Beautiful. We hear the word so frequently that we give it little thought, applying it to everything from a Rembrandt masterpiece to a child’s first scribbles. Yet beauty is so profound that, alongside goodness and truth, it is widely regarded as one of the great transcendentals, and an entire branch of philosophy—aesthetics—is devoted to its study. But for all its profundity, the old adage is also true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So when beauty’s Creator says “That’s beautiful!” we can be sure it is true.
That’s what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life when Mary broke a flask of expensive perfume to anoint him, enduring his disciples’ berating as a result. Christ not only commended her costly, loving sacrifice—“She has done a beautiful thing to me”—but he also defended her against her detractors and even rewarded her: “Leave her alone . . . she has done what she could. . . . Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:6–9). Jesus’ kind affirmation of beauty provides a note of sweetness in this desperate and awkward scene. But coming as it does with a prophecy of the cross ahead—“she has anointed my body beforehand for burial”—Jesus’ affirmation also raises questions concerning the relationship of beauty and suffering.
For reflective persons, whether believing or unbelieving, suffering raises many questions. There are the “why” questions. Why is there suffering in the world at all? Why is every human life tinged, if not stained, with pain? Is there something in the fabric of creation or human nature that causes this? And if there is a God who is good and powerful, then why does he allow it? There are also the “how” questions. How should we respond to suffering? Does it make any difference if we praise God or curse him? If we abuse others or bless them? If we dull our pain by alcohol, drug abuse, or pornography, or try to escape it through suicide? To frame these questions in explicitly Christian terms, is there a godly way to suffer? And finally, there are the “hope” questions: Can suffering be redeemed? Can it be transformed into something useful or beneficial? Can it be ended or escaped forever? Where can Christians find the wisdom, strength, and other resources we need to suffer well—even beautifully?
Suffering and the Gospel
Suffering is inevitably part of every Christian’s experience. Physically or emotionally—mildly or acutely, chronically or temporarily—sooner or later, everyone suffers, including Christians. In its consistent wedding of “sin and misery,” the Westminster Standards reflect Scripture’s teaching that since man’s fall into sin, the entire cosmos has been under a curse, which is the source of every kind of suffering. And given the realities of our union with Christ and our present hostile environment, Christians sometimes suffer especially. Furthermore, given the fact that the Lord we follow was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” of all people Christians should expect suffering to be part of our experience in this world. Indeed, suffering is essential to the gospel.
Suffering is not essential to the gospel in the sense that believers’ sufferings save them or contribute to their salvation in any way. We are saved by Christ’s sufferings for us and receive that salvation through union with him by faith. So Christ’s sufferings are absolutely essential to the gospel. Indeed, by underscoring the great realities of sin, curse, and judgment, the phenomenon of suffering highlights our need for this gospel of the Suffering Servant, first revealed by God himself at the time of the fall and subsequently by other Old Testament writers.
But suffering is also essential to the gospel in another sense. Suffering is a necessary expression of Christ’s work for us and in us as we suffer in this world for his name’s sake. As Scripture reveals, our once-for-all deliverance unfolds in stages, and suffering will be part of life in this fallen world until Christ returns to make all things new. Indeed, Christ himself clearly taught that all who trust and follow him would suffer in this life. Scripture also teaches that God orders these sufferings for his glory and his people’s good, and that Christ is abundantly sufficient for his people. He can wonderfully enable us to overcome our tribulations and bear fruit for his glory. And having sustained and blessed us in our tribulations, he will eventually deliver and reward us. But until then, suffering will be part of every Christian’s experience in this life.
Until relatively recently, this “vale of tears” mindset was common among Christians. Reflecting the Scriptures’ practical realism and their own experience, Christian leaders and thinkers through the centuries have frequently addressed suffering in their preaching, teaching, and writings. But with ignorance and unbelief growing in the church and society, and the consequent undermining of the Christian worldview, this is no longer the case. Due to the “Prosperity Gospel,” the “Therapeutic Gospel,” “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and a general decline in biblical teaching, knowledge, and faith, contemporary believers are often surprised, discouraged, and defeated by suffering, rather than seeing it as part of their Christian calling as a God-given opportunity.
Suffering’s Opportunity and Responsibility
But suffering is not simply relevant; it is also profoundly important because it involves great opportunity and responsibility. For the Christian, suffering is not pointless because it can be undertaken for three great ends, ends that can make it “beautiful” in the Lord’s eyes and in others’ too. For now, we shall consider the first and greatest way in which the suffering of Christians can be “beautiful.” Dr. Jonathan King’s recent book, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, can be helpful as we do so. Dr. King argues that “beauty” is not just God’s creation but also one of his attributes, revealed in a special way in the person and work of Christ, and what King calls the “theodrama” of creation, redemption, and consummation. One of King’s key concepts in defining beauty based on Scripture and the works of God is that of “fittingness”—i.e., the special suitability or appropriateness of something is what makes it beautiful. Every thought, word, and deed of Christ was always perfectly fitting and appropriate and therefore even on the cross beautiful. As his followers, Christians are called to suffer but to do so in a way that includes or reflects his beauty.
Suffering and the Glory of God
The Westminster Catechisms rightly assert that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Our Lord underscored that priority in his own life and prayers and in his model prayer for us, and his apostles reiterate that principle in their epistles. But how does that apply to suffering?
Although we can add nothing to God’s essential glory, in another sense, we can “increase” his glory by perceiving it with our minds and declaring it by our words and actions. The Psalms often call on us to do this:
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together! (Ps. 34:3)
The promoting of God’s glory is always “fitting” and therefore always beautiful, including when we are suffering. In fact, since our natural response is to avoid or reduce pain, and to complain when we cannot do so, we could argue that Christians’ promoting God’s glory is especially beautiful when they suffer.
Since there are few contexts, if any, in which it is more difficult to praise God than when we are in pain, this very difficulty lends it power. That’s why the Huguenots so affected their spectators, dismayed their persecutors, and glorified God by singing as they were burnt to death. Similarly, when Christians trust, praise, and rejoice “in the fire” of their varied sufferings, they powerfully promote God’s glory. Our faith, worship, joy, and service in the midst of suffering are not merely supernatural, they are beautiful as they bear powerful testimony to the unseen realities not just of God’s existence but of his power, wisdom, goodness, and other attributes.
As Christians, we should consider every ounce of pain as stewardship, as an opportunity to fulfill our highest calling by showing forth and magnifying the character of our God and his gospel, and its hardship makes it not only powerful but beautiful. It was so in the case of history’s greatest sufferer, and it can be so in the lives of his followers.
Suffering and the Pleasure of God
Important as it is to glorify the Lord in our suffering, however, we can do something more: We can please him. This does not mean that God takes pleasure in his children’s pain—quite the contrary. When the Lord revealed his character to Moses by proclaiming his name on Mount Sinai, the first attribute he revealed was his “mercy” or “compassion” (Exod. 34:6). And in the life of Jesus—those who saw him saw the Father—compassion was a profound constant: witness, for example, the Pharisees’ allegations of Jesus’ frequent “Sabbath-breaking” because he healed sufferers on that day.
But while the Lord takes no pleasure in their pain, he does take pleasure in his children. We see repeatedly in Scripture that the Lord both notices and responds to his people’s actions, and his response is often described as pleasure, even delight, especially, for example, when they trust him (Heb. 11:5–6). Their faith is all the more pleasing to him when exercised in the midst of suffering, when it is naturally so tempting to doubt and disbelieve. Jesus, the perfect sufferer, epitomized this throughout his life and especially at the cross. When the first martyr, Stephen, followed him in this path, just before he died, he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). The fact that Jesus was standing was a gesture of special honor and even pleasure at the achievement of his “good and faithful servant.” This pleasure reflects God’s personal nature, indeed the wonder and glory of three persons, who delight not just in their own fellowship—“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”—but in that of their redeemed people. This also explains the frequent exhortations that we should please him and the prayers that his children might do so. Like Mary’s costly sacrifice in Mark 14, our expressions of faith and love in the midst of pain can be beautiful and pleasing to the Lord.
Grace to Beautify Suffering
Of course, we cannot do this in our own power. Our righteous deeds are as filthy rags in God’s sight, and we are naturally dead in sin and hostile in mind to him and his law. But in Christ, we are not only accepted but renewed so as to love and to want to please our Father, our Savior and our Comforter—and we can! Part of the gospel’s glory is that Christ’s Spirit and resurrection life increasingly enable us to fulfill the law by loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind—and love delights to please its object. By our godly response to suffering, we can bring honor and glory to God—along with pleasure and delight!
Although glorifying and pleasing God is the first and most important way that Christians suffer well, it is not the only one. Lord willing, future columns in this magazine will consider additional ways that our suffering can be beautiful—e.g., as we grow in grace ourselves and minister to others in and through it. We will also look at some of the things we need in order to do this and how the Lord supplies them. This is not to downplay in any way the terrible pain and ugliness that believers face in this world. Even for Christians—sometimes especially for them—life can be brutal and nasty to the point of excruciating. Despite our suffering, we want to magnify the wisdom, goodness, and power of the God who can transmute our pain and ugliness into beauty. Are you in agony? Do you want to make your suffering beautiful to the Lord and to others around you? Then offer it to him as Mary did with her precious perfume. Ask him, by his grace, to please and glorify himself in it, and then trust him to do so. He did it supremely at the cross, and he is able and willing to do it with our “crosses” as well.
J. D. “Skip” Dusenbury (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia) is a retired pastor.
Footnotes:1. I agree with those commentators who believe that Mark 14:16–19 and John 12:1–8 describe the same event, and John identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
3. Westminster Confession of Faith 6.6; Westminster Larger Catechism 23,27; Westminster Shorter Catechism 17, 19.
4. Gen. 3:15; Ps. 22; Isa. 53, etc.
5. Matt. 10:38–39; Luke 9:23; 14:25–27; John 12:25–26; 15:18–20; 16:2.
6. Gen. 50:20; Jer. 29:11; Rom. 8:28–29.
7. Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 1:5; Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 5:9–10.
8. David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge, Health, Wealth, and Happiness: How the Prosperity Gospel Overshadows the Gospel of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 39–92.
9. David Powlison, “The Therapeutic Gospel,” Nine Marks, February 25, 2010, accessed August 13, 2021, https://www.9marks.org/article/therapeutic-gospel/.
10. The term was coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). See also Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Albert Mohler, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the New American Religion,” Albert Mohler, April 11, 2005, accessed on September 13, 2021, https://albertmohler.com/2005/04/11/moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new-american-religion-2.
11. Paul David Tripp, Suffering: Eternity Makes a Difference (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2001), 1–2.
12. Jonathan King, The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).
13. King, The Beauty of the Lord, 9–15.
14. Westminster Larger Catechism 1; Westminster Shorter Catechism 1.
15. John 12:27–28; 17:1,4; Matt. 6:9.
16. Rom. 16:36; 1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31; Col. 3:23; 1 Pet. 4:10.
17. Mark 3:1–6; Luke 13:14; John 5:10, 16; 9:16.
18. Pss. 11:7; 37:23; 147:11; Prov. 11:20; 15:8–9; Isa. 56:4.
19. Isa. 63:9; Zech. 2:8; Acts 9:4; 1 Cor. 1:9; Heb. 4:15–16; 1 John 1:3.
20. Rom. 8:8–9; Eph. 5:10; Col. 1:10; 3:20; 1 Thess. 2:4; 4:1; Heb. 13:16; 1 John 3:22.