In which I have a small argument with a Puritan about suffering

Recently someone asked me to comment on Facebook on a quotation from a Puritan. I told her I found the quotation troubling enough to make a blog post out of it. Here, finally, is the promised post.

My friend said, “When I read this quote, I thought it was true and couldn’t refute it, which is why I posted it – I thought it was okay. At the same time I had doubts, and that’s why I asked you about it. It’s typical of the preaching I heard in my old church. For many years I primarily read Puritan books like this.”

So what was it? It was a paragraph from a piece called “Seven Inferences from the Great Suffering of Jesus Christ,” by Puritan Thomas Brooks. But before I offer commentary on his work, I’d like to ask you to read it without commentary. (The original was all one paragraph, but I’ve split it into three for easier reading.)

The quotation

Let the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, work us into a gracious willingness to embrace sufferings for His sake, and cheerfully and resolutely to take up His cross and follow Him. Did Christ suffer, who knew no sin—and shall we think it strange to suffer, who know nothing but sin? Shall He lie sweltering under His Father’s wrath—and shall we cry out under men’s anger?

Was He crowned with thorns—and must we be crowned with rose-buds? Was His whole life, from the cradle to the cross, made up of nothing but sorrows and sufferings—and must our lives, from the cradle to the grave, be filled up with nothing but pleasures and delights? Was He despised—and must we be admired? Was He debased—and must we be exalted? Was He poor—and must we be rich? Was He low—and must we be high? Did He drink of a bitter cup, a bloody cup—and must we have only cups of consolation?

Let us not think anything too much to do for Christ, nor anything too great to suffer for Christ, nor anything too dear to part with for such a Christ, such a Savior—who thought nothing too much to do, nor too grievous to suffer—so that He might accomplish the work of our redemption! He left Heaven for us—and shall not we let go of this world for Him? He left his Father’s bosom for us—and shall not we leave the bosoms of our dearest relations for him? He underwent all sorts of sufferings for us—let us as readily encounter with all sorts of sufferings for Him.

Note that it seems evident that Thomas Brooks is talking about the suffering that comes from living for Christ (persecution, leaving relatives, undergoing hardships), rather than suffering because of illness or catastrophe.

Many modern-day Western Christians, the ones who don’t actually undergo a whole lot of suffering, might believe this is an excellent piece to be heartily commended, and might even wonder what my problem is.

But the problem is that while there are Scriptural and good parts to this section, there are also some insidious wrong teachings.

So I want to dissect it. I’ll start with the middle paragraph, because that’s the easiest. 

The quotation examined: the good

Was He crowned with thorns—and must we be crowned with rose-buds?

Was His whole life, from the cradle to the cross, made up of nothing but sorrows and sufferings—and must our lives, from the cradle to the grave, be filled up with nothing but pleasures and delights?

Was He despised—and must we be admired?

Was He debased—and must we be exalted?

Was He poor—and must we be rich?

Was He low—and must we be high?

Did He drink of a bitter cup, a bloody cup—and must we have only cups of consolation?

Do you see how all of those sentences are saying the same thing? Every one of them says basically, “He endured such hardship. . . and are we going to insist on having only ease?”

There is nothing to argue with in this paragraph. It’s very straightforward and Scriptural. Those of us who love the Lord will cry out, “No! I don’t care about rosebuds, fleshly pleasures, admiration of men, fleshly exaltation, and riches. I’m willing to forego having the pleasures of this world for the sake of His glory and for the sake of the advancement of His Kingdom of Love.”

Here’s the next part:

Let us not think anything too much to do for Christ, nor anything too great to suffer for Christ, nor anything too dear to part with for such a Christ, such a Savior—who thought nothing too much to do, nor too grievous to suffer—so that He might accomplish the work of our redemption!

He left Heaven for us—and shall not we let go of this world for Him?

He left his Father’s bosom for us—and shall not we leave the bosoms of our dearest relations for him? 

These statements are also all saying the same thing, similar to the statements above, but expressed as negatives: “He endured such suffering . . . won’t we be willing to endure suffering for His sake?”

Again, these thoughts reflect a Scriptural perspective on suffering, seeing our Lord and His Kingdom as greater than any suffering we may have to bear. They reflect the sentiments of such Scriptures as Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after Me — he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” They also reflect the life of the apostle Paul, who endured great sufferings for the advancement of the gospel, and the lives of many missionaries and others who have taken the gospel around the world since the time of Christ.

Those are the parts I agree with wholeheartedly.  I’ll emphasize that the words here say that the suffering is for Him, which Scripturally means they are for the purpose of standing for truth, advancing His gospel, and rescuing souls from darkness, not for some other purpose. 

The quotation examined: the . . . not so good

You may have noticed that this leaves us with the first paragraph and the last sentence. Here are these sentences again, numbered, and I’m highlighting the parts that trouble me.

(1) Let the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, work us into a gracious willingness to embrace sufferings for His sake, and cheerfully and resolutely to take up His cross and follow Him.

(2) Did Christ suffer, who knew no sin—and shall we think it strange to suffer, who know nothing but sin?

(3) Shall He lie sweltering under His Father’s wrath—and shall we cry out under men’s anger?

 (Last) He underwent all sorts of sufferings for us—let us as readily encounter with all sorts of sufferings for Him.

a. “Embracing” suffering?

 The first and last sentences are similar, and both are anti-Scriptural. We are never told in Scripture to “embrace suffering” or “readily encounter with all sorts of suffering,” and every single Scriptural example we have shows us the opposite.

  • David ran away from King Saul for years. He didn’t stay in the palace and let Saul spear him, or give himself up for Saul to kill him. He did not embrace suffering.
  • When the angel told Peter to get up and get out of the prison, he didn’t insist on staying so he could embrace suffering.
  • Paul ran away from the Jews, escaping over the wall in a basket. He didn’t run to suffering and embrace it.
  • Jesus agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane over the suffering He was about to face. He endured that suffering—and willingly, for the sake of our salvation—but He didn’t embrace it.
  • The same could be said for great men and women of God through the ages. Though they were willing to endure suffering for the furtherance of the gospel and the battle against epic evil to rescue souls from darkness, they did not run to the suffering. They escaped it when they could. This wasn’t cowardice. This was prudence.

When I first began reading this quotation from Thomas Brooks I stopped and sort of choked at the very first sentence: “embrace sufferings.” Ummm . . . no. Embracing sufferings has a name in our language, and it isn’t a pretty one. It’s called masochism.

My friend said, I used to love quotes like this. I loved to find my sin and beat myself up and try to be more holy and even put myself in situations where I would suffer more.”

But this is nowhere taught in the Bible, it will lend itself to self-righteousness, and it will in fact lead to the enabling of all kinds of wickedness.

Sentences #2 and #3 present different problems.

b. Worm theology?

Sentence #2 appears to be presenting the concept of “worm theology,” the idea that there is nothing good in us so we need to suffer and suffer because we’re so bad. Of course this is untrue. We as believers (and that’s the group to whom he’s talking) have the Holy Spirit of God within us, who is transforming us into the image of Christ. We do know something other than sin—we know righteousness! Brooks seems to be implying that we deserve to suffer for our sin, but this is the opposite of true Christianity, since Jesus Christ has already done all the suffering for sin.

My friend said, “‘The more you suffer and stay under the suffering, the more holy you will be.’ I heard that A LOT from the pulpit of my former church and also famous other preachers, books, memes etc. I believed that and lived by that.”

Self-effort to accomplish holiness is the basis on which Catholics in the Middle Ages used to flagellate themselves. But trying to become more holy is not only a futile exercise, but is one that will lead us away from Christ, as is evident from Paul’s scolding of the Galatian Christians.

What a joy it is to find out that we cannot ever become more holy than we already are as we trust by faith in the perfect holiness of Jesus Christ.

c. Passivity under the cruelty of the wicked?

Finally, sentence #3 says, “Shall He lie sweltering under His Father’s wrath—and shall we cry out under men’s anger?”  

When I read it, I thought, “Well, yes, absolutely we can!” Jesus stayed silent as a lamb led to the slaughter when he was crucified for the greater good of our salvation (whether He was sweltering under His Father’s wrath is another discussion for another day).

BUT . . .

But there’s nowhere in the Bible indicating that anyone else is supposed to stay silent under persecution every time it occurs. After all, think of the widow with the unjust judge. She cried out under men’s anger, “Avenge me of my adversary!” And Jesus, in His story about her, commended her.

Think of the apostle Paul when he was about to be beaten by the Roman guard. “It’s illegal to beat me,” he said, “because I’m a Roman citizen.”

My friend said, “I have heard the idea that if Jesus suffered, we can’t complain about anything— ‘we haven’t suffered to the point of shedding blood’—and Jesus deserves better than us (we deserve hell) so why would we complain or even try to repair things that make us suffer?”

It isn’t the first time, or the tenth, I’ve heard someone say that. But this is a description of Christianity gone bad.

The troubling result of this theology of suffering

Do you see how hard-hearted this kind of thinking has allowed the church of Jesus Christ to become? Do you see how hard-hearted we have become as a church? Do you see how we are telling women to suffer at the hands of abusive men—even abusive men in the church—rather than helping them? I believe God in heaven must be appalled at our hard-heartedness.

I’d like to ask you to read especially those first three sentences through the eyes and ears of one who is sitting in church on Sunday and being abused at home. Your church is not special and exempt from this kind of wickedness or its aftermath (at least 25% of the people in your church have experienced abuse in the past or are currently experiencing it). This is true everywhere. 

Now that I’m out of the abuser’s sphere, looking back, I see that I was surrounded by toxic people. That theology was part of it because I didn’t think I had the right to make changes, to tell people they were wrong, or to limit the relationship if it was harmful. I thought God put me in that situation and it was for my character training. The limits on that were almost nil. If my husband committed adultery I knew I would keep him and love him, and I told him so. If he beat me, I would rather die than sin by changing the circumstance God put me in.

 Jesus suffered for the higher purpose of our salvation. And some, like the Kendrick brothers in The Love Dare will tell you that you can suffer “for the higher purpose of marriage.”

Marriage is more valuable than human life?

No.

And no.

And a thousand times no.

There is so much wrong with this theology of suffering. So here are my

Final thoughts

  • When we are filled with the Holy Spirit of God and are setting out to rescue souls from darkness and bring them into the Kingdom of light, we should not be surprised by suffering and should be willing to endure it.
  • Suffering can produce greater endurance, as Romans 5:3-4 says, and for that we can be thankful. One who has suffered in faith will be one with more resolve to go forward in the future, for the rescue of souls from darkness and the spread of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

BUT . . .

  • Suffering will not make us any more holy than we already are by faith in the complete holiness of Jesus Christ.
  • We are not to be passive about our circumstances but are to do what we can to protect ourselves and any helpless ones depending on us. We shouldn’t stay in a place of suffering if we can escape it without compromise of the truth.
  • Marriage is not more valuable than human life.
  • Christians should help other Christians who are suffering instead of simply telling them to keep suffering.

There is a theology of suffering that can contribute to Christians becoming shockingly hard-hearted against other Christians.

And there is a theology of suffering that can contribute to our becoming increasingly valiant-hearted in the significant battle we’re in for the Kingdom of God.

I know where I want to stand. How about you?

***

Note: Some of these same concepts are addressed in Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind, in the chapters in which I tackled the topic of giving up your rights.

 

11 thoughts on “In which I have a small argument with a Puritan about suffering

  1. So true: “Christians should help other Christians who are suffering instead of simply telling them to keep suffering.”
    This is what I have been thinking for some time, and finally saying it out loud. Both extreme ‘prosperity doctrine’ and extreme ‘misery doctrine’ have caused callousness and indifference. If compassion is not actively practiced, it is always easier to blame suffering people for some sin or lacking on their part, instead of actively praying and helping.
    My prayer is to be someone, who would actively seek to be an agent of God’s grace and blessing and treat others the way I woud want to be treated.

  2. I stayed in an abusive marriage way too many years because of the wrong teachings on suffering. You have spoken the truth. May others be freed by it.

  3. Is not this statement by Brooks an exaggeration? “Was His whole life, from the cradle to the cross, made up of nothing but sorrows and sufferings?” No, actually the Lord had many ordinary and even pleasant and sometimes joyful moments. And then Brooks uses this false premise to shame those who want something in addition to sorrows and suffering. Indeed, the shaming tone is pervasive in this passage by Brooks with precious little Bible teaching, since I see no quotations from the BIble.

  4. Jesus had many joyful moments and I believe He enjoyed good fellowship with the boys 🙂
    The (too common) thought that He only had trouble and never any happiness is contrary to what we see in the light of the New testament.
    I believe the wrong concept comes mainly from the prophecy in Isaiah 53, where He is called the ‘man of sorrows’, but that refers to His suffering and dying for us at the end of His eartly ministry, NOT the over all tone of His life.

  5. Good stuff.

    As you shared, Rebecca, there are many who STILL teach that suffering for the sake of suffering is somehow godly. Yet, there were also times recorded in Scripture when Jesus removed Himself from the presence of those who sought to kill Him and laid down His life willingly, but only for an eternal, redemptive purpose.

    With regard to how this teaching applies to abuse specifically, some might also appreciate, “Suffering Love: A Redemptive Force or an Enabling One?” which further refutes these types of “worm theology” doctrines.

    http://www.hurtbylove.com/love-a-redemptive-force-or-an-enabling-one/

    Thank you for identifying the unbalanced teachings of the Puritan!

I welcome your thoughts