In our culture, Christianity is a happy religion. Turn on any Christian radio station and listen to the songs that play. Nearly all of them are upbeat, catchy tunes about all the positive things Jesus is doing for the artist or band that is performing. When someone calls in to give a testimony, it may start with some tragedy or misfortune, but almost always ends with an explanation of how Jesus made everything better as soon as the caller learned to put their trust in him.
Many western evangelical churches (though by no means all) are the same way. The worship service is centered around the positive impacts Jesus can have on your life. All over the Western world, Christians gather together to sing happy songs, smile at each other, and thank Jesus for the many blessings he’s given us. And there is some truth in those worship services. Jesus absolutely can and does have positive impacts on people’s lives. After all, Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, and followers of Jesus ought to be able to find joy in life.
But a joyful faith isn’t necessarily equivalent to a happy and healthy life.
In fact, such a depiction of Christianity is relatively new in the history of the Church. It’s certainly not the picture of Christianity in the New Testament. After all, the founder died on a cross. The guy who wrote the majority of the New Testament spent a good chunk of his time imprisoned (and was eventually killed). Most of the 12 apostles were martyred.
Christianity may be a joyful religion, but it isn’t necessarily a happy one. And when the Church is always putting forth a happy face, it fundamentally misrepresents what Christianity is all about.
Because really, Christianity is also about suffering.
Suffering is a major component of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus even tells us in John 15 that if we follow Christ as fully as we ought to, it will hurt.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
But of course, when we live in a nation where 3/4 of us claim Christianity, it’s easy to forget how suffering is a part of who we are. When Christians comprise the majority, we’re able to do a pretty good job of avoiding suffering. It’s hard to really be persecuted for your faith when 3 out of every 4 people (more in the Bible Belt where I live) claims the same faith as you.
So because we live in a wealthy first-world nation where the majority of people at least claim to believe similarly to us, we’re able to insulate ourselves from experiencing real suffering and discomfort.
In many ways, that’s a great blessing. But in other ways, I wonder if our insulation from discomfort also causes us to be insulated from Christ.
Which is why it’s so important that we take time to intentionally reflect on suffering and discomfort. And the Season of Lent is a time that we can do that.
So in Lent, we adopt a position of suffering. Admittedly, it’s first-world suffering. Going without fast food is hardly on par with picking up a cross. But we start small. If I can train myself to be able to forego some of my desires for the cause of Christ, when the time comes to actually pick up a cross, I’ll be more prepared to do it.
But even if what we give up in the Season of Lent isn’t particularly painful for us, or even if we didn’t actually give anything up for Lent, that doesn’t mean we can’t still grow in our faith by dwelling on the suffering of Christ.
But why would we want to do that? Why would we want to dwell on something so painful when we can focus on good things, like how great heaven will be, or what ways Jesus has really blessed my life lately?
Because we don’t get either of those things without the suffering first.
And if we’re not willing to take on a tiny bit of suffering and discomfort for ourselves, how can we possibly come to embrace a suffering and dying Messiah? If we’re not willing to suffer for the cause of Christ, how can we claim to be followers of a Christ whose greatest act of love for us was born in suffering?
If we only deal with the happy aspects of Christianity, we’re not really engaging with the full person of Jesus. Strong relationships experience pain together. If we ignore Jesus’ suffering, we cannot truly love Jesus.
Plus, growth happens in pain. Contentedness breeds stagnancy. If the focus of our faith is how great things are and all the ways Christianity makes us happy, then there’s really no incentive to grow in our relationship with God.
So Lent helps us embrace suffering as a part of the Christian experience. It’s difficult. It’s painful. And honestly, by this point in Lent, there are times I’m ready to give up and move on to Easter.
But if we jump to the joy of the resurrection too early, we miss out on the formation that discomfort brings. God speaks to us through suffering. God molds us through suffering. God redeems through suffering.
So during Lent, we dwell in suffering, because we know that by it, God is redeeming the world. During Lent, we adopt discomfort as a way of life, because we know that through it, God is molding us better into God’s image.
And by joining Christ in his suffering, we discover that Christ has already been present in ours.