The reality of evil and suffering has perplexed thinkers for millennia. I have read many wonderful efforts attempting to explain how pain and evil can exist in the presence of a good and just God (The doctrine of “theodicy”). Noble efforts as they are, they are only adequate, not completely satisfying.
When individuals are in the midst of personal pain, loss, or suffering, it’s not the time to do speculative philosophy with them. Neither is it time for simplistic Christian platitudes, served coldly while in relational retreat from the threat that another’s suffering is to those very platitudes. We are more concerned that the walls of our theological fortresses remain unbreached, than we are about incarnationally entering into another’s sufferings with weeping.
Jesus was touched with our infirmities. We will not allow that to happen to us. We are too busy “claiming the promises” to keep us immune from experientially entering into another’s unanswerable pain. For all our claims to commitment to the Scripture, we really don’t believe “when one suffers, we all suffer” . . . beyond a tepid and emotionally detached nod of philosophical agreement to a “biblical” concept, that we can “agree to” without any associated experiential cost. If we believed our brother’s pain directly affected us in tangible ways, we would live differently one with another.
Suffering makes us nervous. A “full” gospel message that includes suffering of the believer will fill neither treasury nor sanctuary. It is therefore, conveniently excised from Western pulpits and TV screens. In spite of all the biblical brilliance we have absorbed for decades, we are ill equipped to deal with life’s most fundamental realities. As a culture, both church and social, we are in denial about two ultimate realities of life: suffering and death. “Good” people suffer. “Wicked” people prosper.
Pain does not always happen to the “other guy,” you know, the Christian who must not be obeying God’s word (God forbid!). Our obedience is the fruit of the new nature, not a mystical force field that spiritually inoculates us against irrational suffering. Very obedient sons and daughters can, have, and will suffer . . . in some form. You can no more “positively confess” your way out of this than you can avoid gravity by jumping out of a plane.
Suffering is fruit of the mystery of iniquity at work in a fallen world where the created being is so like the Creator, it can tell Him “NO.” The reality of suffering is the price of love being free, and has unpleasant downside consequences for all of creation. New creation beings are not exempt. We are called to a fellowship of suffering. You won’t find many refrigerator magnets or promise boxes with that one.
Through the aching veil of tears, the prophets of old entreated the Lord for understanding and relief from the pressures of iniquity, injustice, and suffering experienced by His own. They were not given an answer. Neither will we be given one. They were pointed to the future day of Messiah when all irrational injustices would be reconciled. We are pointed to the same One, whose day in fullness has not yet arrived.
Through the centuries, the church has tended toward polarities on the topic of suffering. In the Middle Ages it was glorified. In our day it is ignored or denied. Let me be clear about what is to briefly follow. I am not saying that suffering has some inherent merit. Suffering, in all its forms should be resisted, relieved, and ministered to, whenever, and however we can. Jesus came to destroy the works of the evil one, not facilitate them. We should do no less, with every resource at our command, natural and supernatural. But we should equally not be surprised when it touches us.
We also do not have to go looking for suffering in some effort of misdirected martyrdom or a misinformed pursuit of spiritual purity. Suffering does not need to be pursued. It will come on it’s own. It is life’s uninvited guest. It does not knock. It does not ask permission to enter. It walks in, takes your favorite chair, and eats your food.
Suffering is never causal. That is, suffering is not inherently beneficial to us. Good weather follows bad, bad follows good, but they do not “cause” each other. Simply because something follows from another, does not mean a causal relationship exists. The question is not, “Does suffering cause blessing?” (God forbid!) but rather the questions are: “How will we respond to suffering?” and whether or not we receive love and care from others in the midst of our suffering. Suffering is an opportunity, not a virtue. Without the journey through the valley of unsolicited suffering, the life of Christ cannot be seen in mortal flesh on earth, and that is the goal of creation. It is my conviction that none of us can make that journey alone. We are not designed to.
We don’t want to hear this truth. It doesn’t fit all the tidy Christian clichés and quid pro quo theologies of the grinning televangelists who assure us of the good life, if we just obey enough. In our current spiritual climate, the notion that God does not exist to assure my personal ease, comforts, and success is simply beyond our capacity to comprehend, and is as rare in the Christian airwaves as bacon at a Bar Mitzvah.
Since it is inappropriate to do metaphysical gymnastics with someone when he/she is experiencing personal pain and loss, it behooves leaders to do preparatory work through ministry of the Word in the hearts of hearers . . . before suffering touches them. If preparatory ministry does not occur, believers will have no intellectual, psychological, and spiritual context to deal with their pain. They will end up going down dead end alleys of “Why me? “What did I do wrong?” questions, or similar tormenting mental somersaults (helped along by the voice of the accuser and his spiritual sidekick – ignorant Christians) just trying to process the personal pain.
We cannot guarantee immunity from suffering to the saints. We can only prepare the saints for it, assure them of His presence in it, and hope for the exchange of love and charis (gifts and graces) between body members when it occurs. The exchange of love and charis changes the coefficient of suffering from a minus to a plus, so to speak. It is love that redeems suffering.
Our life, the very breath in our lungs is a gift of God. It is the gift of life, and it is fragile indeed. I am very grateful for living in a prosperous society of such blessings like Western civilization, with all the benefits of material prosperity and the benefits of modern medical science. However, our prosperity masks something . . . the fragility of life, and the gift we are one to another.
We act like something strange, unfair, or unmerited has happened to us when we are touched by pain, tragedy, or death. It is the normal condition of the vast majority of humanity for the last 10,000 years! The last 150 years in the West are the exception to the human condition, not the norm.
Many would have us believe that the suffering of Christians is “biblically limited” to the suffering associated with persecution for the faith. This is convenient, condemning to those who suffer otherwise, and ignorant. The average life span at the time of Christ was twenty-one years and those twenty-one years were riddled with disease. At the time of Christ, 75% of the population was dead by the age of twenty-six. Contrary to all romantic Renaissance art, Jesus was older than the majority of the people He spoke to. (Please refer to our book: Healing: Hope or Hype? for a full treatment). That will change the way one reads and applies the Scriptures!
Most of us would not consider a 26 year life span riddled with disease as the “blessing” we are supposedly “promised” in Scripture. If our belief systems are true and accurate they must be true across all cultures, at all times. Therefore, if we think that our accumulation of Bible promises guarantees us the comforts of an American middle class life of health and wealth into our 70’s and beyond, we are deceived. The authors of Scripture did not know that such a thing existed. We may experience these comforts. We may not.
When the Word refers to “redeeming the time,” well, this puts it in a whole different framework. If we get 50, 60, 70, 80, or 90 years and are mildly touched by pain, loss, suffering, and death, we are the exception, not the norm, and blessed beyond a degree that Jesus (in His humanity) Paul, John, and Peter could never have dreamed of. With that blessing comes proportionate responsibility. What shall I do with this blessed life I have been given?
This deeply moves me to want to live each day responsibly, that I would be aware of the gift of life. I want to present each day that I have, back unto the Lord as a living sacrifice, aware that it is my reasonable service. All I have is today. Lord, help me redeem it, help me to serve others in it, and help me to be ready when the uninvited guest is in my favorite chair, as I help my brothers and sisters when he is in theirs.
I am indebted to Dr. Paul Tournier for some of the seed thought expressed herein.
Copyright 2010 Dr. Stephen R. Crosby www.drstevecrosby.wordpress.com. Permission to copy, forward, or distribute this article is granted as long as this copyright byline is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.