One summer, while in college, I worked for a Christian day camp for inner city youth. In theory, they brought in a bunch of college students for the summer, provided housing and meals, and paid us below minimum wage for creating and putting on faith-based programming for elementary school students. I say, “in theory,” because by the midpoint of the summer, we had an issue. We had food and housing, but we hadn’t been paid our already meager salary. Plus, our budget for putting on this camp amounted to so little that I ended up financing a lot of the actual programming. The level of resentment slowly crept up among the staff, and we decided to go to the board of the organization to request relief. For reasons that remain obscure to me to do this day, at the last minute, I got nominated to actually go to the meeting and do all the talking. From the tone of the meeting, they clearly faced a fundraising problem, but a lot of us faced a bill paying problem. They promised to make it all square by the end of the summer, which wasn’t a satisfactory answer. However, they did at least make good on that promise. We got paid our pittance on our last day of work.

If that’s all there was too that conversation, I probably would have forgotten it by now. It took place over 15 years ago, and I lived in more than a lifetime’s full of church meetings since. I remember it, in detail, a decade and a half later because of their attempt to theologize our struggle. In denying us regular paychecks, when I raised the hardship that it would cause some folks, they reminded me that suffering came with the life of faith, that sometimes, serving God meant enduring some difficult situations.

On one level, yes, they accurately read Scripture’s portrayal of the life of faith.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7 NRSV)

By the time that 1 Peter get written, suffering had become a well rooted aspect of the Christian experience. As the church grew, so did the hostility towards those who practiced the faith. In the earliest days, the resistance came from the Temple hierarchy and the leaders of the Jewish synagogues. By the latter part of the first century, Roman society and Roman government turned up the heat on the early church. Sometimes, Christians faced the subtle pain of social rejection and loss of standing, and sometimes, this exploded into full blown and violent persecution. The author does well to remind his folks that good can come out of this suffering, so that they know that the suffering is not a punishment from God.

The way that I look at it is that suffering grows our faith because when the other things that comfort us get stripped way, we remember where real strength and support come from. In good times, it’s easy to think that we make it on our own. Our wealth, health, social standing, ability to work hard, etc. can, when we have them, lie to us and make us feel like we don’t need God. Losing our sources of earthly security creates suffering and put us in a situation where only God can provide. This new reliance brings us closer to God and deepens our faith.

Our friends on the day camp board remain a cautionary tale. The author of 1 Peter tells these folks how to deal with their suffering as one who suffered alongside them. He also lived as a first century Christian trapped under the thumb of the Roman Empire. He faced many of the same hardships that his readers faced and had no power to stop the suffering. Thus, when he writes to them about how to faithfully process their suffering, he speaks as one in solidarity and a shared experience. He’s in the same trench with them, bearing the same load.

The board shared none of those things. They didn’t live as broke 20-somethings, employed, yet somehow getting more broke. They did have the power to alleviate the suffering and chose not to do so. They spoke from a position of comfort and power telling folks in a position of discomfort and without power about the meaning of their suffering. That suffering grows faith does not get us out of our responsibility to prevent others from suffering and care for people in our midst. A darker and more expansive version of this logic has often been employed by the powerful to justify causing suffering to those without recourse. The difference between solidarity and spiritual abuse comes down to where you sit relative to the sufferer. A fellow sufferer can approach the question of suffering differently than one in comfort.

In our suffering, we can know that it at least draws us closer to God and assure our vindication in the final calculus. In our comfort, we must struggle, in solidarity with those who suffer, to alleviate the suffering that we can.