We hear from the prophet Amos this week. And if we think through his message carefully, we might discover an important component of a Christian approach to suffering.
Amos was a prophet to the northern tribes of Israel in the mid-700s BC. To capture the attention of his audience, his prophetic message began by naming the sins of all the surrounding countries, and announcing that the judgment of the Lord would fall upon them. Then, having gained the Israelites’ attention (and even enthusiasm), he announced the shocking news: God’s judgment would fall on Israel as well.
The message of Amos follows the classic prophetic theology: virtue leads to reward, sin leads to punishment. Israel had sinned and would thus pay the price for their sins.
That seems natural enough to us. But there was a time when this was a new idea for Israel. They simply presumed that God would always bless them, whether or not they were faithful to the covenant. Through the words of the prophets and the events of history, God was teaching Israel that sin has consequences.
While that lesson is true, it’s not yet the end of the story. As Christians we know there’s another layer to be added. Quite simply, while Amos and all the prophets taught that Israel would pay the price for its own sins, the New Testament tells us that Jesus pays the price for ours.
That fact can help shape our approach to suffering.
Very often, our instinct in the face of suffering follows the Old Testament pattern: If we’re suffering, it must be because we’ve done something wrong. And if we haven’t done anything wrong, then there’s no reason God should be punishing us.
But our instinct needs to be transformed by the New Testament. Jesus didn’t suffer the consequences of His own sins — He didn’t have any sins. Instead, He suffered the consequences of our sins. He was the head, suffering for the members of His body. And we, as members of His body, reaped the benefit of His sacrifice.
If we’re all members of one body in Christ then, in addition to suffering the consequences of our own sins and reaping the rewards of our own virtue, we may be called on to suffer for others and sacrifice for their benefit.
Sometimes the people of God suffer the consequences of their own sins and reap the rewards of their own virtues — as Amos taught. But Jesus showed us something more. If we really believe in Jesus, and if we’re truly His disciples, we have to be willing to take up our cross on behalf of others in the body.
That’s far from everything that needs to be said about suffering. But it’s one thing that needs to be said. And it’s an important element of a Christian approach to suffering.