Is Suffering a Virtue? A Question Regarding John Piper’s Theology

This is a bit of a manifesto, but something that I have been giving a lot of thought to lately.

The questions that I have pertain to calling, gifting, and suffering. I am in the season of life where I am trying to determine specifically where God has called me to plant a church. I am seeking some bedrock principles that have thus far eluded me because I seem to be stuck with a contradiction.

I will tread cautiously, because I’m about to disagree with one of my heroes.

1. Tenet #1: Piper seems to argue that a suffering life is God’s will for all Christians.

Here are some excerpts from Piper’s book, Desiring God, that lead me to draw this conclusion.

“Jesus ‘chose’ suffering”

“And so Paul chooses a way of life that would be foolish and pitiable without the hope of joy beyond the grave… Yes, He chooses suffering.”

“I say it again: the call of Christ is a call to live a life of sacrifice and loss and suffering that would be foolish to live, if there were no resurrection from the dead. This is a conscious choice for Paul.”

“In other words, suffering is part of Paul’s apostolic calling. To be faithful to his calling, he had to embrace what Christ gave him, much suffering.”

“‘To you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake’ (Philippians 1:29). But this would mean that the “gift” given to him as part of his apostleship is not viewed by Paul as limited to apostles. It is “granted” to the Philippian believers, the whole church.”

“This is not normal. Human beings flee suffering. We move to safer neighborhoods. We choose milder climates. We buy air conditioners. We take aspirin. We come in out of the rain. We avoid dark streets. We purify our water. We do not normally choose a way of life that would put us in ‘peril every hour.’ Paul’s life is out of sync with ordinary human choices. (220)”

“The startling implication of this is that the saving purposes of Christ among the nations and in our neighborhoods will not be accomplished unless Christians choose to suffer.”

2. Tenet #2: God’s will also seems to be to alleviate suffering in the world; such as taking care of the poor, the widows and orphans, and so on.

A few examples:

Matt 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matt 11:5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

Matt 19:21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Gal 2:10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

3. In terms of ministry calling, I see two alternatives for my own ministry.:

A) a ministry environment that is tailored to my gifts and skills endowed by the Holy Spirit, and one that I believe will be most conducive to effectiveness, or…

B) a ministry environment that is most likely to produce suffering that may not be well aligned with how I am gifted.

Let me put it this way. Suppose a Christian minister has two ministry options before him. They are identical in every way, except one will call for a greater degree of suffering. Would he be more virtuous to embrace the more difficult calling based on suffering? Or, would he be less virtuous by choosing a ministry because it would be easier and more comfortable?

In other words, is suffering, in itself, more virtuous than non-suffering? This seems to be Piper’s argument.

Or, are Christians free to make choices that entail less suffering?

A caveat: I’m comparing two identical situations here, the only variable being the degree of anticipated suffering. If the coming of the kingdom of God specifically and necessarily entails the removal of suffering to some degree, how then would it be consistent for Christians to pursue suffering as though it were, in itself, a virtue?

My view is this (held with an open hand): I believe Piper’s case, at the very minimum, is easily misinterpreted, and possibly overstated. Suffering comes to us as a consequence of the fall and is the inevitable result of living in a world that is hostile to the gospel and to Christ. If they attribute the works of Jesus to Beelzebub, how much more his followers! We will suffer throughout our course of life. If we maintain a consistent testimony to Jesus, we will be maligned and impugned and have all sorts of false things said about us. Some of us will die. Others will toil in hostile work environments where our bosses despise us because we are Christians. Some of us will have a difficult time making friends at work because their notion of friendship involves a degree of worldliness that we’ve been called out of.

However, to seek out suffering as its own virtue is not a proper way to live nor a fitting witness to Christ. To seek out suffering in this way would be the same as desiring to be lied about and maligned, since this is the type of suffering Jesus said we should expect.

I would even propose that one could choose to suffer for Christ as a means of gaining a special spiritual status among the spiritual elite class. Suppose a person would like to be in the wonderful company of suffering saints as David Brainerd, or Polycarp, or Stephen. To deliberately choose the road of suffering specifically because it would lead to suffering can be a way to try to gain God’s favor based on our own human merit, and thus be less in need of the merits of Christ.

Put another way, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” I Corinthians 13:3.

My advice: suffer well, but not needlessly, for your sufferings for Christ may just be your clever way of avoiding Him.

6 thoughts on “Is Suffering a Virtue? A Question Regarding John Piper’s Theology

  1. I’d like to make an analogy to marriage: It’s less important who you marry (in the eyes of God) that how you are when you’re married. I believe it is less important to suffer than it is how we are when we suffer. Should we avoid suffering when we know God is calling us down a certain path? No. We know we will share in Christ’s sufferings according to Scripture. Should we choose to suffer for any reason other than because we are on the right path? Absolutely not. My two cents…

  2. suffering is inevitable. to seek extra sufferning is foolish. i agree with d. when it comes, keep an eternal perspective and see it as not worth comparing to the future glory that will be revealed. i think that there is a difference in “not avoiding” and “choosing”. one you’re running away from it (or toward it), and the other depends on how you respond to it when it comes.

  3. I think that God gave us minds of great discernment. In your hypothetical situation, if the single, only variable is the amount of suffering, then it would be outright stupid to choose more suffering. That’s like saying “I will give you $100, but it’s up to you whether you take it from my hand or have to reach into this blender, which is turned on, to take it”. I think God would want us to keep our hand in one piece.

    That being said, this kind of hypothetical situation pretty much never exists. If there is an option and one has more suffering attached to it, there likely is good reason. Either it is the wrong option, or it is an option that God has set up to bring Himself more glory through our suffering and devotion. Whatever the case, it is up to us to prayerfully decided which option God is leading us to.

  4. Suffering for the sake of suffering is idolotry. Seeking anything in the name of God as opposed to God himself is idolotry. Nevertheless, what Piper duly reminds us is that it is nearly impossible for us to deepen our faith or to serve our Lord in a meaningful way when we are preoccupied with pursuing prosperity, enjoying ultimate comforts, and avoiding all pain.

    Too many American Christians seek an easy walk, cheap grace, and a life of faith on fumes that makes our witness barely distinguisable from our non-belieiving neighbors. True Christianity is tranforming, powerful, radical, and almost always accompanied by a selfless spirit and a sacrifical lifestyle. That is where the suffering comes in — not in the sense of self flagulation but in the sense of dying unto Christ so that He can fully live within us and through us.

    I greatly admire your faith commitment as you follow your calling to go into the inner city of Cincinnatti to plant a church. May God bless and you and Laura with all of the resources and gifts that you will need to fulfill his purposes. And may you openly accept all of the sacrifices that he may call you to make in carrying out his eternal plans.

    Your friend,

    Kurt

  5. Kurt

    Its great to hear from you! Thanks for your insightful remarks. My fear is that I am inclined to choose something more painful because it is automatically considered the “most spiritual option” because of the pain involved. I am trying to work out how pain and suffering fits into God’s overall plan. I appreciate your remarks.

    Michael

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