Paul’s Theology of Suffering (Part 1)

“[T]he Gospel is wrapped not just in joy, but also in affliction” (p. 16).

Today, we begin our discussion on human suffering by way of L. Ann Jervis’ book, At the Heartat-the-heart-of-the-gospel.jpg of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message (see “Up next” below for preview). Before proceeding let me say a few words about our topic.

This will not be an “ivory tower” interaction with the issues, questions, and challenges surrounding human suffering. I have and continue to walk with many people who suffer greatly and I do not take their pain lightly. In fact, it is because of the gravity of human suffering – its gravity for our Maker and therefore its gravity for us – that we take it up here. We might say something like this: to reason well theologically about human suffering contributes to theologically rich life in the midst of and for those who suffer.

Suffering that Attends the Gospel

Jervis looks at 1 Thessalonians first. Here the suffering about which Paul writes is that which attends the Gospel, affliction that “results from a life of faithfulness to Christ.” For our purposes, let me direct attention to three interwoven claims (Jervis does not make these claims in the systematic language I employ here): (1) A Christological claim (2) a spiritual-pneumatological claim and (3) an eschatological claim.

We look today at the first and the remaining two tomorrow.

  1. A Christological Claim:

As the drama of Christ reveals, the mysterious dynamics of God’s cosmos are thatjervis.jpg release from suffering requires suffering. Paul says that his converts undertake an affliction that imitates that of Christ (1:6). This appears to mean that believers’ suffering is caused, as was Christ’s, by acting for God’s deliverance of God’s creation from all that denies the love of God (p. 24).

In other words, believers are called to imitate Christ in accepting the word and receive its attendant sufferings. Building her argument entirely from 1:6 she contends that believer-specific suffering is directly related to God’s saving intentions (“You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spirit of severe suffering, you welcomed the message [ó logos] with the joy given by the Holy Spirit”). Jervis urges that Jesus’ way of “welcoming the word” – his faith – is then “paradigmatic” (p. 18, 27) for believers.

Additionally, believers suffer because affliction is the necessary prelude to the birth of the new age in which God’s will is done. Afflictions are “the paradoxical attendants to the joyful good news, perhaps because…they serve the purpose of continuing and completing God’s saving work – a work which Christ demonstrated cannot take place apart from suffering” (p. 30). While she is careful never says that believer-specific suffering is salvific, either for ourselves or for others, she does say that believer-specific sufferings are “conduit[s] for God’s salvation” (p. 29) because they imitate Christ’s own. They are, in some “mysterious” way, part of God’s architecture for creation (I have questions about this so keep reading).

What does this claim offer us?

Jervis vividly draws out several of Paul’s intentions here. For those of us unaccustomed to suffering for the Gospel, we should accept Paul’s challenge not to be complacent, fearful, or unaware but to accept it as that which comes with imitating Christ. Also, we should receive the gospel and its attendant suffering as Christ did and have our gaze directed away from ourselves – what suffering might gain us by way of spiritual growth – and onto God and his creation. Finally, Paul’s message encourages those who suffer for Christ to receive both the gospel and its attendant suffering with the “joy given by the Holy Spirit” (more on joy and the Spirit tomorrow).

A Nagging Christological Question

That having been said, I am left with a nagging Christological question.

It is one thing to say,

“Christ is the paradigmatic recipient of God’s word. His acceptance of ‘the word’ in suffering and with joy shapes the model to which those who believe in him may conform” (p. 27).

That follows straightforwardly from 1:6. It is something altogether different to read 1:6 and assert,

“Afflictions are the paradoxical attendants to the joyful good news, perhaps because…they serve the purpose of continuing and completing God’s saving work – a work which Christ demonstrated cannot take place apart from suffering” (p. 30. Emphasis added).

So, is Jervis saying that Christ’s reconciling death needs completing? Or that believer-specific suffering adds to that which was “finished” in Christ’s death (cf. 2 Cor 5:18-21; Rom 5:9-11; Col 1: 19-22)? Perhaps she is simply saying that through the suffering that attends the gospel believers continue “in” the work of Christ but not in salvific ways? I suspect the latter is true but her language here seems to leave these questions open (We have invited Dr. Jervis to participate in this dialogue so she is more than welcome to clarify).cross-1.jpg

Why do I raise this question? I am worried that if we are not on guard to the manner in which we leverage the vocabulary of “imitation” and “participation” we can all too easily slip into Christological claims of the sort I believe Jervis is intent to avoid (e.g. “I atone for my sins or the sins of others through my suffering” or “The work of Christ for reconciliation is not sufficient of itself”).

By raising this matter I am surfacing my desire to see moral theologies not underplay, either implicitly or explicitly, the sheer gratuity of God’s act of reconciliation. I am also interested to see accounts of the Church’s action – suffering, witnessing, or otherwise – be stridently grounded in, and continuously referenced to, the completed work of the reconciling One. Good moral theologies are those that give emphatic and continual emphasis to what John Webster calls the “shocking, revolutionary, and unpossessable” reality that is the completed event of reconciliation so that in the Church’s witness full volume is given to the reality that “all this is from God” (2 Cor 5:18).

More tomorrow on Jervis’ Spiritual-Pneumatological & Eschatological claims.

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2 thoughts on “Paul’s Theology of Suffering (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: L. Ann Jervis responds to my Christological questions « Theology Forum

  2. Pingback: Everyday saints « Blog Archive « Filling the Chalice

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