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Suffering may be defined as all heavy and striking instances of misfortune, causing physical or mental distress or pain. In most religions suffering raises the profound problem of its relation to divinity. Adherents of primitive religions often viewed it as imposed by the gods, capriciously but also as something to be endured. The gods imposing it, in return needed to be propitiated; rites of passage in these religions often involved suffering. In Islam suffering led to fatalism. The ancient Hebrews viewed suffering as a judgment of God necessitated by human sin, humans suffered because of their own willful behavior, and they ought not to blame God for it, Hebrew suffering was also a probe of the righteous leading them to strengthened faith.

New Testament Christians embraced the supreme form of suffering, martyrdom, as entirely natural, because of the martyrdom of Jesus but also perhaps because of the Stoics' insistent denial of the reality of suffering. New Testament authors emphasized suffering as useful and necessary to strengthen and purify the Christian (Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:6).

To the ancients suffering raised the problem of the good. Graeco-Romans generally regarded suffering as tragic and even evil, perhaps evidence of the gods' displeasure but more likely the result of divine caprice. It was not necessarily tied to human behavior. Or they regarded wealth as an unmitigated good. New Testament authors, on the other hand, thought that the good led toward the realization of the kingdom of God. Thus material loss or imprisonment or pain or sickness -- in short, any form of personal distress -- could induce one to reflect more carefully on his own life; it could awaken conscience, helpful in the Christian's life on earth but also finally in her progress toward eternity. And wealth could be an evil. Christians viewed both good and evil from the perspective of eternity.

Throughout church history there have always been groups of devout Christians who revived and refurbished the New Testament view of suffering, both because they thought the New Testament view (not necessarily the church's tradition) ought to be the supreme guide to life and also because the New Testament view of suffering conformed to the realities of their existence -- suffering, often at the bands of other Christians. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists were such a group.

For the Anabaptists suffering was (1) being in Christ. Suffering denoted following Christ, being engraved into Christ, participating with him in life in the most intimate possible manner. They expressed gratitude to him, joy in participating with him in suffering, obedience to his commands including taking up the cross (Philippians 2:8). Their theology was essentially christological.

(2) Suffering was also redemptive. It led them to a complete identification with Christ, not only in his suffering and death but also in resurrection with him. To Menno suffering was a sign of election, of genuinely belonging to Christ ("Of the cross of Christ," 1556). For some Anabaptists suffering in the form of martyrdom hastened the approach of Christ's return and thus of their own ultimate redemption. For a few of them martyrdom was itself a certain and positive rite of passage into eternity. Despite their denial of a pelagianist soteriology (works righteousness), all of them thought that suffering was at least a sign of certain redemption.

(3) Suffering was also disciplinary. It led the Christian through the hard school of Christ, in discipleship to Christ, strengthening him for every test, hardening her to endure rack and refute clever inquisitor. It turned the Christian toward obedience to Christ and the fellowship of believers, therefore disobedience to the world. It meant conflict and strife, not contented easy living, because the evil world would not permit the true believer respite or rest. That constant warfare could produce a resolute hardened soldier of the Lord, following Paul's model (Ephesians 6:13-20).

(4) Anabaptists believed that suffering was inevitable. "It has been so from the beginning, that the righteous must suffer, and that the unrighteous always prevail" (Martyrs Mirror [Scottdale, 1951], 668). Evil, willful people and social structures inevitably imposed suffering on those Christians who remained faithful to Christ. Christ's injunction to take up the cross and follow him, a hard saying, made suffering as he had suffered a universal factual reality (2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 2:21). Anabaptists viewed suffering as less the result of one's own sin than Luther, for instance, would have had it; for Anabaptists, suffering was caused by the sins of others. As Christ had found suffering inevitable, so his followers would too. Participation with Christ in suffering included the entire fellowship; the entire body suffered. Inevitability included the perpetual hostility of evil forces in the world toward true believers. Christians were locked in a cosmic struggle between God and the forces of evil.

(5) Suffering was avengable. God would avenge his suffering people. Ultimately the righteous would be victorious and the sinful persecutors, civil and religious, would be defeated. Most Anabaptists awaiting execution seem to have expected some specific avenging act by God and left the matter of vengeance entirely to the Lord. A few of them seemed eager to predict the time and manner of divine retribution on their persecutors; and a handful vented their spleen in angry outbursts. Most of them were both submissive and bold, and intended their predictions of vengeance as evangelical warnings, a deliberate part of their larger mission.

To some Anabaptists suffering was implicit in both the nature of the universe and soteriology. Anabaptist mystics especially those like Hans Hut and other followers of Thomas Müntzer who immersed themselves in mystical reflections, explained internal pain and suffering -- doubt, indecision, anxiety, guilt -- as deriving from the human creaturely condition, imposed by the Creator. As animals suffered under the domination of humans, so also humans suffered under the dominance of fellow humans and even God. They suffered inner anguish that carried through stages of perception of soul condition to complete resignation (Gelassenheit), in which condition the Spirit of God could finally enter for its salvific work.

This mystical salvationism bore a physical character for the human, so that physical baptism was a necessary stage in salvation. In believers' baptism with water the Anabaptist mystics partially bridged the gap between internalized mystical suffering and the external suffering via martyrdom of Anabaptists such as the Swiss Brethren.

From approximately 1600 to our own times Mennonites have generally regarded suffering in traditional Anabaptist terms, even when they were not persecuted; the mystical Anabaptist suffering strain fell away. As Mennonites made their peace with the world and acculturated in various places and times, some leaders recalled them to an earlier pristine Christian condition by publishing martyr tales. The crowning literary achievement of martyr tales was van Braght's Martyrs' mirror (1660), with many subsequent editions in Dutch, German, and finally English. The large number of copies of many editions of the Martyrs' Mirror found in the older Mennonite historical libraries is itself mute testimony to the immense spiritual popularity of that work, next to the Bible and some hymnals the most important literary possession of Mennonite families.

Anabaptists and Mennonites after them have emphasized practice more than theory. One is not surprised therefore to discover little or no formal theology of suffering, even in our own times when Mennonites publish far more than any rational human can read. In recent decades Mennonite theologians -- writing systematic, biblical, or practical theology -- have rarely broached the topic. A few meditations for a radio audience, a few published sermons, an occasional pamphlet, an article in some church paper -- these alone provide a forum for Mennonite discourse on the subject. Although the scholars who write systematic theology are generally silent on the topic, there remains a substratum of conviction among many Mennonites, certainly among the more traditional groups, that suffering is salvific, purgative, and inevitable. Such people satisfy their thirst for literary support for their view with the standard writing, the Martyrs' mirror, still a staple in their literary diet, as evidenced by the frequency of recent reprintings.

In the past two decades a growing number of Western-world Mennonites regard suffering as less a theological than a psychoanalytic-therapeutic topic, and read and act accordingly.

If Mennonites have not written recently about suffering, nor reshaped a fresh theology of suffering, they have nonetheless responded to the suffering of others in relief and service activities on a global basis. The impetus, suffering of others inviting service from Christians for whom suffering is a major motif in life, derives from the Anabaptists' own scriptural emphases and religious experiences. Even a recanted mid 16th-century Anabaptist found his post-Anabaptist niche as administrator of poor relief for Strasbourg.

Within Mennonite history there have been two major outpourings of material aid to other people. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Dutch Mennonites gave immense quantities of money and material aid to religious refugees of differing persuasions, but including also their Swiss co-religionists. In the 20th century North American Mennonites founded the Mennonite Central Committee for sending material aid to beleaguered Russian Mennonites impoverished by the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Largely quiescent for several decades, World War II called the MCC back to life, and still more recently European Mennonites added their own relief organization.


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Author(s) John S Oyer
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Oyer, John S. "Suffering." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 30 Nov 2020.

APA style

Oyer, John S. (1989). Suffering. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 November 2020, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 862-864. All rights reserved.

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