Friday July 1, 2011
Suffering and Solidarity
Frequently, when I visit believers in countries where they are persecuted, I am amazed at the level of solidarity they live out amidst their difficult circumstances. In Vietnam, for example, I observed believers sacrificially sharing the little food they have with a family who had their home confiscated and destroyed. In Indonesia I watched solidarity expressed by those rescuing the wounded at the risk of being shot by Muslim extremists. In China I saw solidarity expressed by those weeping as they prayed for their brothers and sisters in Christ in neighbouring North Korea.
If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
1 Corinthians 12:26, The Message
Human suffering comes in many forms but the one that Scripture tells all Christians to expect is persecution for the sake of righteousness (2 Timothy 3:12). John Stott goes as far as stating that according to the New Testament, “suffering is an indispensable mark of every true Christian and church.”
The apostle Paul’s understanding of the church as the body of Christ points to an interdependence of all Christians. An event that impacts one of its members calls for solidarity from all its other members (1 Cor. 12:26). Human solidarity emulates divine solidarity. Solidarity functions as the antidote to crippling individualism and provides the basis on which the community is able to absorb suffering among its members and provide hope for those yet outside the community of faith. How does the community come alongside the suffering? In his reflection on suffering in the Sudan, pastor Dau offers four practical ways.
First, the community provides encouragement from God’s word. An applicable portion of Scripture, spoken at the right time and in the right manner is a wonderful source of comfort and assurance. It reminds the sufferer of God’s ongoing care and presence and thus offers new hope.
Second, the community prays incessantly with and for those who suffer. Intercession has the twofold meaning of pleading with God in favour of someone, as well as pleading with God against the enemy and his plans. The community prays for God’s comfort, strength, peace, and encouragement for the suffering.
Third, the community provides company for the victims. Suffering is an isolating experience. Frequently loneliness and a sense of rejection and abandonment compound the pain of suffering. Coming alongside the suffering can be a challenging, uncomfortable experience, because it puts us in touch with our own lack of control and inability to make someone else feel better. It is challenging to be confronted with our own powerlessness. Yet our availability, simply being present, expresses our love, care, and empathy.
Fourth, practical action needs to accompany encouragement and comfort. The writer of Hebrews explains it as follows:
Remember those early days after you first saw the light? Those were the hard times! Kicked around in public, targets of every kind of abuse some days it was you, other days your friends. If some friends went to prison, you stuck by them. If some enemies broke in and seized your goods, you let them go with a smile, knowing they couldn’t touch your real treasure. Nothing they did bothered you, nothing set you back.
Hebrews 10:32-34, The Message
Thomas Schirrmacher, a German theologian, makes some helpful observations on that text. He states that the writer of Hebrews sees two sides of the struggle of suffering; some believers suffer directly, some suffer by sharing in the suffering of others. Some are persecuted and others become their companions. God expects us to feel personally affected by the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Christ! The Biblical commandment includes concrete social and political assistance to those suffering.
Awareness of the persecution of believers needs to become part of the everyday life of the Christian community. Numerous activities serve the purpose of reminding and expressing the solidarity of the community of faith. Some of these include weekly or at least regular prayer for the persecuted in the course of worship, preaching and teaching on the topic of persecution, and providing a platform for those that have suffered persecution to share their testimonies.
The International Day of Prayer for the persecuted (IDOP) is also an excellent opportunity for individuals and churches to get involved in praying for the persecuted. IDOP is a partnership of organizations such as International Christian Response that serve as resources on the state of persecution in other parts of the world. ICR supports advocacy for specific cases of persecution and/or writes letters of encouragement to those imprisoned for their faith, as well as providing financially for the suffering. Part of our mandate is also to provide congregations with pertinent updates on a regular basis. Ongoing communication is the starting point for this corporate participation in joy and suffering and is a source to prepare oneself for future suffering. It is through this bond of solidarity that we can truly function as the body of Christ.