Does God require our suffering?
High-control, works-based Christianity says our faith is not legitimate if it’s not accompanied by struggle or drudgery.
Expressions like “the price of the anointing” “salvation is free, but the anointing is not”1 might not be familiar to all Christians, but those with evangelical/fundamentalist/conservative roots are super familiar.
The “God requires suffering to bring us closer to him” type of messages are popular where I come from. Due to the influence of early Western missionaries, much of modern Christianity in Africa is heavily influenced by White customs, culture, and beliefs. See Shiny Happy People – An African American Perspective
As a Kenyan born and raised, I read books by American authors and pastors, watched them on TV and the message was consistent: there’s a high price to be paid by Christians, particularly to be the type of Christian who “brings value” to God’s kingdom.
But even though I loved God and wanted to be the best Christian ever, the “price” messages didn’t make sense.
I was from a developing country. The Westerners talking about the high price of the gospel had their big churches, big homes, books, speaking businesses, and even private jets. It didn’t appear they were paying a price for anything, let alone having a rough time.
Despite my questions (and like the excellent conservative Christian I was,) my brain supplied an answer: the pastors and authors had “already paid the price.” That’s why they had what they had, why “God trusted them” the way He did.2 Related Post Why the Bible is not an Instruction Manual for Life and Relationships
Does God Require Suffering? Switching Our Lenses
I was young when I began internalizing spiritual drudgery language and behavior.
I was raised catholic, but as a teenager began questioning the church’s teachings. I left Catholicism as a young adult..and landed in a missionary-led church, where the price of admittance actually went up.
I went along with the hardship messages and tried really really hard to believe. But I had questions. Why did God play hard to get all the time? Why was it that you had to go through really hard stuff to be loved by God or engage in anything meaningful and impactful as a Christian?
Over and over again, I would stuff my doubts, “confess my sin,” and pray for more faith.
All trouble and pain were spun as something holy. You just had to switch the lens through which you looked at it. Women could spend years praying for their obviously-bad husbands and the typical response? Let’s fast and pray for change…look at all the good God is accomplishing in you as you pray and believe.
The misery in marriage (and life really) was simply “preparation” for the “great things” God “wants to do in your life.” There was no concept of boundaries, individual responsibility, or needless suffering. All bad things were good things in disguise. All bad things were just a way to draw closer to God, to become more valuable and useful in His Kingdom.
I was bothered.
And for a long time, and even though it was hard to admit it to myself, God felt like a con. “I’ll give you the free stuff (“salvation”) and then your on the hook for the real thing (“anointing”) which I require of everyone.”
Does God Require Suffering? Shifting Beliefs
Re-examining deeply held beliefs to determine what needs to shift is challenging. The task often feels impossible because the cord tethering you to your past feels impossible to shake, let alone clip.
On the one hand, you’re gathering courage to examine where you may be wrong while also being terrified of where that path will lead. And then there’s the walking out of the whole thing and the working out of the shifting community dynamics, which often accompany deconstruction/deconstruction and rebuilding.
Understanding that just because a Christian teaching is popular doesn’t mean it’s healthy or good takes a long time.
It takes a long time to understand and accept that Christ’s work is actually…complete. There’s no left-over work to do—nothing more to add. Nothing is required of us as far as Belonging is concerned. It’s all done. We can rest.
Does God Require Suffering? What “Paying the Price” Means for Relationships
The reality is, what we believe God requires of us in our relationship with Him is what we’ll believe is necessary in our relationships with others.
If there’s a price to be paid to be loved by God, to exist as a Christian, or to exercise our will and desires, we will believe that we must make the same sacrifices and accommodations in our human relationships.
We will be expecting others – e.g., pastors, spouses – to make these demands on us. We will accept grind and suffering as normal relationship currency.
We’ll assume that loving others well requires being less considerate of our own needs. To love others, including a spouse, means developing a high sense of self-loathing and tossing all our needs to the curb because that’s what God wants, and that’s how we relate to Him.
Our emotions, lived experiences, thoughts, and bodily sensations will be refused their rightful place as our internal warning system – which warns us when our environment is unsafe, or we’re over-extending ourselves – has been labeled “the flesh” and shut down.
We will esteem obedience and adaptability, always sacrificing and giving up something “for the good of others” or “for the Kingdom of God.”
Indeed healthy mutual relationships require consideration of a partner’s humanness. Nevertheless, we practice consideration and concern for others from a “full” sense of self: from a place of freedom, agency, and health, we give.
We don’t repress and ignore and ruin ourselves first. We share and serve and flourish and express ourselves out of that deep sense of being loved by God.
Love your neighbor as yourself is what Jesus taught. Anything less is hollow, empty, and damaging.
Recently, a Facebook Commenter shared a really insightful comment on the fallacy of loving others through being less considerate of our needs.
“..this was the HARDEST thing for me to overcome. I literally thought I was honoring Christ by completely betraying myself. Because that’s what my church taught. “Death to self”- meaning death to my needs, my expectations, death to my happiness, death to anything I want in life, death to autonomy… Everything of mySELF had to die, so it could be replaced with “Jesus”, and what “he wants for my life”… but really it was replaced with what my pastor wanted for my life. Obedience to church authority under the guise of obedience to Christ. Scary.”
Indeed, scary is when you are taught that the most acceptable version of yourself is the one you do not exist. On the body-heart level, it is frightening to be in a relationship with a god whose closeness is predicated upon your affliction, even death.
Does God require suffering? The truth is you and I don’t have to pay a price to belong in Christ. And we don’t have to die for our relationships to live. Read No, God Doesn’t Say We Sacrifice Ourselves For Harmful Spouses
1. How we understood “Anointing” – Dedication or consecration to God for a specific purpose. We believed all Christians are “called to God” for a particular purpose, including our relationship with Him.
2 The (mostly prosperity-gospel) teachers and pastors also taught these things, so it wasn’t just me making up stuff.
*This post is specific to spiritual manipulation, exploitation, and abuse. I’m not addressing the hard-won wisdom or growth that folks can distill from difficult circumstances or how they can use these experiences to support and encourage others. Read More Of “Testimonies”, Bewildering Hallelujahs and the Christian Reluctance to Sit with Hard Stories
Systems of Abuse: A Guide to Recognizing Toxic Behavior Patterns
Abuse can be difficult to identify, especially if you have been conditioned to see it as normal. Systems of Abuse: A Guide to Recognizing Toxic Behavior Patterns by abuse recovery coach Sarah McDugal outlines 13 categories of behavioral patterns, giving simple, tangible illustrations for each category. Guiding survivors to break through the fog and assisting victims to remember and articulate their experiences. Access Now. (Aff)