Sometime in the spring, I mentioned that I’d been mulling over the idea of “sacrifice without obedience.” Well–surprise, surprise–I still am. It’s one of those good ones that you’ll probably think about forever if you put yourself up to the task. I’m not quite sure from where this thought sprung all those months ago, so all I can do now is share my accumulation of conclusions about it so far.
A quote (the author of which I cannot remember) comes to mind when I think about “sacrifice without obedience” – something like, “Christians have nailed suffering to the cross and worshipped it.” What a spot-on statement! As an eighth grader in the midst of my first year as a Christian, I once asked, “Am I a good Christian if I’m not being persecuted?” because all I heard was that the world–particularly the public school system–was going to hell in a handbasket and that I’d surely be persecuted for my faith as soon as I revealed one iota of it. I also heard that while the persecution would obviously not be fun, I’d ultimately be supported and praised for it in the Christian community because I’d be acting as one of the saints, one of the martyrs. Which is what led to my assumption that persecution and suffering is supposed to be desirable. And that I wasn’t being a good enough Christian if I wasn’t experiencing persecution and suffering. But I loved my public school, I had friends of all sorts, and I did not feel like a sufferer for the cause of Christ. I’d heard about kids in other states who would bring their Bibles to school to read in the cafeteria and then either get made fun of or in actual trouble for it, but that was not my experience. For crying out loud, I led a Bible study during my last year of middle school and all through high school and never once suffered for it. I even stood around the flagpole with a number of friends every Wednesday morning before school, and we held hands and prayed–and as far as I know, none of us ever suffered for it. (For the record, I understand that this has not been every student’s experience worldwide. But all I can do is speak from my own.) Thankfully, whoever I asked that original question to told me that no, persecution and suffering does not necessarily validate my faith, my standing in God’s eyes, or my obedience to God’s will.
I suppose this is my point: As a nine-year-old Christian, I have seen suffering elevated to the point of worship. And I have seen suffering typically equated with sacrifice. And sacrifice equated with obedience to God. The thought seems to go like this: If I’m experiencing pain (usually we only mean emotional pain, at least in America), challenges, difficulty, and/or stress, then I must be doing something right as a Christian. I must be in the center of God’s will. So what I will do is cling to hope, ask for an increase of faith, and keep going until God opens another door for me – but not until then. (Yes, this is an exaggeration. Well, sometimes.) But this resorting to a black-and-white worldview of pain and suffering troubles me because since when is God’s will so easily dictated? If God’s will about pain and suffering and how long to remain within hardship is a black-and-white issue that can be hammered out by any person given a microphone and a gavel, then what’s the point of a personal relationship with the LORD? What’s the point of navigating the present and the future with the leading of the Holy Spirit? Yes, the Holy Spirit leads both the individual and the community, but at some point we must ask if we are responding directly to God or if we are responding to the pressure of the outspoken person with the microphone.
Of course we must be careful not to swing to the opposite extreme some call the prosperity gospel, the idea that God’s will never ever involves pain, suffering, or hardship. But I propose that we also beware of the belief that pain, suffering, and hardship is the closest thing to a tangible stamp of God’s approval that we could hope for. Maybe we should consider the unhealthy reality of, at times, metaphorically nailing suffering to the cross: worshipping pain. Maybe we should be open to the possibility that God does, in fact, want some of us to press on in the midst of pain. But maybe we should likewise be open to the possibility that God is redirecting some of us away from pain. May we–myself included–examine in what areas, in what friends’ lives we’re holding the microphone and gavel. And may we set both down in favor of humbly praying for the guidance of the Spirit on behalf of ourselves as individuals and on behalf of the community.