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Joy in serving, suffering and eternity

Today we will qualify what I have said yesterday by turning to the 'darker’ side of life: joy and serving, joy and suffering and the longing for eternal life and joy. We will study passages of the Bible but also take a look at the history of the church, listen to writers from the second century, also from Augustine and Calvin.

Joy and serving

We know that an important element of Jesus messianic mission was his service to people. In Galilee Jesus was "healing every disease and sickness among the people" (Matt 4,23). He said about himself that "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matt 20,28). And this is the reason why, according to Jesus, Christians are called to serve too. Already in Mk 6,13 we read that the disciples "anointed many sick people with oil and healed them". Christians are characterized by active care for their fellow human beings in need – a principle stressed by Jesus famous words in Mt 25,36: "I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

We are called to serve Christ (Col 3,24) and to serve others with our gifts (1 Pt 4,10). And since all our life as Christians is to be characterized both by serving and joy, these two go together. We serve one another because we care for others and want to express our unity. This gives us joy. Serving and joy are connected, for example, in Isaiah 58,7–8: "Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light [part of that is joy etc. – author’s note] will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear..."

We are not justified because of our good deeds, we are not saved because we serve others. Nevertheless, the Christian faith is an ethical faith – God cares about how we treat other people. In some verses this is even on the top of the list of what makes up the true faith. James says that "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (Jas 1,27).

Christians are greatly blessed and receive many gifts, as I said. But these are not given for the satisfaction of our egoistic needs. John Calvin stressed that "all the blessings we enjoy have been entrusted to us by the Lord on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the good of our neighbours". Serving the poor and sick he called "a holy thing"; the church as a whole has to care for the suffering. The reformer sums up the Christian teaching in a sermon:

"God has joined and united us together so that we might have a community, for men should not be separate... No one may say, I will live for myself alone. That would be worse than a beast. What then? We should know that God has obligated us to one another to help each other; and at least, when we see anyone in need, although we cannot do him the good we would like, that we treat him humanly..."

All this sounds familiar to our Christian ears. But 2000 years ago when Christianity first was spreading in the Roman Empire it was not. The ancient gods then did not care at all how we treat each other. Mercy and pity were even regarded as vices, defects of character. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders. This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues. Even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family, tribe and even the Christian community.

Two big epidemics of plague haunted the Roman Empire in the first centuries, one around 165, the other hundred years later (see illustration). It is estimated that during the first a quarter to a third of the population of the Empire perished. At the height of the second, 5000 people a day were reported to have died in Rome alone. The pagan religions had no answers at all why all these happened and what to do about them. The Christians were able to make sense of the plague, to find meaning in hardship, suffering, and consolation. And the Christian doctrine provided a prescription for action.

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, said during the second epidemic that a Christian has nothing to fear from the plague. His contemporary Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote that this is "far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy". He wrote a lengthy tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of the Christians:

"Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death in their stead... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner..."

Christians intensively care for their sick (see, e.g., Jas 5,14), not so the pagans. Dionysius goes on: "The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt..."

Was this just Christian propaganda? No. This is confirmed by pagan documents too. The emperor Julian who tried to revive pagan religion launched a campaign to institute pagan charities to match the Christians. He complained in a letter from 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of the Christians. He saw that the growth of Christian churches was also due to their moral character and effort. "I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans [the Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence". And he could not even deny the most embarrassing fact: "The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everybody can see that our people lack aid from us."

Another important source is Greek historian Thucydides who wrote in "History of the Peloponnesian War" about a plague that struck Athens in 431 BC. He described the ineffectiveness of pagan religion and science. Then he reported that once the contagious nature of the disease was recognized, people "were afraid to visit one another". As a result,

"they died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention... The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other... The temples... were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion and law... No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshiped them or not..."

The most famous ancient physician Galen lived during the first epidemic. What did he do? He got out of Rome quickly, fleeing to Asia Minor until the danger receded.

Therefore it is not by chance that the Christians 'invented’ the hospitals. Around 100 BC the Romans had established hospitals (valetudinaria) for the treatment of their sick and injured soldiers. Yet their care was important just because it was upon the integrity of the legions that the power of Rome was based. It can be said that the modern concept of a hospital dates from AD 331 when Constantine abolished all pagan hospitals and thus created the opportunity for a new start. Until that time disease had isolated, as we saw, the sufferer from the community. The Christian tradition emphasized the close relationship of the sufferer to his fellow man, upon whom rested the obligation for care. Illness thus became a matter for the Christian church.

At the end of the fourth century Basil of Caesarea established a religious foundation in Cappadocia that included a hospital for those suffering from leprosy, and buildings to house the poor, the elderly, and the sick. Following this example similar hospitals were later built in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Another notable foundation was that of St. Benedict at Monte Cassino, founded early in the 6th century, where the care of the sick was placed above and before every other Christian duty. This example led to the establishment of similar monastic infirmaries in the western part of the empire. Throughout the Middle Ages, notably in the 12th century, the number of hospitals grew rapidly in Europe.

Joy and suffering

There was no suffering before the Fall. God created man and woman in a world free from pain. Suffering would not exist had not sin entered the world via the first sin in the Garden of Eden. Therefore all suffering, in general, is the result of sin. We all now live under the shadow of sin and have to struggle with that. This does not mean that our own suffering is necessarily the result of our own sin and that there is always a direct connection between health and our holiness (but see 1 Cor 11,30 as an example for a possible connection between sin and well-being). Often people who sin do not suffer at all (here and now) but inflict pain on others.

This means that we have to be realistic. It is possible to relieve pain and we have to aim at that. But suffering will stay a part of our life until the second coming of Jesus. That is why the famous definition of health by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is too demanding: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not simply the absence of illness and disease." According to this explanation no one is really healthy and can not be. In a sense this is true, but the WHO is setting a concrete goal for medical work, and this goal is far too high. We will not achieve this complete state of well-being on earth.

We are called to fight against the consequences of sin, to reduce the amount of suffering. Therefore it is reasonable to concentrate on the worst phenomena – pain, illness. We should not try to establish a paradise on earth.

It is not difficult to understand why the WHO definition was formulated this way. Modern surgery and pharmacy were and are very successful. And the term health, no matter how it is defined and measured, is almost infinitely elastic. Thus with the better and better results and achievements the expectations were growing too. It seems that this complete well-being is in our reach.

Our responsibility as Christians is to remind of the reality of suffering. Sickness functions as a messenger of death, it reminds us of the frailty and mortality of life this side of heaven and keeps us dependent. A very realistic picture is given us in the apocryphal book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (38,1–15). "Honour the physician with the honour due to him for healing comes from the Most High", it is said there. "The Lord created medicines from the earth and a sensible man will not despise them... By them he heals and takes away pain." The author continues:

"My son, when you are sick do not be negligent, but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. Give up your faults and direct your hands aright, and cleanse your heart from all sin... And give the physician his place... for the Lord created him; let him not leave you, for there is need of him. There is a time when success lies in the hands of the physician, for they too will pray to the Lord that he should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life. He who sins before his Maker, may he fall into the hands of a physician."

Here the medical profession is viewed with sober realism. The doctor has wisdom and skill from God, just as medicines are gifts of the Creator. He can arrive at the right diagnosis, reduce pain and, perhaps, preserve life. But his gifts have limitations. He also is dependent on prayer. God and the doctor are therefore seen in conjunction with one another in many ways. Health, like all life, is a loan, a gift from God. It is not in our hand to totally achieve it.

In the OT health and shalom are often mentioned together (see, e.g., Isa 57,19), and shalom means an all-embracing well-being, something similar the WHO may have in mind. But shalom is, first of all, a gift of God – the Lord will finally and completely brings this shalom.

So my first point here has been a call to realism. I just want to mention the example of John Calvin again. He had to suffer intensively for many years, he was even called a "martyr to suffering". Unfortunately, he could not benefit from the results of modern medicine and had to confess that "all my remedies have hitherto proved ineffectual". In letter from February 1564 (some months before his death) he lists all his diseases:

"But that time [20 years ago] I was not attacked by arthritic pains, knew nothing of the stone or the gravel, I was not tormented with the gripings of the colic, not afflicted with haemorrhoids, nor threatened with expectoration of blood. At present all these ailments as it were in troops assail me. As soon as I recovered from a quartan ague, I was seized with severe and acute pains in the calves of my legs... An ulcer in the haemorrhoid veins long caused me excruciating sufferings... but immediately after I had an attack of nephritis."

We should keep in mind that one of the greatest man of the church was struck heavily by constant suffering (early church leaders struggling with illness were Paul, see 2 Co 12,7, and Timothy, 1 Ti 5,23).

What I said so far is true for everybody because all human being live under the shadow of sin. I am now turning to a second point and closer to the subject of joy again.

Often we can hear a sentence like this: "the most important thing [in life] is health". And non-believers are almost forced to say so. If this life on earth is all there is, then it is of utmost importance to achieve as much health and well-being as possible. For Christians, however, health is not the most important thing. It is to serve our quest for holiness. And in reaching out for holiness suffering is essential.

The teaching of NT concerning suffering and the Christian life is almost frightening clear. We share Christ's suffering (Ro 8,17), it has been "granted" to us "to suffer for him" (Php 1,29); we suffer for the Gospel (2 Ti 1,8), we "endure hardship" because we are "good soldiers of Christ Jesus" (2 Ti 2,3). Paul says categorically: "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Ti 3,12).

The Bible does not idealize suffering – hardship remains hardship. But all this is put into a broader context. Heb 12,11 says, "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it". God's aim is that we grow as Christians, bear more and more fruit (see Jn 15,2). James directly connects suffering and joy: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (Jas 1,2–3). Christians can have joy because of these positive results. That is why Paul can say "Now I rejoice in what was suffered [by me, that is Paul] for you..." (Col 1,24)

Suffering is an integral aspect of Christian holiness. For many centuries Christians kept this truth. Calvin wrote in a letter to persecuted brethren in France that they should be prepared for suffering "for in prosperity we do not experience the worth of his assistance and the power of the Spirit as when we are oppressed by men". We suffer "in order not to be rooted in our love for this world". He stressed that when God permits his children to be afflicted, "there is no doubt but that it is for their good. Thus we are forced to conclude that whatever he orders, is the best thing we could desire". Through suffering we are taught humility, but above all "by sufferings he wishes us to be conformed to the image of his Son".

This biblical truth is challenged by our culture, and our Christian culture too. Ron Dunn writes in "Will God Heal Me? – Faith in the Midst of Suffering":
"The present exaggerated emphasis on health, wealth, and happiness is not new, nor is it biblical. Many of the values exalted in our 'Christian’ culture are pagan in their origin. The fact is, we have baptized many pagan values into the church and made them members in good standing. We have, for example, declared physical and material prosperity synonymous with the real Christian life... We have been seduced into thinking that prosperity is our divine right, that freedom from all woe is our God's divine will."

Dunn calls this the "seduction [deception] of the sick". They are given the impression that they can escape all evil and can reach full enjoyment and prosperity in this life, "and if they don't have this, their spirituality is in serious doubt". Then he quotes James Packer: "We have recast Christianity into a mould that stresses happiness over holiness, blessings here above blessedness hereafter, health and wealth as God's best gifts, and death, especially early death, not as a thank-worthy deliverance from the miseries of a sinful world, but as the supreme disaster, and a constant challenge to faith in God's goodness". This leads us to our last point today.

Joy in eternity

We do experience some joy and happiness in our life. Yet the ultimate ease is for heaven, not earth. Paul compares our being on earth with a "tent" which will be destroyed; in contrast to this is our "eternal house in heaven". In this we put our hope, here "we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling". We would even "prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord " (2 Co 5,1–2.8).

In Rom 7,24 Paul exclaims: "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" In the next chapter he continues: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." The whole creation "was subjected to frustration" and is now waiting to be "liberated from its bondage to decay". And then again: "We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom 8,18–23)

We are fully justified and in peace with God, but our salvation is not yet complete. The OT saints like all the believers portrayed in the Bible are "longing for a better country – a heavenly one" (Heb 11,16). Jesus is again the best example. He took upon himself suffering because he looked "for the joy set before him" (Heb 12,2).

We do not see Jesus now, we do not experience all the blessings of eternal life here, but this hope for eternal joy, for the fulfilment of our salvation, gives us "inexpressible and glorious joy" already in this life on earth (1 Pt 1,8).

Augustine in his great work "The City of God" also calls our life here on earth an "abode of weakness", describes it as a "state of anxiety" and speaks about "wicked days". But the gain is that they are "stimulating us to seek with keener longing for that security where peace is complete and unassailable. There we shall enjoy the gifts of nature, that is to say, all that God the Creator of all natures has bestowed upon ours, – gifts not only good, but eternal... Here, indeed, we are said to be blessed when we have such peace as can be enjoyed in a good life; but such blessedness is mere misery compared to that final felicity." (XIX,10)

Let us listen to Calvin again who dedicated in his "Institutes" a whole chapter to this subject (III,9). "This mortal life... in itself it is nothing but misery", he states. "If heaven is our country, what can the earth be but a place of exile? If departure from the world is entrance into life, what is the world but a sepulchre [tomb], and what is residence in it but immersion in death? If to be freed from the body is to gain full possession of freedom, what is the body but a prison?" We have to learn "that this life, estimated in itself, is restless, troubled, in numberless ways wretched, and plainly in no respect happy; that what are estimated its blessings are uncertain, fleeting, vain, and vitiated by a great admixture of evil. From this we conclude, that all we have to seek or hope for here is contest; that when we think of the crown we must raise our eyes to heaven".

Calvin confirms the biblical teaching that "we here begin to experience in various ways a foretaste of the divine benignity, in order that our hope and desire may be whetted for its full manifestation." A foretaste of blessing as well as tribulation – all this has the purpose of training us "to despise the present, and thereby stimulated to aspire to the future life."

The reformer from Geneva sometimes sounds quite platonic, almost totally negating life. Therefore he underlines that there must not be "hatred of this life or ingratitude to God". He uses words so strong because of our tendency, finally rooted in sin, to be forgetful not only of death, but also of mortality itself. "We form all our plans just as if we had fixed our immortality on the earth".

Based on a lecture given at the Baltic Christian medical students summer camp, Aukštadvaris, July 15-19th.