dear:


“Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech greatly enlarges its meaning through tacit references to famous predecessors. It opens with ‘Five score years ago,’ a manifest allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s first words in his Gettysburg Address (‘Four score and seven years ago’). There follow numerous examples of unacknowledged but obvious borrowing, among which are these:

  • ‘This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality’ echoes ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of York,’ the opening line from Shakespeare’s Richard III (I.1.i-ii);
  • ‘No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’ draws upon Amos 5:24;
  • ‘It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ contains a quotation from the Declaration of Independence;
  • ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together’ borrows from Isa. 40:4-5;
  • ‘So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania’ takes up the language of the old Protestant hymn composed by Samuel Francis Smith ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ (‘America’).

King’s transformation of traditional texts was much more than ornamentation: it was rather a studied means of persuading hearts and minds. His echo of the Gettysburg Address was a way of claiming that his cause was the completion of what Lincoln began. When King alluded to Shakespeare, he was telling whites in his audience: You cannot ignore me, I know your European tradition as well as you do. When he quoted from the Bible, an authority for both the white and African American communities, he was in effect asserting: God is on my side. And King’s embedded quotations from the Declaration of Independence and from Smith’s nationalistic hymn announced that he was a patriot—some had slandered him for not being such—whose dream for his people in particular was the fulfillment of the American dream in general. All this he was saying indirectly, through allusion.” (Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Intertextual Jesus: Scripture in Q, pp. 1-2)

How can Paul claim in Romans 3:9-20 that all human beings outside of Christ (cf. 15:14 for Spirit-transformed Christians) are unrighteous and “not good”?  Here is a helpful clarification from Victor Lee Austin in his wonderful book Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed, in the chapter “How to Succeed as a Human Being”:

Ethics“The adjective ‘good’ functions differently than the adjective ‘red.’  If I say you are holding a red apple and that you are also wearing red socks, I mean that both your apple and your socks are the same color.  If I add that I’ve caught you in your red socks stealing that red apple red-handedly, I mean that your face is (or ought to be) flush with the shame of being caught out at doing a wrong, and thus your face too shares the color ‘red.’  (I don’t mean that your hands are red with your victim’s blood; although, who knows what you had to do to get that red apple red-handedly?)

But if, to the contrary, I say you are holding a good apple and you are also wearing good socks, I do not mean that the apple and the socks have something in common.  A good apple is tasty and a delight to eat; good socks are neither tasty nor a delight to eat.  If I make you eat your sock it would not be because it was a good sock, nor would I be a particularly good person to make you do so.  The redness of an apple is like unto the redness of socks, cheeks, and other red things.  The goodness of an apple is not at all like the goodness of socks and other good things.

An apple is good, if I may risk putting it oddly, when it is succeeding at being an apple.  And a bad apple is one that somehow falls short at appleness.  A good sock does what socks are supposed to do, and (for instance) doesn’t have too many holes, won’t bunch up in my shoe, and so forth.  If I said to you that I had a bad apple, you wouldn’t know from that information along how to picture it; you wouldn’t know what made it bad.  It might be rotten on one side, or it might have a worm inside it, or it might have grown incorrectly and be too fibrous to eat.  If, however, I went on to say that my apple was bad because it didn’t keep my feet warm, you would rightly turn your attention from the apple to me.  You might well ask: Is Austin crazy? Has he confused the word ‘apple’ with the word ‘sock’?  Perhaps he doesn’t understand English?

What all this points to is the peculiarity of that adjective ‘good.’  ‘Good’ means that the noun which it modifies is what it is supposed to be, that it is living up to its nature (or, if you prefer, its definition).  A good apple succeeds at being an apple.  A good sock is living up to what we expect in socks.  Similarly, I say, a good human being is succeeding at being a human being.  But what in the world could that mean–to ‘succeed at being human’?  Do we have a standard against which to measure humanness?” (Victor Lee Austin, Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 67-68)

Several years ago I tried to defend the historic Christian conviction that all sinful human beings–outside of Christ and apart from the Spirit–fail to be “good” along a similar line of logic.  See here for my essay “On Not Being Narrow-Minded.”

stroup“One of the strengths of narrative theology has been that it provides a foundation for theology by uniting experience and reflection in a way that other recent forms of systematic theology apparently have been unable to do.  Narrative theology is not simply a matter of storytelling.  Narrative theology does recognize, however, that Christian faith is rooted in particular historical events which are recounted in the narratives of Christian Scripture and tradition, that these historical narratives are the basis for Christian affirmations about the nature of God and the reality of grace, and that these historical narratives and the faith they spawn are redemptive when they are appropriated at the level of personal identity and existence.” (George W. StroupThe Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church, p. 17)


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