HELP with writing this came from an unexpected quarter. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses called, asking if I believed that suffering would ever end. They seemed remarkably cheerful, but I know how it feels when people would rather pretend to be out than open the door to you. I did not argue with them about their approach to the Bible, trusting instead that a warm welcome is a better witness to Christ than reluctance or hostility.
My answer to their question was “Yes.” I do believe that suffering will end. But, like them, I set that ending in the distant (presumably) future glimpsed in Revelation 21. In this life, suffering is unavoidable.
The prophet Jonah was a missionary sent by God to the people of Nineveh. He went knocking on doors with his gloomy message. And they responded, and repented; so God chose not to punish them, after all. This made Jonah furious. The missionary who thought he was the expert come to instruct the wayward had lessons to learn. And he learned those lessons the hard way, through physical suffering brought on by his own stubbornness.
In Paul, we see another face of mission. Despite all that he has endured, and is yet to endure, he sees faith as a “win-win” situation: “living is Christ and dying is gain”. In terms of personal holiness, he has moved far beyond the questioning that reflects an immature faith (“Is this fair?”), and from an incomplete reliance on God.
It is not wrong to struggle with suffering, any more than it is wrong to argue with God. Jonah did not suffer the loss of the bush because he questioned God’s actions, but because he failed to see the value of the living creatures (both human and non-human) in the city. God’s compassion for the people of Nineveh in their state of ignorance was something that Jonah should have imitated. He ought also to have rejoiced that they had escaped divine retribution through their repentance.
If Paul reflects us as we ought to be, Jonah is probably closer to most of us as we are. His attitude is closely mirrored by that of the Gospel workers in the vineyard. In both cases, they endure suffering and exhaustion, exacerbated by the heat of the day.
Jonah was ready (eventually, 3.1) to undergo hardship for God, provided that the ungodly got what they deserved, and that he could enjoy his moment of righteous vindication. The workers were likewise prepared to bear the burden and heat of the day for the sake of the wage on offer. But they resented working harder than other people who got the same reward.
Jonah and the workers have an immature understanding of divine forgiveness, and of the nature of the covenant between God and those who do his bidding and bear his message. The Gospel message is a “hard teaching”; for the parable challenges us on the level of instinct: we can easily see why the workers felt that it was a swizz. In similar circumstances, we would probably feel disgruntled, too.
If we want to take a positive message from the parable of the workers, all we need to do is re-read it; for we may have missed its most powerful point: namely, that, in our lives as Christians, we should not be measuring ourselves against other people. We should not fret ourselves that we are less holy than others, or less appreciated. Nor should we inflict on ourselves the torment of envy, which (like the whine of an unswattable mosquito) seems impossible to ignore as it seeks a way to inflict biting sores on us.
Alongside the corporate dimension of Christian faith, which is so vital to our growth and development, there exists always that bare duality of the self and God. Alone, we take our stand before the judgement seat, knowing that nothing in the lives of others can justify the wrongs that we have ourselves committed.
Jeremy Taylor nails it with a prayer: “That I may never envy the prosperity of any one, but rejoyce to honour him whom thou honourest, to love him whom thou lovest . . . giving honour to whom honour belongs, that I may go to heaven in the noblest way of rejoycing in the good of others.” This would truly be living our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1.27).