Those two words aren’t usually found together in the same sentence.
Nor are they easily held together in our understanding of the Christian life.
Hopefully, those who have come to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ have embraced a radical message of grace. We are sinful beings who are nevertheless deeply, inexplicably loved by a holy God. Through Jesus, we are rescued from death, and for life — not just a life of resurrection tomorrow, but a truer life today, as we grow in the likeness of Jesus.
Sometimes, however, the gospel message gets distorted. God wants to rescue us from future death, but also from present suffering. What do we want out of life? We should just ask our loving Father, and believe. We can name it and claim it. After all, God wants us to be happy, to have joy.
There’s nothing new about this way of thinking. The apostle Paul himself seems to have wrestled with this in the converts he mentored. He suffered greatly for the cause of Christ. But to new believers who still had one foot firmly planted in a pagan world, suffering was to be viewed with suspicion as a mark of divine disfavor.
Far from hiding or downplaying his sufferings, however, Paul “boasted” in them (e.g., Rom 5:3), for through them, God’s larger purposes were accomplished. If his opponents questioned his legitimacy as an apostle because he suffered too much, he countered by proclaiming his sufferings all the more, in glorious detail (e.g., 2 Cor 11:16-30). He used his own life as an example of the divinely paradoxical truth: God’s strength is demonstrated in human weakness (2 Cor 12:1-10).
As we’ve seen, the book of Acts begins on a high note: the Ascension of Jesus; the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; Peter’s enormously successful first sermon; the founding of a closely-knit and vibrant Christian community; and an abundance of miracles, most notably the very public healing of a 40-year-old man who had been lame since birth.
Beginning in chapter 4, however, dark notes creep into the story: Peter and John are arrested; Ananias and Sapphira try to deceive the community and drop dead at Peter’s feet; all of the apostles are arrested, not once, but twice.
It’s almost like one of those old “good news / bad news” jokes. The bad news is that Peter and John are arrested mid-sermon (Acts 4:3). But the good news is that they’re released unharmed. But the bad news is that all the apostles are then arrested (5:18). But the good news is that an angel breaks them out of jail. But the bad news is that they’re arrested again (5:26). But the good news is that they’re released again.
But the bad news is that they have to suffer a vicious beating first. This is no token slap on the wrist. Some people died from being flogged. It’s bad news indeed.
But the good news is that they see this as an occasion to rejoice.
The apostles left the council rejoicing because they had been regarded as worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the name. Every day they continued to teach and proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Christ, both in the temple and in houses. (Acts 5:41-42, CEB)
Joy and disgrace. Strength and weakness. Both are true at the same time, of the same people, in the same situation. How is that possible?
We are meaning-making beings. What we suffer is not just a matter of what happens to us, but how we interpret it, how we understand the whys and wherefores. For believers in particular, it matters what gospel we inhabit, what divine story we understand ourselves to be living. The “good news” is not that only good things will happen to us today. Rather, the good news is that we find ourselves in a larger, truer story that makes sense even of our suffering.
It’s a story in which we have a Father who loves us enough to send his Son to die in our place, to suffer what we should have suffered. It’s a story in which Jesus endured not only pain and death, but public humiliation, meeting disgrace with grace. It’s a story in which his followers are commissioned to follow in his footsteps, not only by proclaiming the good news in words, but by living the good news in our attitude and behavior.
Above all, however, it’s a story in which death is swallowed up by glorious resurrection. We are called to live in a way that signals that truth.
Few, perhaps, will be called to suffer in quite the way the first-century apostles did. Still, suffering and weakness do come to us, in more ways than we can count. There can be joy in suffering, and strength in weakness.
But only if we understand rightly what’s good about the good news.