Reading Time: This post will take about 20-25 minutes to read.
Under the Weight of It All
As I journey to better understand suffering I am confronted with an unusual and unexpected realization. I now see the way that suffering exposes, in ways that other circumstances do not, what beliefs and values I hold dear. Knowing that this is what happens during a time of crisis and pain gives me an opportunity to recognize that in the midst of all that is happening God is going to show Himself. Where seeing God’s hand becomes difficult is when you are so overwhelmed by what is happening that you simply are unable to make a distinction between what is happening and what God is doing to protect, guide and lead you.
Understanding the effect or effects that suffering has has provided me with some way of preparing for whatever comes. It is not a perfect preparation, but an emotional and spiritual work that I have taken more seriously in the past few months. What I have realized is that I do not like what has been exposed because it challenges what I read in the bible and what I have learned through experience. There is in an inconsistency that these circumstances expose that cause me to waver in my convictions about who God is and how He acts. This is not good, which is a mild understatement, I know.
I do not like feeling this conflicted. And, I don’t think that I am supposed to. So, I am left with a choice. Either change my conviction to conform to what I read in the bible. Or, change what I read in the bible so that it conforms to my convictions. If I could let you in on a little secret, this second option is a bad choice. Learning to conform and let go of convictions that are not in line with what the bible says is not easy or quick. It can be (and has been) painful at times and it will take time to unlearn many (if not all) of the incorrect, inconsistent and incoherent things that we may have learned over the course of our lives and in church.
What suffering awakens in me when I am confronted with some of life’s more difficult issues cannot just be dismissed. There are so many “answers” for why suffering exists. And many of them are NOT emotionally, psychologically or even theologically satisfying. So, it has become important to look at several questions that have come up for me like: What is the correct response to suffering? Can I even talk in this way? What do I do when there are no simple, or even just coherent answers to what I see happening around us? It is this process of looking, thinking and even feeling my way through these experiences that should be entered into with out whole person if there is going to be any hope of understanding and accepting suffering in my life.
Suffering never feels like a “minor” thing. And it never should. We have to work diligently to feel the full weight of what we are talking about so that we can have an honest conversation (many times just with ourselves). And more to the point, until we are under the weight of suffering it is difficult to make an accurate evaluation of what we are talking about and the conclusions that we arrive at. So, rather than going over any of the potential answers that are given to suffering I want to look at some of the underlying assumptions from which some of these questions and answers come.
Is There Meaning In My Suffering?
The search for some sort of meaning in the middle of suffering has been the approach that many have taken. “Surely, there has to be some reason for this?” we ask ourselves. I understand that this is an important question, but it should not be at the top of the list. Suffering and its cousin, Evil, have a way of revealing the flaws in the armor of faith. We always seem to find ourselves trying to scrape together a coherent answer to what has happened. And, to be honest, right when something happens is not the right time to try and put two intelligible words together. Those responding to the suffering and those in the midst of it should not try to “see the good” in that moment. There will be time later, but not then. Many times all those kind thoughts only seem to add insult to injury and salt to an open and deep wound. I think that we have a lot to learn from Jesus’ response to the death of Lazarus. That famously short verse in John informs us as to how we should respond. It simply reads, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
The sheer wisdom of this is astounding. Jesus did not rush in to fix the problem even though he was going to. Jesus did not come sooner and take care of the problem as Mary and Martha wanted. Jesus waited four days, allowed Lazarus to die and then when he shows up he joins in the mourning. Jesus was not surprised by the death. He had predicted it. So Jesus’ weeping was not about surprise or guilt. Jesus wept because he saw and responded to the pain of loved ones who had lost a brother. Jesus knew what he was about to do, but he took the time to enter into the hurt of Lazarus’ family.
Only those that are willing to enter into the suffering of others are able to respond in this way. But, most of us do not do it. We just find ourselves offering these spiritually sounding platitudes that make us feel better or because we do not know what else to do. “He is better off with God.” “God needed another angel in heaven.” “Heaven is a better place because he is there.” When my brother-in-law died this past year I nearly came unhinged when I started hearing these statement. A reaction to what was happening that I was very surprised at!
I was not interested in good-intentioned phrases. I almost punched a lady because of what she was saying to my mother-in-law! (She was just too far for me to reach her.) I just wanted someone to cry with me. I just needed someone to know what I was feeling. Since that day I have not tried to say anything when I have encountered death. There is nothing to say. There is only love to see. I now know why Jesus wept. Death robs us of hope. And it is only in the comfort of the consoling that we remember that there is so much more to life. And, when this mourning happens among the redeemed of God this is a mourning that is different from that of the world (2 Thessalonians 4:13).
I have come to believe that my suffering has meaning only within the context of a relationship with Jesus. Because of Jesus I have a way of looking at and dealing with suffering that is different that what the world provides.
Does God Really Work All Things For Good?
I have long believed that suffering and evil are the greatest enemies to faith because they stand in our faces challenging us to question not so much the goodness of God, but rather God’s power. How could an all-powerful God allow this to happen? Because we “know” that an all good God would never allow some of the things that we are seeing if He had the ability to prevent it? Do you see what we have just done when we ask a question like this. We have assumed something about what we know that God knows. Or, if I were to say it another way, I am assuming that if I had all the information that God has, I would make a different (think “better” here) choice in the situation.
We have to be very careful with this kind of thinking. We have to guard against the impulse to second guess God’s abilities AND motives. At the root of this is a subtle implication that we are more noble, gracious and caring than God himself. Because if this is not what we are getting at then we would not say what we say! We have to take a hard look at what is the root of this thought.
Many of us have heard that God works all things out for good. But, I have a question. How do we know that? And what do we mean when we say that? This second question really gets to the heart of the issue. Too often we assume that the “good” referred to is the good of the one that is hurting. But, there is something wrong with the idea that God is tending to every persons sufferings in this selfish a way. When God is this attentive to us, WE become the most important thing on God’s mind. Which is not just untrue, it makes God an idolater! The most important thing to God is God.
It is very easy for us to focus on the that part of the verse where God is working all things out for good. But what is the reason that Paul says that there is a working by God for good? It is ultimately to accomplish God’s purpose (which is the reason that Paul provides). Our good is a secondary issue. Our good happens because we are found in the will of God which is good. When we align our lives and wills to that of God’s we become the beneficiaries of untold and incalculable blessings. Which, not incidentally, Paul points out as he closes Romans 8 from verses 29-39.
God does work things out for good, but not so that I can feel blessed. God works things out for good because He will not allow sin or human failure or demonic influence from deterring, detouring, diminishing or destroying His plan and purpose on the earth.
Our union with Christ is what makes the “good” make sense. When we lose sight of this we try to help by sharing a “promise from the Lord” only to undermine the very thing we are trying to do. Bad theology has continued the suffering of many because it does not heal the hurt that exists. If we do not get our theology straight we impugn the character of God, not so much because we want to, but because we are not left with another alternative. We are dazed and confused and because we don’t have a clear reference point we are set adrift on the sea of emotions.
I am thankful to Dr. John Piper of DesiringGod.org for the following questions (which I think I have stated correctly here): Do we make much of God because he makes much of us? Or do we make much of God because he frees us to make much of Him?
At the bottom of the first question is me. At the bottom of the second is God. If God’s motivation for action is to please me, God becomes dependent upon human activity. But if God’s motivation for action is to do His own good pleasure, then we, the creatures, will receive and experience the full measure of God’s blessings. This is why we have to be very careful when we are making statements like the one under discussion because we can create a situation where God becomes the servant.
When we consider suffering by looking at what is at the bottom of our theology we are better prepared to respond to the circumstances that will most certainly come.
Next Time: In Part 3 we will look at what the bible reveals to us about the Christian’s response to and in suffering.