Suffering and Prosperity: Equal Challenges to Faith

Thomas Schirrmacher 02 Aug 2010

A response to Ajith Fernando’s ’Embracing Suffering in Service’

As a Westerner I wholeheartedly agree with Fernando’s conclusions. For centuries large parts of the Middle East were lost to church and mission because of Islam. The same can become true for Europe (let me only speak about that part of the West I really know) because of secularism and wealth. As Islam somehow was an offspring of Christianity, so the western attributes of individualism, wealth, human rights and separation of church and state also sprang from good sources in a Christianized civilization. Now, though, they have turned around to try to kill their parents. Many churches in Europe have lost the strength to stick to the truth if it costs a price.

But many Christians in Europe think that persecution and poverty in itself will generate a deeper faith. They should listen to Fernando. Persecution, suffering, and poverty can be very frustrating, too. Hardship does not automatically lead to church growth or to a purer, stronger faith. The experience of the German church under the Third Reich and under communism, for example, led neither to a more intense reflection on persecution, nor to revival and church growth. The churches in the free western part of Germany were actually much better off in 1990 than churches in the eastern part that had suffered under communism. Rather than being strengthened by persecution, these churches virtually faded away.

Which is more hazardous to faith: suffering or wealth? Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3–8; 20–22) identifies one group that falls away from faith because of tribulation and persecution, and another group that falls away because of worldly concerns and the deceit of wealth. That applies to us as if it had been spoken in 2010 and not 2000 years ago! Jesus neither glorifies persecution with its fears nor wealth with its worries. Both are serious trials for our faith. In both situations, we need to keep God’s Word and bring forth fruit.

Western Christians tend to glorify persecution, and believers under persecution tend to glorify liberty and wealth. Let us not become envious of others, but learn from them. We who enjoy more liberty must learn from those who suffer that Christianity is no “fine weather” religion, but one that enables us to endure under the most dreadful circumstances. We can employ our wealth and our time to serve the suffering family of faith. On the other hand, Christians under violent persecution can learn from us in more free countries that peace and wealth alone do not bring happiness or make it easier to live biblical truth. Our faith does not depend on circumstances, but only on the faithfulness of God, who fills us with his Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to serve him and to become more like Christ.

Thomas Schirrmacher is chair of the theological commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, professor of ethics at Martin Bucer European Theological Seminary and Research Institutes, and professor of the sociology of religion at the State University of Timisoara in Romania.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)