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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Suffering Anyone?

I'm taking a class this semester called Problems and Procedures. The last 2 weeks have focused on the problem of suffering. We've had to read a book by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes called When God Weeps. If you haven't read it, whether you are going through tough times or not, you should read it. Here's some thoughts I've had on this subject.

I was deeply impacted by something Joni said on pages 156-57. It doesn't so much have to do with suffering except that it is a great comfort to me. In fact I found it quite profound. Joni speaks of Jesus being forsaken on the cross so that he could confidently proclaim to the disciples a few chapters later that he would "never leave or forsake" them. This is a profound aspect of Christ's redemptive program. We were the ones who deserved to be forsaken by God. Yet He intervened and experienced this on our behalf on the cross when he cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

It was not random that Christ used the same word in that great promise to the disciples (when he called them to spread the Gospel) as he spoke to God on the cross. "We may feel forsaken in the midst of our suffering, but the fact remains, we're not" (157). The profundity of this truth comes when we consider that it is one side of a two-sided coin. Those who do not place their faith solely in Christ, the one who experienced God's separation to the fullest as his/her substitute, will experience it to its fullest on their own. They will cry out different words than Jesus because they won't even be able to call God, "my God." If anyone had the right to use such a possessive along with God, it was Jesus. Yet he courageously chose to die in our stead and experience the tearing away of his most prized possession…his Father.

The bottom line is that we all experience a sense of being forsaken by God at some point or other. Unbelievers actually experience it their whole lives if they never believe. Suffering is not something just for Christians. All people experience aspects of the Fall and therefore suffer. It's a shame that unbelievers suffer for no reason. The suffering they experience in this life is mere foreshadow of what they will suffer forever. As the book reminds us in chapter twelve, hell is a very real place and has always been maintained by the Christian Church.

The worst aspect of hell is the fact that it isn't Satan who's running things…it's God.
In hell, God won't be the baby Jesus, meek and mild; he will be the hulking male warrior come to do battle. He will be patience exhausted. What could be more horrifying than having as your prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer a Father whose son you murdered? Someone you've ignored and offended all your days? Some whose mercies you have ungratefully inhaled over a lifetime-like the spoiled kid on Christmas morning tearing through his gifts with no thought about who gave them? Someone whose interests and reputation you have only cared about when it served your purposes? (190)
At first blush, it would seem that God delights in sending people to hell. Scripture paints a different picture. Hell wasn’t even created for people. It was created for the devil and his cohorts. In fact, Adam was destined for eternal life with God, but he failed the probationary test in the Garden of Eden. Had he obeyed, all men could have avoided this whole Fall thing and enjoyed eternal life. But the Fall happened and God’s justice must prevail. “God takes no joy in sending anyone to eternal misery; his Son was a lifeguard urgently warning swimmers of treacherous waters” (191).

Hell is the only option for those who don’t repent and place their trust solely in Christ. It is sad that instead so many people place their trust in themselves and their own abilities to achieve life. People who suffer desperately want to make sense of their sufferings, but they look to themselves rather than to the one whose sufferings make sense of theirs.

Christian suffering, on the other hand, has profound purpose. We can't always pinpoint the purpose, but we know it is there. One thing suffering has produced in my life is a dependence on God and a mistrust of my circumstances, especially when they seem to be going well. I am skeptical when things are going good. Suffering has caused me to enjoy the good times a lot more. It has caused me to weep a lot more when times aren't so good for others. It has caused me to pray and cry out for full redemption to happen.

Suffering has instilled in me the truth about the seriousness of the Fall and the reality that Christ has come to make all things new. I long for newness. I now look for ways that newness shows itself in this life. Seeing redemption brings comfort like nothing else can in the midst of difficulty.

What about the sufferings of unbelievers? The chapter on hell ends with a hopeful note,
But there’s a hidden mercy here. By tasting hell in this life we are driven to ponder what may face us in the next. In this way, our trials may be our greatest mercies. For some of us, they become God’s roadblocks on our headlong rush to hell. The depressed young homemaker reaches for an answer. The cancer-ridden patient makes peace with his Creator. The ladder-climber executive slips and falls into the arms of God. (196)
The question, then, is where our sufferings take us. Do they cause us to ponder what comes in the next life for us? Or do they cause us to become more self-reliant and embittered towards the merciful God who desires that none of us should perish?


At 6:37 AM, February 15, 2006, Blogger Dan McGowan said...

My pastor talks about a "Theology of Suffering" - that, since we are dead and rez'd with Christ, we WILL suffer. Though I don't like hearing that, I can certainly accept it as part of my walk - I will suffer if I follow Christ... I'm just not sure that every single "suffering" issue of life is "from God" for "my growth." I mean, sometimes - I just mess up... and then suffer the consequences of my own idiocy...

At 8:25 AM, February 15, 2006, Blogger rs said...

The truth of the matter is that we cause all of our sufferings, though. Maybe not all are the direct result of a specific sin, but all are a result of sin.

Even still, suffering is hard, regardless of the cause.

At 8:27 AM, February 15, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Phil 1:29 is such an interesting verse - "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake."

(Funny, I don't recall reading about this in Purpose Driven Life)

Increasingly, I am beginning to see "suffering" as one of the defining characteristics of this life, both for the Christian and the non-Christian alike; both as a result of my sin but also just as the general character of a fallen world.

There's actually a lot of real life wisdom (at least in terms of recognition) in that old bumper sticker - "Life's a bitch, and then you die"

Life IS hard. But for the Christian, that hardness is actually a gift from God - a second blessing if you will: not only do we get to believe in Jesus, we get to suffer - not just for him (that's how we usually read it), but because of him.

If you read that verse closely you'll see what I'm talking about - just as our belief is "for his sake" (in other words, because of what Christ has accomplished, God, for his sake, grants us to believe), so also suffering. The second "for his sake" functions the exact same way - contextually, the passage is not saying "we get to suffer for Jesus", but rather "for Jesus' sake, we get to suffer.

Thanks a lot, Jesus. Just what I was praying for. Suffering.

Actually, we should be thanking God for our suffering, rather than cursing him on account of it. I am beginning to see how suffering has a purifying effect in us - its like squeezing a sponge; it may look dry on the outside, but there's always water deep within. It's the pressure of suffering that brings my sin to surface, so I can see it and deal w/ it.

Suffering also has a missional side - like Christ, we get to willingly embrace suffering for the sake of others. We give of ourselves sacrificially, that they might see the love of Christ in us.

How we respond to suffering is probably our best testimony to the world. I think of a woman I know who has been struggling w/ insomnia for over 9 months now - she gets maybe 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night. This happened to me last week, and let me tell you, after 5 sleepless nights, I'm a miserable little whiner.

Just yesterday, she sent me an email talking about how she has dealt with this:

"Strangely, i have lately come to see insomnia as a friend. I am learning to pray more during it and to trust God for energy the next day. Plus i know that all growth comes through suffering (in faith) of some kind or other. May as well be sleeplessness."

Wow. That's wisdom and maturity in the face of suffering. I count it a priviledge to know people like this, to have them praying on our behalf. Now if I could just learn to be more like them...

At 11:21 PM, February 15, 2006, Blogger Steve F. said...

I like CS Lewis' image of Hell in The Great Divorce. I'm sure this isn't the exact quote, but it's close: "In the end, there are two groups of people: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those who whom God says, Thy will be done.'"

I have to admit that I struggle with the idea of God running Hell as a jail. I guess I've had to recover from the sense of God sending me to Hell, in favor of my own choosing Hell.

And my experience is that we suffer because we are human. "Man born of woman is of a few days, and full of woe," as it were. There are sufferings that come as a result of of sin - my obsesity directly caused my diabetes, for instance.

But I don't think that my sister had cancer because somehow she messed up. And my late mentor and pastor didn't die from Parkinson's disease because he didn't pray enough to be healed. My good friend's sin didn't blow up his van and burn down his house - a leaky fuel line did that.

All flesh is mortal - all things earthly will break or decay. But that decay isn't necessarily because of sin - it's a part of creation. Barring the few exceptions (Jesus, Elijah) being human is a terminal condition. Choosing to be a child of God will not arrest that condition, but it will treat it...

At 7:10 AM, February 16, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Good comments, Steve. I like C.S Lewis' way of illustrating it too. At the end of the day, much of what Scripture talks about is hard - I'm not sure if anyone really likes the idea of hell (just about no one thinks they are going there). One of our biggest problems with stuff like this, however, is that we tend to listen to ourselves or our culture more than we listen to Scripture.

Scripture speaks a lot about Hell - it certainly seems to support the idea of God as jailor, Jesus as judge, etc. At the same time, it's also us getting what we want (eg. Rom 1 where he abandons us to our own desires). So both of these things are true. We just need to be careful to let Scripture shape how we think about the issues, rather than the other way around.

As for suffering, I would say we suffer because we are fallen humans, living in a fallen world. We never want to forget that this is not the way things are supposed to be.

Recognizing the universality of suffering in the human condition helps us understand your sisters cancer better too - she did not get cancer because "she sinned" (vs. someone else who didn't). She got it because "she is a sinner" (just like the rest of us), and God is going to use this in her life - either for blessing or curse, either to strengthen us in our faith or to harden us in our rebellion and unbelief.

I think Molly's post offers a great perspective on what it looks like to suffer w/ cancer in a way that brings glory to God...

At 7:11 AM, February 16, 2006, Blogger rs said...

Like I said Dan above, I agree that I don't think specific sins cause specific sufferings, necessarily (obviously some suffering is a direct result of certain sin), but all suffering is a result of sin in general (i.e. the fall). We are just as culpable for the fall as Adam is because he represents us. We have to resist the temptation of asking why bad things happen to good people, because the truth is that there are no good people.


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