The Sichuan earthquake that took place in China on May 12 deeply affected the emotions and thoughts of the Chinese and the Chinese churches. People began to think about the meaning of suffering, which is a familiar topic to Christians, and many articles were written from different perspectives regarding the possible meaning of suffering.
In the latest edition of China Horizon, a periodical published by China-based ministry China Soul, an article titled “Looking at China Churches’ Viewpoint of Suffering from the Door Cracks” stated that even though the Chinese are accustomed to reflecting on the meaning of sufferings and that the churches in China have undergone much sufferings, but the “Islanders' Viewpoint of Suffering” – the principle of Karma – is deeply rooted inside the hearts of the believers.
Specifically, the "Islanders' Viewpoint on Suffering" is biased and cannot explain many complicated questions and all problems of suffering. Therefore, the Chinese churches must not use this type of explanation towards suffering and construct a more complete and correct interpretation on suffering based upon the truth of God.
The “Islander’s Viewpoint on Suffering” originates from Acts 28:3-6: “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, "This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live." But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.” – If he is not a murderer, then he is a God.
Differing viewpoints between seniors and those born after 80s: qualifications and punishments
The author Li Bai shared his experience of getting reprimanded by his spiritual teacher when he first arrived in China to serve. His teacher basically said that just because Li may have much knowledge doesn’t mean he can teach in China. Most Chinese church ministers spent around 17 and half years in labor reform.
These words of his teacher caused Li to have a low self-esteem and he can only serve humbly. While the faithful seniors seem to resemble the image of Christ, he stated that he also hoped to secretly gain some jail time in order to gain the “qualifications” of suffering for the Lord. Later on, he discovered that this “qualification” can make the new generation of believers respectfully obey and be attentive in class.
In recent years, contrary to his spiritual master's definition of qualifications and sufferings, the author has met some church members, who had the “Islanders' Viewpoint on Suffering.” In his discovery, most of the students, who were born after the 80s, at the most would express sympathy towards him when he shared about his suffering experiences, and some even hinted that he should reexamine his life to see if there were any sins against the Lord, which caused the punishment that he had gone through.
From this experience, Li searched into this problem of understanding the meaning behind suffering. He concluded that his master's teaching of qualification and punishment do not match to the modern context, and his master’s understanding of suffering is not completely correct.
On the otherhand, he stated that the Lord’s servants should hold on to the biblical truth as the foundation and have living testimonies in their experience with the Lord. To suffer for the Lord is not necessarily the most important qualification, but rather the actual life experience should be connected with the truth and the believer should have the determination to follow and learn until the end.
Furthermore, Li pointed out that even those who suffered for the Lord for twenty years still have capacities to grow and learn about the truth. A servant who is young may not necessarily be unspiritual or without life testimonies. Despite their sufferings may not be in the form of being jailed or having to shed blood, these young servants do face new challenges, pressures brought from obstructions, conflicts, pains and wounds inside their hearts, which may not be less than their seniors. If they understand well about the spiritual meaning behind their sufferings, then they are equally well-trained in their spiritual life.
Karma cannot answer all the questions of suffering
The author explans the “Islanders' Viewpoint of Suffering” follows the principles of Karma: disasters fall only upon those with great sins; among the believers, they say that it is because someone has committed great sin, so they were punished by God.
Yet, the author pointed out that these answers are incomplete. Taking the example of the recent Sichuan earthquake disaster, which killed close to 80,000 Chinese people, Li stated that viewing this disaster from the perspective of Karma, would we say that those who died in the earthquake committed more sins than the Chinese living else where? Also, is it that the victims of the earthquake committed more sins than the survivors?
Referring to Luke 13, Li stated that Jesus reprimanded those with such kind of thinking. In Luke 13:2-3, it says, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
In summary, Li said that Jesus is clearly saying that unfortunate things happen not necessarily because of the degree of sin; although the cause of the disaster may not be linked directly to individual sins, it is directly related to the sins of the entire humanity. Therefore, Jesus is reminding us that we are all sinners and must repent and turn to God, or else we will also face the same destruction. The word “destruction” here is not just referring to the bodily death, but also referring to the eternal suffering of our souls after we die.
Church in China must depart from the "Islanders' Viewpoint on Suffering" and construct a more complete and correct interpretation of suffering that is based upon the biblical truth of God. He said that the church must stop thinking in two simple thoughts of “murderer” and “God.”
Lastly, suffering is a way that God leads sinners to recognize Him and is also the hands of grace that train the believers. When man sinned and fell into the pains of suffering and death, the merciful God also chose to save us through suffering and death, sending his one and only son Jesus Christ to die for us upon the cross as an atoning sacrifice; he uses suffering to mold us into a holy nation of people belonging to him, allowing us to win over death and enter into His everlasting glory.
[Editor's note: reporter Ruth Wong from San Francisco contributed to this report.]