“Near the sword is near to God; to be among the beasts is to be in God when it is in the name of Jesus Christ. I endure all things to suffer with him. He who became the perfect man strengthens me.” – Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyreans
Is Suffering Ever Good?
Reading through Ignatius’ seven letters, it’s easy to feel comfortable, coddled, and risk-averse. It seems as though he hardly writes a chapter without looking forward to his martyrdom and consummate reunion with Christ. “Do not prevent me from being poured out to God as a libation…” he writes to the church in Rome, hoping they won’t try to keep him from being murdered by the opposition. In another letter, this one to the Magnesian church, he speaks more generally, “If we do not willingly embrace dying for his passion, neither is his life in us.”
Elsewhere he says that he isn’t even a disciple yet and implies that he won’t be until he attains martyrdom. It’s an attitude utterly at odds with the modern American one. For Ignatius, and for much of the early church, suffering is not something to be avoided at all costs; it is an opportunity for God to visit us in a new light.
In Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, he notes, “In the secular view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption.” Unfortunately, much of the church has adopted this same understanding of suffering. Reading Ignatius is jarring for this very reason. Our culture shuns death. We don’t talk about it and don’t even want to think about it. We’ve put as much psychological as well as physical distance between ourselves and our demise as possible. Consider the example of cemeteries.
Preaching Between the Two
Several years ago, I visited Christ Church on St. Simons Island, GA. This two-hundred year old Episcopal church has ancient pews, a classic steeple, and magnificent stained-glass windows that depict events from Biblical and church history. It’s serene, beautiful, and it sits in the dead center of a cemetery. In fact, to reach the door you’re forced to pass by headstone after headstone, some as old as 210 years. Traditionally, that’s how Christians did things. Churches were built next to or in the midst of cemeteries (or in the case of Westminster Abbey, the cemetery was included inside the church). A pastor friend of mine recently said he’d heard an older pastor say, “The dead outside, the living inside, and we preach between the two.”
This is all in contrast to the way things are done today. New churches in America usually aren’t build within ten miles of a cemetery. We want to be entertained: enjoy some Sunday-morning coffee, listen to some quality music, and hear a message that makes us feel good about ourselves. Death and suffering simply can’t be enjoyed like a latte and a Christianized cover of Wayward Son. We prefer our cemeteries in completely different locations from our churches.
The idea of passing gravestones on our way to and from church doesn’t appeal to us. Imagine it! You’ve just heard a great message about how you are closer to your miracle than you think or how your should have sex for the next seven days straight but then you walk out the doors and BAM! Dead people, everywhere. There are gravestones marking the final resting place of your grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles and nephews and on and on. And suddenly, some of those complaints and worries and annoyances (and pleasures) that you were just nursing a moment ago are brought into eternal perspective. And it doesn’t feel ‘good.’ In fact, it might even feel painful.
But, as I read Ignatius (and as I read Keller’s book earlier this year) I’m challenged to ask myself, “Is a pain-free life the best life? Are suffering and pain to be avoided at all costs? Or can they serve a good purpose?”
Called to Die
The fact is, Biblical Christianity has always included a call to die. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). Paul followed Jesus’ lead by telling the Galatians, “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). This paradoxical call is consistent throughout the New Testament: Die and live, or live and die. Suffering is one way in which we die to self and learn to live in Christ. As we face difficulties, weeping our way through them, we learn how to depend on Christ. We learn what true faith is. We become disciples, just as Ignatius implies in his letters.
Can we reclaim this understanding of suffering as discipleship? Can we stop looking at every bad thing that happens to us as a victory for Satan and instead view it as a chance for us to draw that much closer to God? We can and we must if we are to survive. Let us learn what Ignatius meant when he wrote, “I endure all things to suffer with him. He who became the perfect man strengthens me.”