Holding the tension between suffering and victory
The road of righteousness runs through valleys and pastures
Boston pastor Adam Mabry’s book Stop Taking Sides was especially helpful during a contentious political season last year: It reminded Christians to take elections seriously, but also “trust Jesus, receive peace, and refuse the anxiety that betrays an innate political idolatry.”
Mabry also goes beyond politics to explore how Christians can defend the truth while leaning into other tensions God ordains—including how He works strength in weakness. The book—named as an honorable mention in WORLD’s 2020 accessible theology books of the year—includes reflections on how Christians can live with tensions, pursue unity, and stay firm in core truths.
In this selection, courtesy of The Good Book Company, Mabry explores the tension between suffering and God’s goodness, using Psalm 23: “In the Christian story, the suffering of Jesus on the cross is the righteous road of Psalm 23. Goodness and mercy followed Jesus all the way into the tomb, and brought him out again, raising him to dwell with his Father forever… Let the cross-tomb tension of suffering and victory free you to produce from this light, momentary affliction a weight of glory beyond all compare.” —Jamie Dean
Since I’ve quoted twice from the same verse in John, let’s see the whole thing together. John 16 v 33 says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” The Greek words behind the English words “tribulation” and “overcome” are the same words that get translated elsewhere as (yup, you guessed it) “suffering” and “victory” respectively. So here’s King Jesus, our great deliverer, teacher, Master, and Savior, saying, I promise you two things: you’re going to suffer in this world, and I have won a victory over this world. Should it be such a wonder, then, that the people of God should expect to walk as he walked?
Consider the top-charting song of all time: Psalm 23.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.” (v 1-3)
Those parts we like. Sounds like victory, doesn’t it? But wait—he goes on:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.” (v 4-5)
Wait, what happened to the pretty water and green pastures? Why did we leave? The composer moves beyond beautiful vistas because that’s not what he’s selling us. He’s selling us a path of the righteous—a path rooted in God’s shepherding goodness. We lack nothing with him, but if we’re going to follow Jesus as our Lord, then we’ll most certainly walk through shadowy valleys and deathly deserts. We’ll have enemies, and life will get hard. But that doesn’t mean he’s not still a good shepherd, leading us to victory; it just means we’re still on the road of righteousness. And even there, he will prepare a table for us. We can dine with our Shepherd while in the valley of suffering, with enemies all around. And when we learn to do that, what is the promise?
“You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.” (v 6)
Goodness and mercy chase us down, even in the valley. And if we keep hold of the tension, and we keep going, we will dwell in God’s space forever. That’s a victory that, in some strange way, is made all the better for the suffering. These aren’t contradictions; they are complementary truths that, if we will hear their wisdom, shape us to be more like Jesus as we navigate life’s cool streams, dark valleys, and hairpin turns.
Hold the Tension, Hone the Virtue
So, crosses give way to resurrections. Judgment acquiesces to Jesus’ return. The Jesus story imbues those who trust in it with more than enough explanatory power for faith’s victory and life’s suffering.
That’s what shaped Paul’s words when he encouraged another group of victorious sufferers by telling them that “this light, momentary affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all compare”
(2 Corinthians 4 v 17). Hear that—the affliction is, in God’s hands, producing glory, not diminishing it.
Much is at stake if we let go of the truth taught in the tension of victory and suffering. As I’ve said, the victory-only crew looks tempting. Prosperity, nice homes, beautiful bodies, and full bank accounts are the promised reward for those who learn to use their faith to make a way! But this theology turns out to be a mere ghost-town. The convincing signage and inviting Main Street gives way to little but desert beyond—the empty void of a half-theology that never delivers what it promised (except to the charlatans who front it) and simply can’t contend with reality.
So what about embracing the suffering, then? The Buddha said that life is suffering. Maybe we just need a good dose of realism? But, to only see the suffering is to ignore the promised victory. Faith is dissolved by functional atheism that claims to contend with suffering by letting go of God’s antidote to suffering—the victory of the resurrection. And, if we’re honest, sometimes we are functional atheists. Letting go of promised victory makes us cowards—afraid to risk stepping out in faith because we’re convinced it probably won’t work. We don’t ask for healing because we’ve seen so few. We don’t share our faith because it probably won’t work. Like a self-fulfilling anti-prophecy, it proves itself true, and so we keep ourselves here. Faithful living is not about gritting our teeth and getting through. And a poverty gospel is no more faithful than the prosperity gospel it disdains.
Here is the biblical way forward—the way to hold victory and suffering in bold, biblical tension.
In Victory, Remember the Suffering
Perhaps you’re reading this and things are going really well. The college acceptance letter came in, you got the raise, the baby finally learned to sleep, or you finally met that special someone. You saw the conversion you’ve been praying for, witnessed the healing that cannot be explained, or feel the power of the Spirit’s presence. We must always allow suffering to augment our joys, and the journey to adjust our victories.
“Wait,” you say: “You want me to remember suffering on my happiest days?”
Yes, but probably not quite like you think.
When we experience bliss in this life, we Christians must stay tethered to the story in which we experience that bliss. We say, “God thank you for this beautiful day,” not because we are trying to forget the cloudy days but precisely because we remember them. The enjoyment of the sun on our face is increased by the memory of the days when the rain hits our brow. We rejoice on our wedding day because our souls contrast that with our lonelier moments. Mothers laugh with joy at the birth of their children through the shouts of pain in childbirth. We are more grateful for our victories when we remember that suffering is also a part of life. And we are more humble in our victories when we remember that they are not all of life.
Were we to try to see victory as the “right” and “only legitimate” parts of life, working hard to erase the memory of pain, we would do something very unnatural, and contrary to the means by which God has ordained humans souls to grow. As Nassim Taleb points out in his book Anti-Fragile, there are certain things that are neither fragile (they break easily) nor robust (they don’t break at all). Some things are anti-fragile:
“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”[i]
The human soul is an anti-fragile thing, and God brings suffering into our lives not only because we’ve fallen off the path of righteousness (though that will certainly bring suffering) but sometimes because we’re squarely in the middle of it.
So, when things are going well (and I hope they often go well for you), remember by what contrast it is that you know them to be so good. Few things are as unhealthy to our souls as constant success, riches, glory, and fame. Such things have the ability to make us forget the road that got us there, and (much worse) to forget the cross Christ bore to bring us even greater riches, which require us to shoulder our own crosses too.
In Suffering, Remember the Victory
Just as constant victory can cause us to degenerate into thankless, entitled children, constant suffering can cause degeneration in the other direction—towards self-pity, despair, pride, and worse. We might spite God and others because of our pain, or we see our pain as somehow meaning we are better or superior to those who have not borne what we have borne. While God will use pain and suffering as a tool, he promises a future where these will no longer be necessary. These thoughts are constantly with me, even in present suffering.
Practically, that means cultivating a habit of thankfulness though tears. I am thankful that things will not always be this way. I am thankful that Jesus understands suffering. I am thankful that, though he will likely win some battles, my enemy will lose the war. While the previous point of remembering suffering in our victories may seem counterintuitive, the inverse is more obvious. When we suffer in the valley of the shadow of death, we must remember that victory is just ahead—and that the enemy is a defeated one, flailing before his final loss.
This was the entire motivation of Paul’s celebration of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v 54-56)
When our resurrection is at hand, death isn’t just defeated by victory. Death is swallowed by it—metabolized, even. In the Christian story, the suffering of Jesus on the cross is the righteous road of Psalm 23. Goodness and mercy followed Jesus all the way into the tomb, and brought him out again, raising him to dwell with his Father forever.
When your child isn’t where you wish they were, when the marriage dissolves, when disease comes, when disappointment stalks—do not acquiesce to the nihilistic belief that it will always be this way and that God is neither present nor particularly good. The resurrected Jesus resoundingly declares that God is both better than we imagine and at work to eliminate suffering. Let the cross-tomb tension of suffering and victory free you to produce from this light, momentary affliction a weight of glory beyond all compare. Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. That’s why Good Friday, with all its blood and splintery suffering, is still, somehow, good.
Forge the Virtue of Unconquerable Faith
I still love to sing those words, “We got the victory!” And I still believe them. Only now, I think I believe them better.
As we’ve seen, there is much to lose if we let go of this doctrinal tension; and there is at least one great thing we will gain if we do not—unconquerable faith. Such faith isn’t unconquerable because it is loud but because it is deep. It doesn’t break easily because it was forged in a hotter furnace and cooled with better water. That is exactly what Paul expected would happen. I quoted the apostle above, but not his final words in that chapter. He already told us how the mysterious merger of suffering and victory are resolved in the cross and resurrection, and then he tells us what that produces:
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
(1 Corinthians 15 v 58)
Steadfast, immovable, and unconquerable faith abounds in work for the Lord. We can abound, too, if we have eyes to see. Sometimes, abounding looks like victory tempered by suffering; other times it looks like suffering but persevering, with eyes on the victory. Always, we are accompanied by the presence of God the Spirit, the same companion who never left Jesus through his best and worst moments.
If you navigate this cross-tomb, suffering-victory tension as a central part of your apprenticeship to Jesus, you will become faithful in the ways he was. You will live expectantly and boldly, asking for great things and stepping out to do them. And you will live steadfastly and resolutely, walking through pain and difficulty with present stability and future hope. Then, in the furnace of suffering and the waters of victory, God will forge unconquerable faith in you.
[i] Anti-Fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 321.
This is an extract from Stop Taking Sides: How Holding Truths in Tension Saves us from Anxiety and Outrage by Adam Mabry (The Good Book Company, 2020), p.101-108. www.thegoodbook.com/sides Used by kind permission.
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