Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Suffering-Centered Theology

Yesterday i got to thinking, and once again i've made the realization that much of my theology is centered, not around Christ, but around the avoidance of suffering. Let me say up front that i know this is not a good thing and the thoughts that follow are not intended to convince anyone to think this way. But maybe you are more like me than you realize.

Like many people, my main motivation for accepting Christ in the first place was to escape hell. Essentially, to avoid suffering. Of course, a secondary motivation for my Christian life was the knowledge that God blesses his people in this current life, and punishes sin in this current life as well. Once again, avoid suffering, take the path of blessing and comfort.

Then as a Christian, i discover that it is my job to help other people find salvation in Christ, too. Why? So they can be spared the suffering of God's wrath in this life and the next, and can enjoy the benefits of God's blessing and provision in this life and the next.

I'm also told i'm supposed to help others in material and temporal ways. We are to encourage those who need it, provide physical assistance to those who need it, be kind and generous. Why? To spare them from suffering.

If i'm not careful, it's extremely easy for every act of obedience, every expression of devotion, every effort of ministry and compassion, every reasoning about ethics, to become completely centered around suffering and the avoidance therof. That which is good is that which spares the most humans from the most suffering.

Where is God in all this? He is both friend and foe. He is the source of comfort as well as the judge whose wrath we seek to escape. But obviously he agrees that human suffering is the highest evil because He sent His Son to suffer on our behalf, so we could escape it. We recognize Jesus' sacrifice as great because He endured the worst the world had to offer - suffering.

I hope by now you can see how dreadfully deficient a theology this is. God is not someone who is loved because He is wonderful, he is someone who is obeyed because He is powerful. And this kind of theology doesn't help us when we discover that part of serving God is suffering for him. What are we to do, when, having entered this life to escape suffering, we discover that it involves suffering? Surely there is a better answer than just "we suffer in this life to escape a greater suffering in the next."

But the problem is that this theology is so hard to escape. Because it's all based on fact. God does punish. Hell is real. And the Christian life and afterlife as a whole does involve much less suffering than that of unbelievers. So it's hard to break out of this mindset once you get it, because you cannot deny the facts it is based on.

Somehow i need to recognize that God is more than punishment and blessing. Somehow i need to learn to value His glory just for it's own sake. That doesn't make any sense to me yet, but i know it's real. Somehow i need to discover that God is worth loving for reasons other than just that He gives us things and spares us some trouble.

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