On Wednesday, Feb. 26 — Ash Wednesday — many members of the global church will enter the Lenten season.
Lent, which dates back to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., is a 40-day period dedicated to prayer and fasting. During this time, Christians reflect on the mission and suffering of the Messiah, leading up to his passion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Lent culminates on April 9, Holy Thursday, the night Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before he went to the cross.
In his farewell discourse during the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples they would suffer.
He said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, ESVUK).
When Jesus said “in this world you will have tribulation,” he was referring to more than just suffering because of the faith. Suffering is one of the great realities of human life.
Consider the tens of thousands of people who in the past few weeks have been infected and have died because of the new coronavirus from China. Or the millions of people who suffer hunger and starvation on a daily basis in developing nations across the world. Or the victims of persecution such as the Uighur Muslims in China, a million who are imprisoned in “reeducation camps,” or the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar who have been the victims of genocide at the hands of the government.
Likewise, Christians around the world continue to be persecuted and killed for their faith. Open Doors, a nonprofit that aids persecuted Christians, estimates that 260 million people in 50 countries “experience high levels of persecution.” North Korea, Afghanistan and Somalia were identified as the top three most dangerous countries for Christians in 2020, according to the organization’s World Watch List.
As the leader of an Anglican church movement in India, I am intimately acquainted with human suffering.
A couple of years ago, a group of radical extremists hacked one of our pastors with axes and left him to die. I vividly remember the images of the attack. Through the power of prayer and reconstructive bone surgery, his ribs, hips and legs were put back together. One of his legs is now three inches shorter than the other and we had to have special shoes made for him. It took him a year to learn how to walk with a crutch.
When we gave this pastor the opportunity to lead a church in a safer area, he insisted on returning to the same community where he had been attacked. His motivation was the suffering and victory of Jesus on the cross. How could he stay back, he said, when his Master did not flinch from suffering so that we could experience the love and salvation of God?
So he is back in his field, serving his own people with joy. He embodies the words of the author of Hebrews:
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1b-2).
We must remember the paradoxical meaning of Jesus’s suffering and death.
It was through suffering and death that Jesus destroyed suffering and death once and for all and brought resurrected life to all. He endured the cross with joy because he saw his reward. Therefore, we should not be surprised by suffering and hardship but learn how to suffer well. We must also work hard to end the human suffering that sin and evil have unleashed in this world.
This Lent season, let’s remember to face suffering the same way Jesus did.
Joseph D’Souza is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and president of the All India Christian Council.