Why Church Planters Need a Theology of Suffering

While many theology books address the philosophical question of suffering as a problem for a good God, most Christians simply deal with suffering as a sobering reality of everyday life. Though we all want our best life now, pain is not on the periphery of the Christian life and ministry. For to love at all is to grieve whenever sin and death rip away loved ones, fracture friendships, and even destroy churches. Pain is inescapable.

According to Jesus, suffering isn’t a glitch. Rather, it’s expected—even required—for all who claim his name (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; 1 Pet. 2:21). This especially holds true for the task Jesus gave the church to make disciples of all nations and to integrate them into newly formed churches (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 14:21–23).

“Suffering should sober our aspirations for planting without quenching them.”

Unfortunately, much of Western theology fails to incorporate a robust theology of suffering. This leaves many church planters and missionaries ill-equipped to face hardships when fulfilling the Great Commission. Toward correcting that oversight, here are a few truths about suffering that are essential for healthy church planting.

Suffering Is Hard

The pain of suffering is real. Consider the well-known story of Job. The book that bears his name was not written to describe his pain as a theological topic far removed from the heartache, grief, and turmoil of real-world troubles. We are told in great detail how Job grieved deeply when he heard the news about his children. The Scriptures say, “Job arose and tore his robe shaved his head and fell on the ground . . .” (Job 1:20 ESV). In chapter 3, Job’s pain even made him regret the day of his birth.

Job’s suffering not only caused him great despair but also made him wonder why God would allow this to happen. For Job, this kind of loss seemed unbearable. It caused him to question the value of his life and to complain about how unfair his hardship was. Thus Job’s story points to the reality that suffering can cause even those who have faith in God to doubt both the reasonableness of pain and the uncertainty of perseverance.

Suffering Is Not Senseless

However, Job’s story also shows that suffering is purposeful. Though he was unaware of what God was doing, Job was aware that God remained at the helm. That is, Job was keenly aware of God’s sovereignty and spent the bulk of the book processing how God’s control should make sense of his situation.

Job’s mindfulness of God’s activity in his pain makes an important point: the Bible assumes that suffering has meaning. And the fact that Job sees God as a necessary reality to understand suffering shows the senselessness of suffering without a good God—a God who can take what others meant for evil and use it for our good.

“Suffering reminds us that the mission is hard, but it’s not without hope. It’s painful, but it’s not without purpose.”

Indeed, the pinnacle of purposeful suffering is seen in the cross of Christ, where the Scriptures connect the glory of God and the death of the Son on the cross (Phil. 2:8–9). In other words, if God could take that great evil and turn it into the greatest good the world has ever seen, then maybe we should stop looking for an “easier” way to give God glory and start trusting that God is working all things together for good (Rom. 8:28).

Suffering Comes from God

While Job suffered greatly, he never wondered who to turn to with his angst. He was aware that suffering comes from God, even while he struggled to grasp why God would allow or even send it (Job 1:21).

What Job didn’t seem to realize was that God’s purposes for suffering are according to God’s plans. Whether it’s natural disasters, death, a direct attack of Satan, or even hardship caused by our own hands, we do well to remember that none of these come to God’s people without first going through God’s hands.

“While we are not guaranteed the restoration of material blessings that Job received, we are guaranteed eternal restoration and reward.”

In this way, our pain is bearable because God shows up amid our suffering. And while we are not guaranteed the restoration of material blessings that Job received, Christians are guaranteed eternal restoration and reward (Matt. 19:29), along with grace and comfort in the present (2 Cor. 12:9).

Suffering Is Intrinsic to the Mission

Suffering reinforces the heart of church planting, which is about seeing sinners reconciled by the gospel to join a family who suffers together as they live on mission. Furthermore, the life of the church includes the call to share in the burdens of others, not run from their pain (2 Cor. 1:3–5; Rom. 12:15; 15:1–2). And Jesus himself said it’s not the strong or healthy who need him most but the weak and sick (Matt. 9:12). When Christ calls a man to plant a church, therefore, he bids him come and die.

We need that stark reminder because we sometimes talk about church planting like it’s an exciting endeavor. The opportunity to join God in his work in a foreign country can feel like an adventure involving new languages, customs, and people. But the thrill of new experiences is poor motivation for planting churches. These things cannot sustain a planter when suffering comes.

Instead, suffering beckons potential planters to consider the pain and hardship ahead—not only that of their own families but also that of those they plan to serve. Thus suffering should sober our aspirations without quenching them. It reminds us that the mission is hard, but it’s not without hope. It’s painful, but it’s not without purpose. For in all this we remember how Jesus himself endured cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2 NIV) and how his faithfulness in suffering resulted in the salvation of many to the glory of God.

Courtlandt Perkins is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv), where he is currently pursuing a ThM in applied theology. He also serves on the Kingdom Diversity team at SEBTS and formerly was an intern for The Center for Great Commission Studies. He and his wife are members of Imago Dei Church.