Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 2:8-11:
(8) And to the angel of the church in Smyrna, write: these things says the first one and the last one, who became dead and lived: (9) I know your affliction and your poverty, but you are rich, and the blasphemy from the ones who call themselves to be Jews and they are not, but a synagogue of the Satan. (10) Fear none (of) the things that you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw (some) from among y’all into a prison in order that y’all might be tempted, and y’all will have affliction for ten days. Become faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (11) The one having ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches; the one who conquers will certainly not be wronged from the second death.
When I read this message from Jesus to the faith community in Smyrna, I see a lot of suffering.
The church in Smyrna is a group of people who know affliction (a word that could also be translated as tribulation, distress, anguish, trouble, or oppression) and poverty (v. 9). They are being blasphemed (or, alternatively, judged, slandered, or vilified) by people who claim a religious identity, perhaps even a religious authority, but whose claim is false (v. 9). And they are about to suffer even more―some to the point of being thrown in prison; some, perhaps, to death (v. 10).
I read what Jesus wants to say to these people, and I think about some of the ways Christians have often tried to address the idea of suffering, and, by extension, people who are suffering. I have heard and read a lot of explanations for suffering. There is no shortage of (straight white male economically privileged Christian?) people who hear the age-old human question in the face of suffering―why?―and think they have some answers.
Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, for example, devotes a chapter in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism to the question: How could a good God allow suffering? In this chapter Keller offers what I would consider to be very well-stated versions of some of the traditional Christian apologetic answers. For example, suffering often brings about growth in “insight, character, and strength” (p. 25) like nothing else. And, God may have “good reasons for allowing [suffering] to continue that [we] can’t know” (p. 25).
Arguments like this are…fine. Maybe they’re not totally wrong. If they’ve been helpful to anyone, I wouldn’t want to try to take that away.
But they’re not what Jesus says to the suffering faith community in Smyrna.
Instead―to a people whose lives are full of suffering that will continue and get worse in the days to come―Jesus says, I am the first one and the last one, who became dead and lived (v. 8). Jesus wants them to know that he was there before the suffering began and will continue to be there long after the suffering is over. He wants them to know that he, too, suffered, even to the point of death, and that he knows this suffering intimately, experientially. He also reminds them that he now lives, and that his resurrection can offer hope to those who suffer―even, or especially, those who die especially painful, untimely, or unjust deaths.
Jesus says, I know your affliction and your poverty (v. 9). He wants them to know that he knows what it is like to live in times of tribulation, to feel distress and anguish, to be in trouble, to live under oppressive systems. He knows what it is like to live in poverty―to suffer the particular sufferings of those who are swept aside and kept down by unjust economic systems.
Jesus says, I know the slander you suffer (v. 9). He wants them to know that he is not fooled by what people say about them. He knows what is true. He knows that just because people are respected religious leaders doesn’t mean that they are actually speaking truth and doing good things. Others might be fooled, but he is not. He wants them to know that it’s okay to be rejected and slandered by these people.
Jesus says, in all these things, do not be afraid (v. 10). In all these things, be faithful (v. 10).
Jesus does not try to explain away their suffering or answer any of the questions they might have about why it’s happening. He does not try to prove logically that the presence of suffering in their lives should not make them doubt God’s goodness.
What he does do is identify himself with them. He assures them that he is with them. He tells them that there will eventually be an end to their suffering. He encourages them to live with courage and faithfulness.
To be fair to Tim Keller, Keller goes on in his chapter about suffering to say some of these things, too. And yet―maybe because of the title of the chapter, or maybe because of the tone of the whole thing, and the way he starts off in a vein that sounds more like argument than empathy―the chapter as a whole still feels, to me, more like a logical defense of the idea of God’s goodness than an assurance of Jesus’ identification and presence with those who suffer.
Jesus, in this passage, speaks to people who are suffering, not just about them. He speaks words of comfort and encouragement to their hearts. He is not interested in speaking to the outside world about people who are suffering, using them as an object lesson to prove something about God. He is interested in embodying God to them, with them, for them, in the midst of their suffering.
When we talk about suffering, I would rather preface the conversation with honest reflections on real-life experiences than with apologetic arguments. Maybe something a little less like Keller’s chapter and a little more like what Kate Bowler writes in the introduction to her book Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), about her experience being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in her mid thirties:
“Married in my twenties, a baby in my thirties, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of grad school. I felt breathless with the possibilities. Actually, it’s getting harder to remember what it felt like, but I don’t think it was anything as simple as pride. It was certainty, plain and simple, that God had a worthy plan for my life in which every setback would also be a step forward. I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful, with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed God would make a way.
I don’t believe that anymore” (xiv).
Let’s talk about our oppressions, anguishes, hurts, and afflictions. Let’s give each other the gift of empathy and presence in the midst of it. Let’s stop trying to explain it and excuse it, and start reminding each other of Jesus’ presence in it―perhaps just by our own presence and solidarity with one another in times of pain.