Recently I have been falling in love with how confrontational Jesus is about suffering and death—man’s greatest fear. One of the biggest messages I have been receiving from God, communicated through the gospels, is to make peace with what is and what could come, including death itself. I don’t understand how one can walk away from reading the Bible and come away with an escapist eschatology, or even more absurd, a theology that somehow promotes a life without suffering.
Jesus declared, “A thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy… I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). For some, these words are what convince people to believe that suffering is simply, and totally, not a part of their inheritance. I am perplexed about how one could read this as Christ promising an existence without stealing, killing, and destroying for those with faith, when he also commands us to take up our crosses (Matt. 16:24) and reveals that the rain falls on both “the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:24). Jesus even told the disciples, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” a standard he lived up to when he died for the world, counting all humanity as friends. Paul expounded and lived out this message faithfully, as he taught believers that dying is gain (Philippians 1:21) and that one may experience God’s power most fully in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Rather, I think what Jesus is saying in John 10:10 regarding the “abundant life” is that his redemptive work brings a fullness of life in the midst of all things, including the enemy’s stealing, killing, and destroying. The attacks of the enemy are even able to be redeemed as enriching, sanctifying, or as a witness to the Gospel’s power. Jesus, the one who can do infinitely more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), ultimately reveals that God’s ways are higher than ours. What we could come up as good news is cheap; the gospel is unlike anything in this world, and is even better than we could imagine. The things we fear most, suffering and death, even turn out to blessings in the Kingdom of God.
Now, I hope to not romanticize suffering. I’ve seen plenty of folks throughout my life do just that, whether it was some form of self-flagellation or zealous believers praying to become martyrs, and I just cannot see how that is healthy either. I have seen people who were sick or dealing with tragedy but suppressing their hurt and pain, believing this was the most righteous way of dealing with their situation. Suffering sucks; on this side of heaven, I do not necessarily count it as wrong if we are not able to see God’s glory in dark moments.
I hold onto the belief that Jesus has the last word, and though I think we ought to focus more on the resurrection in the now than in the “end,” this narrative does provide hope that there is ultimate justice. That said, with or without that last day, that moment of complete reconciliation or restoration, Jesus calls us to labor for the Kingdom now, for reconciliation now, at all costs, even unto death. The Gospel’s good news includes a day that will come, but also an order being established now before us in the Church and through the saints. These saints who are ushering in the Kingdom will do whatever it takes to make the peace, wholeness, and joy provided in Christ manifest, and that in itself is good news, especially in the presence of life’s suffering. Even if it costs one’s life, it is the highest call, the greatest gift, and the path to he abundant life promised by Christ.