A response to Ajith Fernando’s ’Embracing Suffering In Service’
’Thus God wears the mask of the Devil, and the Devil wears the mask of God; God wants to be recognized under the mask of the Devil, and he wants the Devil to be condemned under the mask of God.’
Some of you will recognize in this opening quote the inimitable style of the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. He considered suffering an essential mark of the true church, and these words in a way sum up his brief discussion of the matter in his Galatians commentary. We expect God to provide us with smooth sailing, but God sometimes comes in and with a tempestuous storm, wearing a mask of the Devil, the destroyer of life and love. And as if it were not enough of a paradox that God would appear in the guise of the Adversary, one more paradox is at the heart of the Christian faith: it takes suffering—Christ’s suffering and the suffering of Christ’s followers—to destroy the destroyer of life. Unlike many today, Ajith Fernando knows this. More importantly, he lives this. He is a voice of our Christian conscience, my Christian conscience as well.
Today, I live a life of relative ease. I teach at a major research university in the West. Indeed, I have it so good that I sometimes say that if I were independently wealthy, I’d pay myself to do exactly (well, almost exactly) what I do now. I have found joy in my vocation. I sometimes wonder, though, about the ’weight’ of what I do measured on divine scales, the only ones that truly matter. And then in the midst of contentment and joy, I think of the cross, ’an essential element in our definition of vocational fulfillment,’ as Ajith puts it.
In my office I have two crosses. One is a dark and stark etching of an emaciated and lacerated Jesus, and the other is a metal sculpture of Christ’s body on the cross, leaning forward and twisted so that, viewed from above, it has a shape of a dove, ready to fly off, bearing the fruit of Christ’s suffering to the world. When I look at these two crosses, my mind sometimes wanders back to Croatia, where I was born, and Serbia, where I grew up. Communists were then ruling over these lands, and they did not look kindly on religious folks like us. Informers frequented my father’s Pentecostal church and plain-clothes police came for ’visits’ to our home. On one occasion, after an angry mob organized by the local government had abused, beaten, and driven out of town a small Christian band in which I was playing, I was briefly jailed for taping a conversation as three of us, led by Peter Kuzmic, protested the abuse with the local police. We did not seek ’persecution’; it found us, and it did so for no other reason than that we were followers of Christ. Maybe surprisingly, in all this there was joy—not so much ’happiness,’ but deep joy.
Did my life then have more ’weight’ than it has now? Under pressure of adversity and (lightly) persecuted, was I then walking more in the footsteps of Christ than I am now? Maybe. We will know the weight of each moment only at the end of our lives; we cannot see the gauge of the true scales in the midst of it. But the answer will partly depend on the place of suffering in Christian life.
Suffering is an essential mark of Christian life, but suffering is not its goal. Sheer, unadulterated and unselfconscious joy is the goal of Christian life and often enough its present reality. Suffering wasn’t Christ’s ultimate purpose, either. True, speaking of his death, Jesus said: ’Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name’ (John 12:27–28). Christ came to die. Yet, even though he chose suffering consciously and walked the road toward the cross with determination, suffering itself was not his purpose. He ’endured the cross, disregarding its shame’ for the ’sake of joy that was set before him’ (Hebrews 12:2). Why did he suffer then? First, his suffering was a consequence of doing God’s will in a world of evil. He spoke and lived the truth, and the ’world’ hated him for it. ’All who do evil hate the light’ (John 3:20). Second, Christ’s suffering was a means of redemption. He was the ’Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).
Some contemporary theologians, like Hans Urs von Balthasar or Jürgen Moltmann, see suffering even within the eternal life of the triune God. ’God is love,’ and to love means to suffer, at least in a sense. Whether we follow them in this daring thought or not, one thing is certain: in a flawed world, to love almost inescapably leads to suffering. God loves, and therefore suffers in Christ on account of the sin of the world. That’s why suffering is a mark of the church, and that’s why discipleship entails taking up one’s own cross.
Finite and fragile as we are, some suffering befalls us because things break down or others do us harm. We rightly seek to eliminate such suffering from our lives and the lives of others. But there is also suffering we ought to embrace. It’s the suffering which comes to us because in a flawed world we seek to lead lives of integrity and service, seeking righteousness and practicing committed generosity toward our family, friends, near and distant neighbors. Then we suffer because we love. We don’t seek suffering; we seek joy, joy for those we love, and in their joy we seek our own joy. We practice love, and take suffering as its price. For love matters more than ease; indeed, being stronger than death itself, love matters more than life itself.
Still, suffering and death are the Devil’s work; they are the Devil’s mask hiding the divine face, as Martin Luther put it. When suffering and death befall us or befall those we love, we hover between the rage of rebellion and the somber serenity of surrender. We rage against God as if he were the Devil himself. (’My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!’) Or we are drawn closer to God and closer to what truly matters in life. (’Into thy hands I commend my spirit.’) Often we do both of these seemingly contradictory things at the same time. Ultimately the challenge is this: to recognize God even ’under the mask of the Devil’ and to seek to conquer evil with good by sharing in the suffering love of the redeeming God. Joy will follow as surely as Easter Sunday followed Good Friday.
I think that I have merely restated what Fernando has said with such profound, powerful, and eloquent simplicity.
Miroslav Volf is author of Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory, the founding director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School.
This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)