Learning About Suffering from the Margins

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Editor’s note: Sa Zhongzi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American serving the church in China, assisting with the support and strengthening of the house church.

A number of events have transpired in my life over the last few years that have led me to consider the importance of addressing a subject that, as Americans, we may not readily be drawn to consider, especially among majority culture Americans, of which I am one.  These events in my life include being expelled from China, strained relationships with missionary co-workers, and conflicts in the church in China.  However, the events in our lives most directly related to this subject are connected with the experience of watching helplessly as our national ministry partners in the house church were arrested and detained, with some even sentenced to prison.

Isaiah 53 gives us a messianic picture of one who is “oppressed,” “afflicted,” “acquainted with grief,” and marginalized. These are powerful words in today’s culture wars. Careless use of them may bring about being labeled as a “liberal” within our evangelical community.  I have witnessed strong language in my own denominational community directed at the dangers of the social justice movement.  I confess I often think twice when using these words in sermons or writings.  But there are real social problems that must be dealt with, and real confession and repentance is needed as we examine our own lives before a holy God; therefore, we cannot afford to neglect this vocabulary.

Long before these terms took on a political tone, they prophetically described our Savior. He embodied someone who was oppressed, afflicted, and marginalized.  In Romans 8:16-17, Paul clearly articulates a simple “theology of the cross” by telling us: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Anyone living in relative comfort (I include myself in this) may struggle to understand just what Paul means. On one level any Christian who seeks to live a holy life will suffer appropriately as he or she seeks to mortify the flesh; nonetheless, we struggle to understand other passages like, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Am I suffering? Am I being persecuted?  Does being laughed at by my non-Christian colleagues or friends because of my faith really constitute undergoing persecution? 

When I read this passage and look at my own life, I am immediately confronted with these kinds of questions, as well as the troubling thought that, if I am not really suffering for my faith, why not? Why am I not being persecuted or suffering as a Christian? Is something out of place in my Christian life?  


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To answer this, one must do a bit of soul searching and, with Holy Spirit-filled wisdom, ask God for guidance to find the answers. I would like to suggest some possible ways to approach answering the question of suffering – or the absence of it – in our own lives.

A biblical way of  responding to these questions should drive us to enter into the lives of those with whom we share “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” that is, the worldwide body of Christ. This is part of what is behind Paul’s exhortation to: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”  We have the opportunity to take on the posture of a humble learner and enter into the suffering of those who experience persecution, oppression, affliction, and marginalization because of Christ, even if we ourselves are not undergoing those experiences. 

This has been part of my journey as a missionary working among house church pastors in China. I have a deeper appreciation for scripture passages such as Rom. 12:15-16 because of co-laboring with these pastors. For me, part of weeping with “those who weep” has been an experience of corporate suffering that goes beyond my own individual sphere of direct experiences and enters into suffering with those who are suffering. This kind of suffering has been indirect, as I have watched my close friends being beaten and imprisoned because of their gospel witness.

I believe the church in the U.S. must engage in precisely this kind of indirect suffering to better appreciate what scripture passages like this mean. The more we invest in learning the stories of the persecuted and oppressed church, keeping their struggles a part of our daily prayers, and connecting with their suffering, albeit indirectly, the better we can make sense of the experience of suffering and persecution. This blog provides readers with information, stories, and news that helps churches and individuals connect with those suffering by reading individual testimonies of pastors and other house church Christians. Educating ourselves and praying informed prayers are two very real ways to engage that make a difference. 

A deeper understanding of the sufferings of real Christians also reveals that they are real human beings that struggle with sin, just as we all do. They are not spiritual super-heroes endowed with super-human abilities. We do a great disservice when we misunderstand them and believe they possess some kind of elevated spiritual status that makes them immune to things such as besetting sins. My friends who have suffered have confessed to me their “unholy” thoughts, wrestling with anger, feeling weak, doubting God’s goodness. They are every bit as human as we are and in some ways maybe even less mature, yet they have the privilege of suffering for Jesus in this way.

According to Romans, when we enter into their suffering it is no less real than if we were to directly experience persecution, beatings, and imprisonment. God calls us to obedience, and obedience recognizes an array of different callings. As the body of Christ we are all called to enter into one another’s struggles, especially the struggles of the weak and marginalized. 

Another response to 2 Tim. 3:12  may involve driving us to enter into the lives of those around us here in the U.S. who experience oppression, affliction, and marginalization.  Many years ago when I worked at a church in the inner city of Washington, D.C., I saw profound brokenness, oppression, and marginalization before my eyes, the kind that easily overwhelms a person. There were many times that I felt useless and ineffective. These experiences helped me to develop more of a heart for the marginalized and inevitably showed me that that feeling helplessness is where God meets us to show us his love. He came down and walked through this helplessness so we could have hope. He suffered so that we might have new life in him. He who had no sin became sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

These responses are not mutually exclusive. It is not one or the other. In fact, ideally we respond to 2 Tim 3:12 in both ways: entering into the lives of the worldwide body of Christ, while also entering in to the suffering of the weak and marginalized here in the States. It is in this that we learn to “suffer with him” and grow in relationship with Christ and with his people while also learning to love the lost.

FOR REFLECTION:

Are there struggles , either of the marginalized around the world or in your community, in which God is calling you to join?

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Further Reading

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Signals of the Coming Kingdom: A Letter of Encouragement
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How I Prayed for Forgiveness
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Building a Biblical Church: The Institution Is Not the Goal
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