Suffering can tremendously affect both the individual and the society. When a group of people suffers, there is a corresponding effect on the suffering society. South Africans for instance were very useful to their suffering society during the apartheid period. The church was very instrumental in providing solace for the suffering masses. The role of religious leaders like Desmond Tutu cannot be underestimated.
EFFECTS OF SUFFERING ON THE SOCIETY
Foxe (1989) gives an incredible account of Christians who had suffered at various stages in history. Notable examples such as the ten persecutions, that of the Goths and Vandals and persecutions of countless individuals are highlighted. However, the time frame is limited from the apostolic age to the sixteenth century. The point worth noting is that the account of these martyrs is a source of inspiration to Christians suffering elsewhere.
Paradoxically, “suffering is ‘willed by God’” (Rahner 1990, 490). This was the case with Jesus, who positively accepted his sufferings and transformed them into an expression of man’s total dedication to God. It is incontrovertible that in spite of all the suffering she was subjected to, Madam Guyon’s faith remained unwavering and discharged her Christian life with dedication. Today, her true life story is a source of comfort to other persecuted Christians. A chapter in her autobiography is appropriately labeled God’s hand in affliction. The text generally challenges Christians to develop strong faith, hear God’s voice and overcome suffering in times of adversity. She really understands suffering as preparation for offering comfort to others. She has this in mind when she states: “I am fully persuaded of His purposes toward you for the sanctification of others as well as for your own sanctification” (Guyon 1997, 7).
Joni Eareckson initially had a very difficult time to overcome bitterness, confusion, violent questionings, and tears and learn to trust God who allowed certain things to happen in her life. Her suffering indeed affected every area in her life. Like every other normal person, she asked “why God…why are you doing this?” (33). After receiving God’s comfort she was in a position to meaningful say, “I understood why Paul could ‘rejoice in suffering; why James could ‘welcome trials as friends; and why Peter did ‘not think it strange in the testing of your faith’” (226). Towards the end of her emotional classic, she testimonially noted thus:
Circumstances have been placed in my life for the purpose of cultivating my character and conforming me to reflect Christ like qualities. And there is another purpose. Second Corinthians 1:3-7 explains it in terms of our being able to comfort others facing the same kind of trials” (Eareckson 1976, 227).
The spiritual principles that she has absorbed are relevant to every Christian, particularly those who find it extremely difficult to accept their life circumstance.
Suffering has tremendous effects on the society as a whole. A case in point is the situation in Sierra Leone. In a special weekly edition of the duration of the fifty-ninth session of the commission on human rights held in Geneva from 17 March-25 April 2003, it was observed that children were among the most affected during the recent civil war period in Sierra Leone. Throughout the war, children suffered all forms of physical, mental and sexual abuse, including abduction, sexual exploitation, and separation from their families. Some children were used for forced labour in diamond mining. Many others were targets for forced conscription into the war by both rebel groups and government-allied militias.
Christian leaders are facing several challenges which the country must face as it aims to reintegrate its former child soldiers. Many of these children return to their former lives without education or jobs. Many more are still working in the diamond mining pits. Work still remains in returning the remaining displaced children to their places of origin, improving education, shelter and support services for orphan children and rehabilitating those children who were forced into committing acts of violence and crime.
Women are still suffering the effects of abuse from war. During the war, women of all ages were subjected to a wide range of abuses including abduction, systematic rape, sexual slavery, and enforced pregnancy. Sexual abuse was rampant during the war and was used primarily by the rebel forces as a weapon to terrorize, humiliate and force the civilian population into submission. The techniques employed by the rebels were severe, ranging from torture to forced incest. Needless to say, the lingering psychological and physical harm still remains, as formerly abused women must now deal with unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and social ostracism. Much work needs to be done to provide health care and support services to orphaned and abandoned children and their mothers. Additionally, these women are culturally humiliated and ostracized due to their experiences and are therefore unable to reintegrate back into mainstream society. The plight of these women is being improved by religious and humanitarian organizations by providing increased counseling services as well as offering educational and vocational training. Several reports have indicated that an environment of impunity has led to the ineffective investigation, prosecution and punishment of those responsible for the war-related gender-based violence and abuse. In the interests of criminal justice, greater measures need to be taken to ensure that these criminals are tried and punished accordingly. The church is very instrumental in work of restoring the lives of those who suffered the tragedies of the war, particularly refugees, women and children.
Nkwoemozie (1998) concludes that several experiences such as suffering, trials, bitter disappointments, heartaches and loss are all part of a Christian’s life here on earth. They are viewed as part of one’s training for service. The relevant question he asks is, “how else would he be able to understand, pity and comfort others?” (70). He argues that a doctor could not be trusted with the lives of patients without hard studies and years of practice.
EFFECTS OF SUFFERING ON THE BELIEVER
Robert Murray McCheyne, a Scottish minister of the nineteenth century is quoted of saying that “there is a great want about all Christians who have not suffered. Some flowers must be broken or bruised before they emit any fragrance” (Blanchard 1986, 315). In other words, it is in the interest of the Christian to suffer in order to exude pleasant smell.
Suffering enables the believer to sense God’s presence in impossible situations in life. In the illustration titled Footprints in the sand, God’s reply to the Christian who felt abandoned during periods of intense suffering was that His abiding presence was strongly manifested during the difficult scenes in his life. This point is echoed by Harris’ assertion that
the only answer that biblical faith provides to the problem of human suffering is the presence of One who shares human suffering, who bears its unbearable consequences, who makes a conquest of its causes from within… The New Testament’s response to human suffering is not a theoretical response; it is a matter of Christian praxis, and as such the foundation of and paradigm for all Christian ethics” (1986, 134).
Paul appears to support the notion that “it is possible to share with another the encouragement received in the midst of one’s trouble” (Carson, France and Motyer 1994, 1192). It is painfully true that Christians are “pledged to a career or vacation of suffering since members of the body must be conformed to the head” (Douglas 1982, 1148). In other words, “there is an excellent motive for bearing unjust suffering well; believers are called to do this, for in this way they are following the example of their Saviour, who did no wrong, but was crucified” (Morris 1990,316).
Since the real brilliance of heaven’s stars is never seen until earth’s lights go out, “one of the greatest (effects of sufferings) for the Christian is that they draw him closer to God” (Purkiser 1970,31). People probably lean hard on the all-sufficiency of God when theirs fail.
Although considerable evidence exists to prove that a lot has been written on suffering, a major weakness in most of the materials reviewed reveal that the concept of suffering as discussed by Paul in the selected passage has not been thoroughly discussed. The researcher therefore is challenged to undertake this study to meaningfully explain or revamp the Pauline position of suffering which, though alive in the early church, is moribund in contemporary Christianity.
Blanchard, John. 1986. More Gathered gold : a Treasury of Quotations for Christians. Welwyn :
Douglas, J.D, ed. 1982. New Bible Dictionary. 2nd ed. Inter-Varsity Press.
Eareckson, Joni. 1976. Joni. Grand Rapids, Michigan : Zondervan Publishing House.
Foxe, John. 1989. Christian Martyrs of the World. Uhrichville, Ohio : Barbour and Co., Inc.
Guyon, Jeanne. 1997. Jeanne Guyon : An Autobiography. New Kensington, Pasadena : Whitaker House.
Morris, Leon. 1990. New Testament Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan :Academie Books.
Nkwoemezie, John. 1998. Suffering : Biblical Perspective. Onitsha : George-Mary Press and Publishers Ltd.
Purkiser,W.T. 1970. When You Get to the End of Yourself. Kansas City, Missouri : Beacon Hill Press.
Rahner, Karl and Herbert Vorgrimler. 1990. Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. New York : The Crossroad