Last month, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence opened in theaters, invoking difficult questions among Christians regarding what it means to have faith. It spurs me to reflect on how Japanese Christians have perceived suffering, and how we as believers are called to respond to this inevitability.
In many cultures, suffering and weakness are rarely discussed. When people do talk about hardship, they prefer stories depicting someone who suffers for the sake of Christ, but eventually overcomes through strong faith and endurance. These triumphant stories bolster our expectations for anguish to give way to victory in this world, not just in the world to come. Japanese artists and theologians, however, strive to tell another kind of story: the reality of ongoing suffering and pain.
Scorsese’s film is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name. Both are set in 17th-century Japan, when the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) faced severe persecution. In Silence, Endo asks if it is ever justified to recant one’s faith for the sake of loved ones suffering unbearably before one’s very eyes. His story shows that Christ identifies intimately with the afflictions of the faithful. Likewise, in his book, The Theology of the Pain of God, theologian Kazoh Kitamori promotes a holistic understanding of God’s character by conveying the relational nearness of God, implicitly challenging tendencies to overemphasize God’s transcendence and immutability. Kitamori contends that God’s love is manifest in suffering – that the agony of God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ reflects God’s will to love the objects of His wrath.
The primary question Japanese theologians grapple with is not whether Christians should experience suffering – nor is it how Christians should overcome trials. Rather, the question is concerned with what can be found amid suffering. We have a natural inclination to avoid pain and to escape it, if possible. Even when we dare to talk about it, we sometimes compare one experience to another, even competing for the title of “the one who suffers the most.” These are fruitless labors.
The Christ hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6–11) reminds us that Jesus was obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross! If we are called to be imitators of Christ, then our obedience to God entails suffering. It is simply the truth. The task is neither to question whether Christians should undergo suffering, thus endorsing simplistic triumphalism, nor to compare our hardships to those of others, as though greater pain deserves greater merit. Rather, we need to seek God in our sufferings, as imitators of Christ. Japanese theologians have found that Christ is present amid our trials, and that God understands our pain.
A closer examination of suffering often yields rich wisdom. Scripture tells us that our forebears of faith also encountered God in their pain. The prophet Habakkuk discovered God’s righteousness amid his afflictions, as he struggled with the discrepancy between the reality he observed and his understanding of God. At first, he complains that God does not listen to the cry for help (1:2). However, as God proclaims that “the righteous shall live by his faith/faithfulness” (2:4 NASB), Habakkuk eventually learns who God is and how He acts – from the divine perspective, rather than from the prophet’s own understanding and expectations. Thus, Habakkuk responds to the divine message by confessing his faith:
I heard and my inward parts trembled, At the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, And in my place I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, For the people to arise who will invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold And there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord GOD is my strength, And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, And makes me walk on my high places (3:16-19 NASB).
Amid Habakkuk’s misery, he discovers divine righteousness. We can be encouraged to find that God patiently listens to the prophet’s complaints not only once, but twice, and that God graciously teaches him the divine truth that transcends human understanding.
Similarly, Paul found divine strength in his weakness. After describing his many personal sufferings, including his struggle with the “thorn” in his flesh, the apostle concludes that the power of Christ is revealed in his own frailty. Paul attempts neither to escape discomfort, nor to boast of his sufferings for his own glory, as his opponents do. Rather, he finds divine power in his human weakness, and thus declares:
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10 NASB).
Scripture tells us that our forebears of faith had rich encounters with God in their sufferings. For Japanese Christians, the story of the Church has not been one of dramatic and easy victories. Rather, many have suffered and died quietly for their faith. However, in their agony and wrestling, they have met God, who understands their pain and suffers with them. Even when God seems silent, He is never far from each of us.
As imitators of Christ today, what might we learn when pain continues and God seems silent?