I had not been an agnostic for very long before coming back to Christ. Just long enough to make a general mess of my life. In coming back to the faith, I expected to find a community I'd not found elsewhere at my college. I expected to experience a newfound joy—after the hard work of setting my life straight, to be sure, but joy nonetheless. I did not expect to be sexually assaulted by a pastor barely three months into my new faith. I did not expect to be plunged into a different, almost deeper, darkness than any I had known in my life apart from God.
In Philippians 3:8–11, the apostle Paul writes, "I have suffered the loss of all things . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (esv). The apostle Paul wrote these words to the Philippian church from prison, most likely in Rome. Just like in our time, life was rife with sorrow for the Philippians, but Paul wanted believers to understand suffering in a different way than the rest of the world. For believers, suffering had purpose.
Paul's words on suffering have meaning for us even today. In 21st century America, we're inundated with the message that the purpose, the goal of life, is a life of happiness and ease. Advertisements tell us that new acquisitions make us happier. Television shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives teach us that money and fame mean happiness. The edited lives we see on Facebook depict life free of suffering and filled to the brim with Instagram moments, happy marriages, gifted and obedient children, success after success. A whopping 17 percent of American Christians identify with the "name it and claim it" prosperity theology—a view that was once on the religious fringe.
From the media to the church we get the message that the happy, easy life is the blessed life, and if we're suffering, something is wrong. It's a message that has seeping power. It seeps in the cracks of our theology and our human frailty so that even the most theologically grounded persons are not exempt from asking God, even pleading with him, "Why?" Why can't I find a job? Why can't I find a spouse? Why did my marriage fail? Why didn't I have parents? Why did I have bad ones? Why did I have to bury my baby? Why didn't you protect me from being raped by someone I trusted? Why?