This Is a Good Time to Bolster Your Theology of Suffering, Part 2

We humans have a hard time dealing with uncertainty. When too much change is happening too fast, the temptations to choose certainty over truth and comfort over honest struggle are greatly intensified.

We want it all to make sense. We want it to be simple. We want someone or some group to be clearly to blame—maybe because that’s easier than seeing the difficulty as a mess too complex to understand. A villain provides certainty and feels like a measure of control.

It’s a very human thing to do, but it’s not a very Christian thing to do. We’re called to prize truth and face it, even when the truth to be faced is, “I don’t how this happened or what’s coming next … and it could be really bad.”

The Christian way is to face disaster with all it’s complexities and uncertainties, but—in our hearts and minds—anchor it all to rock-solid, unchanging, big-picture realities. Because these realities are revealed to us by God in Scripture, we properly call this anchoring faith.

In part 1, we pondered two of seven certainties regarding suffering: our suffering is never meaningless and our suffering is never solitary. These certainties, and others, are pillars in our theology of suffering. Here we consider two more.

3. Our suffering is never payback.

“So much is going wrong in my life! Is God punishing me?”

It’s not a bad question. In Scripture, especially the Old Testament (but also the New, e.g., Acts 5), we often see God deliver severe consequences in response to disobedience.

But for those who are “in Christ,” suffering is never the kind of punishment we often associate with that word. It isn’t retribution. It isn’t justice. It isn’t payback. And there’s a world of difference between the dealing out suffering as payment for a debt vs. dealing out suffering to teach and transform—though they may look and feel the same.

This is simple and familiar truth to most Christians, but familiarity isn’t the same thing as mindfulness. This is truth we can’t afford to leave in the “already know that” cabinet, especially in hard times. We have to pull it out and savor it, rejoice in it: as far as sin is concerned, there is nothing left to pay! Christ is our redemption and propitiation (Rom. 3:23-25), our ransom (1 Tim 2:5-6).

Even when our sin leads to disaster, our Father isn’t seeking justice. He isn’t pouring out judgment on us (Rom 8:1, 1 Thess 5:9).

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons… . we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Heb 12:7–13, emphasis added)

If we view our suffering as payback, we’re likely to miss the opportunity to joyfully and knowingly participate in God’s real purpose—to teach, train, and transform us. We may not know exactly what lesson we’re supposed to learn or what ways we’re supposed to change, but we don’t really have to. It’s enough to know that our Father uses pain this way in our lives and to stay open and alert for whatever He wants to teach us.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Th 5:23–24)

4. Our suffering is never unfair or cruel.

As Job debates with his “friends” in the book of Job, much of his side of the debate amounts to, “What did I do to deserve this?” I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way, but I know Christians who have—and they’re clearly in good company.

The Bible informs us that Job didn’t do anything at all to deserve what he got.

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. (Job 1:1)

But wait—don’t we all deserve the wrath of God? Isn’t anything less pure mercy? I’ve come across this line of reasoning often in pamphlets, books, and sermons on suffering. And it’s not wrong. It’s just not usually very helpful, because it only address one of these two realities:

  • None of us is entitled to a life free of suffering, even severe suffering.
  • We don’t necessarily deserve suffering any more than anyone else.

So, if we’re going through some ordeal, understanding that first reality still leaves us with the question, “Why me and not him or her?”

Here’s where God’s answer to Job is so important. After the long, cyclical debate between Job and his antagonists, God and Job finally have a meeting of the minds. About 99% of it consists of God asking Job a series of humbling, mostly unanswerable, questions. It begins in chapter 38, and goes on for 105 verses across three chapters!

I love the book of Job for so many reasons, but the closing sequence tops the list. What impresses me:

  1. God is very gentle with Job. Though Job does “repent” (Job 42:6), God didn’t accuse him of sin or demand his repentance (note Job 42:7). Rather, God administered an attitude adjustment, a paradigm shift.
  2. The gist of God’s answer is this: Job, the “Why me?” question is not yours to ask. This is above your pay grade. This isn’t really even about you.

It may seem simplistic, but to answer the “What did I do?” and “Why me?” questions, we have to return to two basic truths most of us learned as children: God is good and God is wise.

Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! (Ps 106:1)

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Ro 11:33)

We often quote 1 Peter 5:7 without verse 6, and it’s a bad habit. We really can’t do the anxiety-casting of verse 7 until we’ve done the self-humbling of verse 6.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Pe 5:6–7)

When we’re asking, “What did I do to deserve…?” or “Why me?” the correct answer may not be what we want to hear, but it is the answer we need to hear. It’s this: “You’re asking the wrong question.” Replace it with some better ones:

  • Do I believe God is good?
  • Do I believe God is immeasurably wiser than I am?
  • Should I expect to know why He’s doing what He’s doing, the way He’s doing it, in my life?
  • Would I even understand the answer if He told me?

Paradoxically, joy in the midst of painful times often comes from adding a bit more pain. But it’s pain of a special kind: the pain of humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

Once, during a dark time in my life, I was so torn I actually wrote poetry. I can’t find it now, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have the knack. Looking back, I think it was a way of humbling myself under the mighty hand of God. No doubt, the sons of Korah did it better.

Psalm 42:1–6

1 As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.

2 My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?

3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”

4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation 6 and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.

1617 reads

There are 3 Comments

bburkholder's picture

Two books that I have read and reread during this crisis that have been of particular help in bolstering my theology of suffering are: Timothy Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering  and Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope. These are two great resources.

BBurkholder

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for sharing.

I frequently don't like what uncertain and anxious times bring out of me. But they can only bring out what's there. So, along with all the negatives, there's the positive of having an educational experience.

I believe a major barrier to learning from these things is getting stuck in the "but this ought not to be!" phase. We don't start dealing with things until we acknowledge that, as a chapel speaker back in my BJU days put it, "What is, is."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joeb's picture

Bottom line no matter what the suffering on is in for a season or to we go home to the Lord is exactly what Aaron said What is is.   My mother was a believer and grew up with medical problems and was even told by Doctors she would have a shortened life from a young age.  Yet she married my father had three boys and was used by God greatly.  
 

My mother died when she was 50 and risked her life working as a nurse in the Polio ward of a hospital and contracted Polio.  So she had that to contend with and another genetic disease she was told would shorten her life.  Even knowing that she lived her life to the fullest for the Lord  and fully embraced the time she had.  

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.