A pernicious theology threatens to disconnect your spiritual airbags. It is a cousin to the name-it-and-claim-it theology that thrives among fundamentalists who are less trained in biblical theology. It circulates among evangelicals almost unnoticed because it partners so well with assumptions that flourish in prosperous and highly advanced societies like the U.S.
A superficial study of the Bible will reinforce this theology. More thorough and extensive study unmasks it. The theology repeatedly bangs against reality, causing excessive distress and confusion. Like airbags, good theology can minimize the spiritual injuries from crashes in the real world.
I call this theology “Do right and it will go right.” Many Christians believe that living a morally respectable life, keeping God’s law, at least on the surface, practicing spiritual disciplines with modest regularity and faithfully striving to be a good person will insure them against tragedies that befall those who do not follow this path.
The realities of a fallen world expose this theology, but without a conscious effort to recalibrate, it remains firmly implanted in your articles of faith. You know that this theology has infected you when you are shocked by some hardship or affliction. In addition to the pain incurred by the adversity, you experience mild to severe anger towards God, complaining that this should never have happened to you. It is totally unfair!
Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp ask some incisive questions to reveal this treacherous theology. “Ask yourself, What assumptions do I tend to make about suffering, and how do they increase the pain I experience? Do you expect to be free of trouble? (This often happens when we think we lead a good life compared to others.) Do you tend to think of good things and bad things as completely separate experiences? In reality, difficulty is often hidden in blessing, and blessing is found in difficulty. Do you expect the good things you have to be permanent? Do you live as if you are invincible, thinking that you will have the wisdom and strength to avoid or endure suffering? Are you surprised when you don’t?” (How People Change)
I confess that without thinking, I adopted this theology. How often have I complained to God that my suffering was undeserved and unfair? In a theology of “do right and it will turn out right,” suffering stands out like a turkey in a brood of hens. It does not fit the smooth contours of comfortable theology. Since I did not slip up, God must have made a mistake. How could this happen to me, his righteous servant? Suffering always surprises.
Job’s friends pummeled him with this theology. They persistently argued that his suffering must have occurred because of his own moral failure. Since God is righteous, suffering must always result from sinful behavior. Job clung to his innocence, but throbbed with confusion. Job’s experiences did not harmonize with the do-right-and-it-will-go-right theology.
We observe the most blatant refutation of this theology in the gospels. Jesus, the sinless God-Man, did only what the Father directed him to do. He never acted contrary to the will of God. He never violated God’s perfect law. He loved the Father with his whole heart and others as himself at all times. Yet, he suffered enormous injustices and adversity. In fact, he suffered because he was righteous. Go figure.
We read Paul, James and Peter in the New Testament, but their theology somehow fails to dislodge the do-right theology. Paul encourages, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” Philippians 1:29. Suffering is a privilege?
James instructs, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” James 1:2-4. Suffering benefits?
Peter advises, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” 1 Peter 4:12. Suffering is normal?
Bottom line: We live in a fallen world. God is sovereign in suffering. God does not make mistakes. He not only knows the suffering is heading our way, He directs it there. In his marvelous and mysterious sovereignty, he uses our suffering for his glory and our good. This theology of suffering is the only reasonable explanation to the harsh realities of life.
We need to learn to expect suffering and welcome it as a friend when it shows up at our door. This theology will not eliminate the pain of suffering, but like an airbag, it will cushion the impact. We will not suffer the added emotional distress of faulty theology.
Do not be surprised by suffering. Expect it. It is God’s gift to you.