When you buy a ticket to watch a movie and arrive early, you get the privilege of watching a laundry list of previews. As a matter of fact, in many cases, the real movie doesn’t start until about 15 minutes after the start time. One time during one of those previews, I was hooked. I don’t know if it was the editing, the action or the quality of surround sound in the theater, but I had to see that movie. I made note of when it opened and I got a ticket for opening weekend, finagling a few friends to go with me. The movie? Well, let’s just say it was less than advertised. The only silver lining was that I saw it during the daytime and paid a matinee’s price for admission.
There are many times in life that we are captivated by some kind of preview or sales presentation only to find that the actual product is not as satisfying. Sadly, this takes place in the Christian faith, and in disturbing abundance. All too often, people are presented a gospel of life improvement: that your relationships will improve, your marriage will be better, your kids will be well-behaved, you will get better grades and get into the school of your dreams – if you give your life to Jesus.
At the Rooted 2021 Youth Ministry Conference speaker Tish Harrison Warren stated that the biggest struggle that Generation Z has with the Christian faith is their inability to properly wrestle with theodicy, defined as the problem of suffering in the life of the Christian. These teens and young adults want to know: if God is so loving, why does he allow his people, whom he saved through faith in Jesus Christ, to suffer?
Those words really stuck out to me as a youth pastor. A big part Gen Z’s struggle is the “life improvement myth” that many youth pastors sell to young unbelievers in order to gain converts.
This happens in many, often unconscious ways. Our “invite your nonbelieving friends” events rarely ever mention the hard truths of the gospel when presented. I often remember believers giving testimonies that featured horrible sin and suffering before conversion, but a happily-ever-after story since. In addition to this, we as youth pastors do all we can to get them to enjoy the experience of church so that they will stick around, often with the pressure of attendance numbers hanging over our heads. Without even realizing it, we have sold them a narrative of Christianity as “life improvement.” But truth be told, you can never really know God until you can embrace suffering and understand his purpose for it.
So how can we understand this better? There are three ways I believe that developing a theology of suffering is necessary for the Christian.
A theology of suffering is Biblical
In the book of Philippians, the apostle Paul himself spoke about attaining greater intimacy in Christ when he said, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). Many people want to know Jesus, but for Paul, he wanted to know him at his worst – to know his sufferings and the brutal death he encountered.
The same apostle Paul earlier in chapter one said that we as Christians are called to suffer (Phil 1:27). This flies in the face of “life improvement.” The life of the Christian, in particular the teenage Christian, will involve suffering, perhaps in the form of their parents’ divorce, rejection of a friend, bullying, or maybe even a premature illness. Even if you are able to escape those problems, there is always the opposition that comes from declaring to your friends and family that you are a follower of Jesus in a post-Christian culture. There is no getting around it – the Bible has declared that suffering is part of the Christian life.
A theology of suffering creates a proper perspective on this life
Let’s say that I plan to attend a 4-day conference. Imagine me coming to the conference with a U-Haul Truck, packed with all of my belongings – furniture, kitchen accessories, appliances, clothes, yard equipment and electronics as I searched for a place to park the large truck while I am staying at the hotel. You would think I was a nut. Why? Because I am only staying four days! But yet this is how Christians often view this life. We invest in this life as if we will have it forever, but “our true citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
Suffering helps us realize that this world is not ultimately our home, that we don’t ultimately belong here and that this place is not worth seeking as an eternal destination. Teenagers have a hard time thinking about eternity. They often only think about the current state of circumstances: whether or not their crush likes them back, when school will be over, or how many “likes” their post will receive. But God has us as youth pastors in their lives for a reason: to get them to think beyond the next 10 minutes.
Every heartbreak is a reminder that we have a better home awaiting us if we place our faith in Jesus. When we get to heaven as believers, we will fully understand the glory and eternal life because of the pain of this life. We will fully understand the pleasures of God because of our struggles. That’s why Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:13 “to rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” The pain is a preparation for the pleasure ahead.
A theology of suffering allows for growth into Christlikeness
Back to Philippians 3:10. Paul says that he wants to know Christ…and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. For Paul, suffering was a way to become like Christ. One of the secrets of Christlikeness lies in the perseverance through times of trial. That is never a popular refrain.
In the days before digital cameras, film had to be developed. Inside each camera was a strip of film called a negative, and when you submitted your film to a store clerk, they would take your film to a place called a dark room. The darkness there allows the developer to work with the materials in the picture that are sensitive to light, and to fine tune the colors and contrast. If you have all of the lights on in the room, it will ruin the photons of light on the negative and the picture will be compromised.
As uncomfortable as this sounds, God uses dark rooms to work in your life to make you more like Christ. He often does his best work in the darkest places of our lives. Teens will experience trials in their life, whether it be loss of a loved one, unwarranted comments from friends, or relational heartbreak, but God sees those times as places by which he can do his best work and make his best masterpieces, helping us to become like Christ.
There is no shortcut. A true vibrant faith in Christ will involve suffering. As Christians we can embrace the pain, knowing that through it we will be transformed into the image of our Creator.