While many people are questioning the will of God in the time of suffering from a global pandemic, "suffering" has been unavoidable for Chinese Christians who try to keep their faith under the communist regime.
Even one month before thousands in China alone died from COVID-19, around 2000 Chinese house church leaders had conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia including lecture by Tim Keller, with the theme of how the Chinese house church can relate to the persecution and suffering.
According The Gospel Coalition(TGC), Chinese president Xi Jinping has tightened party control over every facet of life. In 2017, the government reiterated that house churches are illegal and that no religious activity could happen without their approval.
Nearly all Chinese house churches have been raided by the police and some have been kicked out of their worship and a few retained in jail.
In easier history of China, the Cultural Revolution(1966-1976) didn't allow Christianity in the country. Christians had to hold small services hiding themselves. They kept their Bible hidden and went to jail if it was discovered.
Such suffering had an advantage: it was clear who was a Christian and who was not. There were few nominal believers. And Bible verses on suffering-Romans5:3-4, Romans 8:18, Philippians 3:10, and more--were "real and relevant", TCG noted.
"Older generations didn't have a systematic theology written on paper," said one pastor from northern China. "They could not form a system. But they knew, like me, that God controls everything. They read Romans 8:28, that God works everything together for the good of those who love him. They knew God was in control."
After 1990s, Chinese Christians encountered Reformed theology from abroad. "Covenant theology really speaks to the Chinese, who have a strong sense of collective identity," China Partnership's Hannah Nation said. She mentioned that a metanarrative of the story of the Bible-creation, fall, redemption and restoration can become their own story.
Reformed theology also helps Christians to interpret their historical relationship with suffering in the scripture. "With Calvin, we must recognize that as Christ's whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross, so the Christian life in its entirety, not just certain parts, is to be a continual cross," Westminster Theological Seminary professor Richard Gaffin wrote in 1979.
Christian suffering has purpose. It reminds us that we live an "already, not yet" life. Like Jesus, we exist in both a broken world and also a spiritual reality. We carry in us both the pain of this sinful physical existence and also the Holy Spirit. We're caught, as it were, between two worlds, TGC noted.
"Suffering will make you a far better Christian than you would have been, or a far worse Christian than you would have been, but it will not leave you as you were," Keller told the conference attendees.
"Many times, suffering can lead to self-pity and self-righteousness, to fearfulness, bitterness, and hate, to weariness and discouragement," Keller said. "The house church I see is, to a great degree, avoiding these pitfalls and problems," he told a room of Chinese leaders, according to the media.
"In other parts of the world, I don't believe that theology is in place. And when opposition comes, I think Christians aren't warned about these things, and they fall into them."
"I am hoping in many ways the Chinese church will be able to teach the whole church what it's learning," Pastor Tim added.
Before COVID-19 landed in the United States, American Christians were seeing nominal Christianity and its influence has faded.
"Young Christians who are really afraid of the world's disdain and scorn are being pushed either to withdraw-to keep their head down, don't identify as Christians, keep their faith completely private-or, on the other hand, to begin to compromise. To begin to shed unpopular Christian doctrines and not believe them anymore," Keller continued.
He explained that God's plan for the restoration of the word includes suffering, persecution and opposition and it is not only for Chinese church. "It is work of purifying the church and God has prepared the Chinese for service to the worldwide church."
"Suffering will make you a far better Christian than you would have been, or a far worse Christian than you would have been, but it will not leave you as you were."