My Cerebral Palsy naturally drew me to the various Bible verses on suffering when I was young. And my friends often read those verses to me during times of frustration and discouragement. Ministries to people with disabilities characteristically use those verses in their books and seminars.
A few of the Scriptures used in ministering to the disabled (and others who experience profound suffering) actually do apply to such situations. Please understand that I support using them when we can do so without violating their context. Hurting people need assurance that God cares about their struggles. That He has a purpose in allowing them to suffer. Certainly, using God’s Word to extend comfort and encouragement must never be overlooked or disdained.
But lately I’ve been thinking about how often evangelicals focus those Scriptures on the types of suffering that don’t really discriminate between Christians and non-Christians. Many non-Christians sit in wheelchairs, go through divorces, bury loved ones and lose jobs just before the holidays. Yet God’s promises don’t apply to them.
You see, most of the New Testament Scriptures about suffering address a particular type of suffering. They specifically target suffering persecution for the sake of the Gospel.
Let me offer an example of a passage I often turned to for comfort when I was young.
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. ~~1 Peter 1:6-7 (ESV)
I grabbed on to the phrase, “various trials,” quite confident that Cerebral Palsy fell somewhere under that umbrella. I appropriated that promise with gusto! Clearly, the Lord would reward me, simply because I spent my life in a wheelchair, right?
When you read 1 Peter in its entirety, you find that he wrote this letter to persecuted Christians who suffered because of their stand for Jesus. They had been scattered throughout the known world, fleeing from those who would kill them for the crime of being Christians. Yet many of them still ended up in regions that were hostile to the Gospel — and therefore hostile to them.
Peter wrote his first letter to these beleaguered Christians, reminding them that they weren’t merely strangers in their adopted countries. They were also (and perhaps more profoundly) aliens to the world system that hated Christ. As such, they would most likely suffer persecution again.
1 Peter is really written as an encouragement to Christians on how to conduct themselves in environments that didn’t tolerate their commitment to Christ. In this context, the various trials he mentioned specifically referred the sufferings they endured for the Gospel.
As 21st Century culture grows in animosity toward Christ and those who represent Him, we must expect to suffer for Him. And it’s that suffering (rather than suffering because of disability, bereavement, divorce or job loss) that this passage addresses. Certainly, it applies to us. But let’s be sure to make the proper application.