Monday, January 11, 2010

The Question of Suffering

The question of suffering is the most basic of philosophical inquiries. The Buddha named it as the basic premise of his Dharma, his First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. He proceeded to outline the way to cease from suffering. Every religion has to deal with the issue. The Gospel deals with it by embracing suffering. The cross, “the emblem of suffering and shame” (to quote the famous hymn) is the symbol of the Christian faith.

The context of the Book of Revelation is suffering. You cannot understand the book apart from suffering. “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (1:9) By the time John wrote this book every other apostle had met violent deaths by martyrdom. He was imprisoned on the Alcatraz of the Aegean, the penal colony of Patmos, expecting the same fate. Revelation is written to those who are suffering by one who is suffering. This is why it is so misunderstood by American evangelicals. You cannot understand Revelation from the comfort of material prosperity and religious liberty.

Revelation is God’s answer to the question of suffering. If we aren’t asking the question, we won’t hear the answer. The suffering of Revelation is not existential angst or the illness and death common to all humankind, which the Buddha addressed. The suffering of the prophet of Patmos is religious persecution.

I now attend a church that ends every worship service with a word from the persecuted church, communicated from the Voice of the Martyrs ( At first I thought it strange to end the service with this “benediction” (literally “good word.”) But now I understand. It puts the worship service in perspective before we head out the door into the world. It reminds us that this bubble of liberty and prosperity in America is not the world experienced by most believers. The real world for Christians is churches burned by Muslims in Malaysia yesterday for using the name of Allah for God. It is believers in India burned alive by Hindus for daring to hold a private Christian worship service. It is Christians targeted for genocide in Burma by Buddhists, the state religion of that country. On the other hand, nowhere in the world are Christians killing nonchristians for practicing their faith.

Revelation is a letter written to the persecuted church; the churches and individuals are named in chapters 2-3. If we want to hear this Word of the “One who died and is alive” (2:8), “the Lamb who was slain” (5:12), we need to stand beside the persecuted church and hear with their perspective. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

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