A Fragrance of Suffering

The Christian life has a gritty, sobering side to it that leads to maximum glory.  

A while ago I watched a documentary of young men being inducted into the U.S. Army.  It brought back a lot of memories from my own time in the military. Guys were going through various administrative stations, being issued articles of clothing, getting shots, and at one point a desk clerk asked a group of them, “Are you satisfied with your funeral arrangements upon the event of your death?” For some reason that question hit me. I couldn’t recall if anyone had ever asked me such a thing.   If they had, the question must have gone in one ear and out the other.  Why? Because I figured the other guy might lose his life.  But not me.

Most of us deal with thoughts of suffering and death with deflection, suppression, and denial.

In his book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller writes that “Sociologists and anthropologists have analyzed and compared the various ways that cultures train its members for grief, pain, and loss. And when this comparison is done, it is often noted that our own contemporary secular, Western culture is the weakest and worst in history at doing so.”¹

With the considerable resources at our disposal, we can insulate ourselves from suffering to the extent that when something finally happens to us, it blows our doors off.  In a flurry of disoriented pain, we question everything—whether life is worth living, whether there’s a God, why I deserve such pain, etc.—and come away with unsatisfactory answers because we haven’t been equipped to even think of suffering as an inevitability of life.  

A psychological phenomenon called ressentiment can afflict unprepared people, creating in them a state of excessive cynicism, even hostility, that refuses to be dislodged. The target especially includes faith, or God, since these are the least likely to yield the simplistic answers we crave.      

Christians can fall victim to these dynamics, especially when our theology is an infant formula of blessings, protection, and deliverance.  I believe in these good things myself, but I also can’t deny how honestly the Bible portrays the brutal reality of suffering even for believers in Christ.  Scripture is packed with examples, teachings, warnings, encouragement, and promises related to standing for the Lord in the midst of pain. The assumption is that we will need all of it.    

The church must shine in showing a Savior who is worthy of faithfulness, even when it hurts.  

But believers truly need help to do it.   

That’s why Jesus shows up in Revelation chapter 2 verse 8, and says, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write, the words of the first and the last who died and came to life.”

When Smyrna’s faithfulness needed a shot in the arm, it would only come from a Christ who was in charge.  He is the First, that is, He is before all persecution, and suffering, and hardship. But He is also the Last, meaning He outlasts it.  Christ bookends tribulation. He is the boundary around it. Because of Him, tribulation is contained and governable.

But the church also needs a Christ who knows what tribulation is, who understands it from the inside, and has felt its misery.  Jesus self-identifies here as the One who died. Behind this brief one-word portal—died—lies a vast truth.  Our God has journeyed into the very worst darkness, and knowing this fact helps us deal in large part with our own suffering.    

At birth He was placed in a feed trough. At two years old he had already been slated for assassination and had to be hidden. He lived a modest life and with the exception of local people, unnoticed and unknown.  His family often misunderstood Him. The devil tempted Him repeatedly face to face. He grieved over the lost. He did not get to have his own way. He was driven to the point of fatigue and hunger. He was slandered with malicious gossip. He was framed and then tried in a kangaroo court. Unjust leaders condemned Him.  His friends deserted Him. His captors humiliated Him, dehumanized him, and killed him the way runaway slaves were executed.

And that wasn’t the worst of it. As He bore the burden of our sins, even God forsook Him, reflected in His cry, “My God My God, why have you forsaken Me?”

A philosophical question often surfaces today, asking, “Where was God at Auschwitz?”  Because of Christ, God can reply, On the cross I plunged into the darkness that built those death camps, and which has driven all lynchings, bombings, tortures, and abuse in history.  I died in the ovens of Auschwitz before Hitler was ever born.  

Now no one can touch injustice or hate, agony or misery, or any evil, that He has not already drunk in its pure, undiluted form.

Yet the church needs more than a victim.  It needs a conqueror, and this is found in Him who after death,  “came to life.” Faithfulness receives enabling in the very God who met darkness in its most gruesome, violent place, and yet has burst out of it in such glory as to invalidate its power.  He is the hope and the boast of the church triumphant, the champion of glory.

Christian author John Dickson recalled a lecture he delivered on a college campus entitled, “The Wounds of God.”  During the event, a debate developed between himself and a Muslim student. The Muslim pointed out how the very idea of God suffering and feeling pain and bearing scars is blasphemous in Islam. The God of the Quran is too great to be touched by any kind of indignity, especially the kind inflicted by His own creatures.  Dickson said he had no snappy comebacks, so He simply thanked the student for helping everyone see the difference between the God of the Quran and the God of the Bible. Our God has suffered more than we have, and before anyone thinks His resurrection masks it, He wears His scars even in glory.

This is why we don’t trust pop theology.  All the motivational sound bites in the world won’t work for you in the valley of the shadow of death.  It takes a lamb who has been attacked by every carnivore in the forest, killed, and then demonstrated a life within that cannot die.

Perhaps the fear of suffering is more corrosive to our faithfulness than the suffering itself.

Jesus said, “I know your tribulation, and your poverty, (but you are rich), and the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan (2:9).

He knew their tribulation—not the generic sufferings of car trouble and stomach flu, but that which was directly connected to their faith.   He knew their lack of financial clout would not enable them to curry special favors, or escape town. He also knew though, of the riches of their faith.  

Finally, He knew about the slander of certain local religious folk. Under Roman rule, Judaism enjoyed a protected status, and was granted a free pass from worship of the emperor.  Since Christians were at least distantly affiliated with Judaism, they too also defaulted to this protection. But some from the Smyrna synagogue may have gone to Roman authorities and reported that the Christian sect was in fact not Jewish, and therefore not protected under law.  And by the way, they are not worshiping the emperor!  This much would have been true.  But according to Jesus, they had added exaggerated concerns, barbed speculations, and outright lies, hoping to excite the wrath of the Roman overlords.  

The little church had plenty to be afraid of.

Yet Jesus said, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.”  Once fear breaks loose and gallops around, it generates imaginations that makes faithful living seem like a fool’s errand.  You’re holding out on account of Jesus?  What about the tooth fairy—gonna hold out for her, too?  Compromise and surrender is the only thing that makes sense when we’re afraid.    

So Jesus gave those believers “tools.”  First He let them know that the source of the trouble would actually not come as a result of sin in the church, or having run afoul of any human agency–“Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison.”  It was Satanic. The problem therefore, would not be reasoned with, nor be logical. The Devil has a bitter, murderous jealousy against all who love the Son of God.

Jesus also told the church why it would occur:  “That you may be tested.”  

As in the days of Job, Satan contends that our love for God is not authentic.  No one could ever love Christ, he says. Humans are like Pavlov’s dog. They respond to pleasure stimuli, and that is where their loyalties go.  To the devil this test would be a game to prove his thesis. God saw it as the very way He would exalt His saints to the highest place.

Additionally, Jesus revealed to His believers the extent of the tribulation:  “Some of you” would be imprisoned, but not all. Not every believer would be called upon to give up his or her physical life.    The sovereign Lord decides how each will demonstrate faithfulness; He calls them by name.

Finally, Jesus told them He had placed a time limit on the trial:  ten days. In the actual church in Smyrna that was a literal ten-day period.  However, from the standpoint of church history, we know the persecutions lasted longer.  Some have seen the ten days as symbolic of the ten emperors of persecution whose reigns stretched from 67 AD to 303 AD—Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Severus, Maximus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian.  

Sadly, a few recent attempts have been made to decry any sort of systematic persecutions as pious Christian fiction, since, it is alleged, martyrs make good cause-related propaganda.  I compare these “scholars” to modern-day holocaust deniers.

Smyrna went on to show a Savior worth suffering and dying for.  This is exactly what the martyrs accomplished through their faithfulness, although fear labored tirelessly to erode their stand.  

In the late seventies, a celebrated mathematician named Kurt Godel became convinced someone was trying to poison him.  He would only eat meals cooked by his wife. But then she was hospitalized and no one was left to cook for him. His fear made him refuse food prepared by anyone, even friends, and he finally died at 65 pounds.  His fear of death snuffed out his celebrated life before any poison ever got the chance to do it.  

Yes, bad things could happen to you, but your fear (the devil’s main instrument of destruction) will control your life and strip you of all the defenses God offers, not to mention limiting how far you’re willing to go on behalf of His name.  We cannot afford its torrid whispers.

 New Testament faithfulness must go all the way and receive great reward.

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (2:11).

In Smyrna, believers needed to conceive of faithfulness as being unto death, something far beyond the typical “committed Christian” talk of today.  That church also needed to believe that the reward, the crown of life, would be so far to the opposite of their suffering that they could hardly imagine it.  

They were instructed to hear, to listen deeply to what the Spirit was saying:  Those who conquered their fear and found faithfulness in Christ, would not be hurt by what was going to hurt their persecutors—the second death—a fate far worse than anything known in this world.  Though the faithful saints might die, they would only die once, but their tormentors would die twice, and be hurt forever.

By 177 AD., the Christian faith had been in Lyons, France for twenty-five years.  Not everyone was happy over this fact. The city had been scheduled to celebrate the greatness of the emperor, an event when officials would hire professional performers to entertain the crowd.  But this time to satisfy their dislike toward the Christians, they rounded up some local believers for entertainment. They seized Pothinus, the leader of the Christians there, who was 92 years old and who had planted the church in Lyons.  He didn’t last long. After severe abuse at their hands, he died in a cell that was not much bigger than a refrigerator. The rest of the captured believers they brought out in the arena and exposed to wild animals. At the end of each session, these were returned to holding cells until the next day’s ordeals.    

One of them, a slave woman named Blandina, desperately prayed and encouraged the others to remain steadfast in their faith.  At the commencement of every session, the members of the little band were pressured to save themselves by renouncing their faith and swearing allegiance to idols.  The Roman citizens among them who refused to recant were beheaded. It was relatively painless. But slaves like Blandina, or foreigners, were tortured like non-humans.  

After days of painful humiliation, Blandina was brought before a crowd eager to see her break. The arena facilitators beat her, then made her sit in a super-heated iron chair.  When these failed, they loosed a mad bull on her that tossed her around like a doll. The debacle threatened to drag out beyond the patience of the crowd, so her tormentors finally dispatched her with a sword.  

Blandina was not faithful to a cause or a philosophy of life, but to a glorious Person who had Himself gone through the same thing—and worse—for her.  She had heard the Spirit’s word, allowed it to settle into her heart, and was able to overcome the paralysis that always accompanies dark fear.  

The persecutions that took place during the “ten days/ten Caesars” were either state sponsored or at least state tolerated off and on for over a century.  That makes it unique in history. But in the timeless sense, there’s always a need for faithfulness. More martyrdom took place in the 20th century than all the foregoing centuries combined.  Faithfulness was not just something needed for yesterday. We encounter the need for it in different measure today, where the challenge may not be to physically die for Christ as much as to live for him.  

And the same grace that it takes to live for Him is the grace that enables us to die for Him.  

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