A close friend, whom I love, is suffering right now – along with his family.
And isn’t it the case that the reality of suffering, especially of those we know, forces to the fore the question of how we think about suffering theologically? For how we respond to suffering reveals much of how we really think about God.
As a comparatively rich westerner, I’m conscious that it is all too easy to devalue that word to mean worries over job insecurity, a low bank balance or forgoing buying nice Christmas presents. Nor does it mean not being able to wear a cross around your neck at work.
No, I’m talking about the suffering caused by bombings of churches in Pakistan, the killing of Christians in Syria or imprisonment for your faith in China.
I’m also talking of the suffering of living with debilitating sickness, fighting long battles with cancer, losing yourself in mental illness or watching helplessly as a loved one dies and living with that grief every day.
At the huge risk of trivializing centuries of thinking about theodicy, suffering, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (this is only a blog post after all), I’ll hesitantly suggest that there are at least two distinct popular Christian tendencies to the ‘brute fact’ of human suffering.
1. A tendency towards fatalistic pessimism
Suffering is part and parcel of the fallen human condition. It’s actually pretty impossible to imagine life without suffering and pain and a provisionality that ends in death.
In the words of Qoheleth, suffering is only a matter of time: there will be a time to dance, but also a time to mourn; a time to laugh but also a time to weep. You may, especially if you are wealthy, have all sorts of protective layers in place to insulate you from suffering for as long as possible, but those layers can be ripped away in an instant. Money has its limits.
Christians after all, follow a crucified Messiah, and should have fairly robust and realistic theologies of suffering. To put it in flowery academic language, bad things happen to God’s people, just as much as the next person. There are no guarantees of special treatment.
Or perhaps, going back to bombs in Pakistan, bad things happen to Christians even more than the next person. For a lot of believers today (and throughout the history of the church) being a Christian is most definitely bad for your health.
Suffering, in this framework, is something not to be welcomed (you’d have to be a masochist to do that) but it is something to be faced and accepted and expected. Prayers here are more for strength to endure what comes, rather than urgent pleas for healing and removal of suffering. There is a tendency to fatalism and at times it gets close to seeing God as the author of all suffering. Whatever happens is his will.
This can lead to an emphasis on the cross; death, suffering and self-denial that is unattractive, life-denying and joyless. These are the guys who take the budgie’s swing out its cage on the Sabbath. If they aren’t going to have fun, then no-one else is either.
2. A tendency towards naïve optimism
Christians are not only followers of a crucified Messiah but a resurrected Lord. They are also people of the empowering Spirit of God poured out at Pentecost. The Spirit is the gift of God to all who believe. He empowers for mission, guides, renews and freely gives his gifts for service. It is the Spirit who applies the victory of God in Christ: he brings life, unites believers with Christ, heals, gives eschatological hope and whose fruit is attractive and appealing – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
In this sense, the Christian life is life lived to the full in the here and now; it’s the future kingdom life in the present.
But it’s possible to make so much of victory, power, triumph, future hope now, that it leaves little room for lament, failure, opposition and difficulty. Symptoms of this optimistic ‘super-spirituality’ might include things like the following:
– a taboo of talking and thinking about death. In the past, Dr Neill tells me, there were whole traditions of how to prepare to die well. Nowadays, our deaths are meekly handed over to doctors and omniscient medicine to deal with.
– the eclipse of wisdom tradition such as the Psalms of lament in our worship
– a theology of emotional comfort where our prayers are for the avoidance of trials, difficulties and pain because God is assumed to be someone who is both able and willing to ensure we don’t suffer or have unpleasant experiences.
– where Christian faith becomes a resource to enable me to live a happy life. I’m loved and accepted and OK as I am. So there is little reverence and fear of God and the word ‘holiness’ sounds terribly old fashioned.
3. A Paradox
Now, I don’t have a grand ‘third way’ that charts an obvious path between these two poles. They both have much truth. I simply suggest that they need each-other for there is a deep-rooted paradox to the Christian life.
The paradox is that that there is no incompatibility between having the Spirit and experiencing suffering. Jesus, God’s Son, was anointed with the Spirit and immediately embarks on a mission that involves opposition, violence and ultimately death. John the Baptist likewise. Stephen who is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ also is executed. Paul is led by and empowered by the Spirit but endures continual persecution, hardships, and finally in Rome the same fate as Jesus, John and Stephen. Seeing a pattern emerge?
The story of the church in Acts is of the triumph and victory of God. This includes dramatic healing and visible foretastes of the future kingdom of God in the present, but most often in and through suffering and weakness. The cross and Spirit are not in opposition to each other. It is the Spirit who enables and empowers believers to face suffering and persecution. And it is through that suffering that God’s power is evident to all. There is a privilege to suffer persecution and even death as Jesus did.
It seems then, that Christians are neither to be fatalistic pessimists nor naïve optimists. But are to be empowered and strengthened by the eschatological Spirit to face suffering with dignity and hope. They do not see God as the author of evil, they look forward with him to a world rid of suffering and death, disease and tears, violence and persecution – a world his Son has died to redeem. Suffering will not have the last word. It is precisely in the midst of suffering and weakness that God’s power is seen at work.
So how I am to pray for my friend and his family?
With tears. With urgency for healing. With lament at pain. With hope in the goodness and victory of God. Pray with me if you can.