This concludes our study of L. Ann Jervis’ look at human suffering (At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message). In her final chapter on Romans she makes what I believe are her most transparently theological – and insightful – contributions of the book yet.
Romans: Embracing Paul’s concern for those not “in Christ”
Paul understands suffering to be caused by sin, the presence of which affects all humanity, believers and nonbelievers alike, as they wait for the ultimate defeat of sin and with it the end of suffering. What this means for Jervis is that because all humanity “shares the same history – a history of bondage to sin” believers should see themselves as co-sufferers with those who do not believe.
The Christian’s attitude toward those who suffer outside of faith, Jervis explains, “would be profound love and compassion, care for the present and future lives of all humanity, outrage when tribulations occur to any person or part of this planet” (p. 119).
Many reflections on the topic relate primarily to what resources Christians might draw upon in their own suffering or when ministering to others in the community of faith who suffer. Jervis here takes us in another direction that most don’t draw upon in Paul: how the suffering of those outside of faith – no matter how it manifests itself – should be the concern of the Christian community as well.
To suffer “with Christ” is not only to draw upon the power of the Spirit who transforms the believer’s suffering into joy but also “to work for justice and life in our daily situations.” This is where Jervis really hits her stride and where her earlier Christological comments make more sense.
By virtue of suffering “with Christ” we are called to face the darkness, to face down what destroys, to reshape what is so that it comes to be dominated not by suffering but by God’s glory. The burden of our vision of the depth of the pain in which creation is caught is to be both borne and used. Where we see suffering and death we are obliged to bring their opposites (p. 137).
And in the conclusion she returns to these ideas saying,
Believers in Christ may live in the presence of the hope of the end of suffering both for ourselves and for those who do not believe. In fact, one of our responsibilities as believers is to believe this for those who cannot. The effect of our believing for the rest of humanity is that we will be able to care for the suffering of others. This changes both us and others. It conforms us to Christ while reshaping existence for others (p. 135. Emphasis added).
In her remarks on Philippians last week, I was surprised she did not draw on a doctrine of the Spirit but she clearly finds herself freer in her concluding remarks to make more theological conclusions. She urges that the “believing for others” to which Christians are called is an action compelled by and “mediated to us” by the Holy Spirit who “affords us the capacity” to reach beyond ourselves and care for those who are hurting.
1 Thessalonians » Accept Paul’s challenge not to be complacent, fearful, or unaware but to accept suffering as that which attends the imitation of Christ. Faith, hope, and love are Spirit-induced modes of life in response to suffering and because they participate in the birth of a new age, they draw afflictions to those who practice them.
Philippians » Christ-followers who suffer do so “in” Christ and their pain is not lost, fruitless, or random. On the contrary, because we suffer in the light of the resurrection our suffering produces life not death.
Romans » Where we see suffering and death we are obliged to bring their opposites. One of our responsibilities as believers is to believe for those who cannot. The effect of our believing for the rest of humanity is that we will be able to care for the suffering of others.
A Couple Questions
- Do Jervis’ insights from these texts strike you and true to Paul? To the rest of the canon?
- For those who suffer or walk with those who are suffering, in what directions might Jervis’ insights move us? To what kinds of specific actions do they direct us?