Is Your Suffering Redemptive? Let’s Ask MLK

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By Greg Forster; part three of a series.

 Here’s a faith and work leader who knew how hard it was to help people endure suffering and also challenge the sources of their suffering:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Those words are from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I have hanging on my office wall. About once every month or two I’ll just take a few minutes to sit in my office and read the speech, to refresh my thinking about the relationship between justice, mercy, community, Christianity and the American experiment.

King was a faith and work leader. Many in our movement have quoted this beautiful passage:

When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.

I wonder, however, how many have read the speech from which that passage comes. It’s short, but still a rich mine of insight – not least on the challenge of enduring injustice in work.

But the statement that “unearned suffering is redemptive” still hounds me. It’s the only part of the “I Have a Dream” speech that doesn’t make my spirit soar. I’ve pondered what it might mean – what he might have thought it meant, how his audience might have taken it, what other senses we might take it in.

Loose talk about “redemption” is dangerous. As an evangelical, naturally I’m bothered that the cross, and our helplessness apart from it, doesn’t play a central role in King’s very mainline way of talking about things. Our need for the redemption and regeneration that only Christ and the Spirit can provide is absolutely desperate. Taken in the context of those concerns, “unearned suffering is redemptive” sounds like a dangerous invitation to works righteousness and a social gospel.

I think I’m right to be concerned about that. It’s always dangerous to assume that people understand that the cross, redemption and regeneration are indispensable pillars of Christianity. But mid-century America strikes me as one of the very worst contexts in all world history in which to blithely rely on such an assumption.

On the other hand, suppose we place King’s statement next to another famous passage from a faith and work leader who knew something about suffering and urged the oppressed to persevere:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18-24)

“In this hope we were saved!” Paul sweeps up into one bundle the hope of our individual redemption and the hope of redemption for the whole physical cosmos, and identifies this collective hope as the gospel by which God saves us. There is no hint of separation between individual redemption and cosmic redemption – there is, to the contrary, an emphasis on their inseparability, even though they are distinct things that each have their own place in the total plan.

Suffering is the telltale mark of the fallen cosmos. We all bear that mark in ourselves. Just as Elihu said to Job, our suffering is God’s declaration to us that we and our world are not all right; we need him to transform us and our world.

But Paul says salvation transforms our suffering. It becomes eschatological. The same suffering that is, in all people, a mark of our need for redemption becomes, in the redeemed, a mark of God’s promise of salvation. We suffer, but not as those without hope; our suffering no longer says merely “you need God to come,” but “God is still coming for you!”

Thus suffering contributes to the sanctification of the redeemed. And our sanctification, in turn, helps us live in the kingdom and manage our little corners of the cosmos in the way they should be managed – bringing forward into the present a foretaste of the kingdom to come. That is Paul’s great sweeping up of individual and cosmic hopes into a single bundle.

Suffering doesn’t redeem us. But it helps us live into, and out of, our redemption. “In this hope we were saved.”

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