PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AMERICA
GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2008
“The Theology of Suffering”
Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas
Well, thank you for coming along today to this seminar. The title of the seminar is “The Theology of Suffering.” And I have a number of things I want to say by way of theological summary of what the Bible teaches on suffering, but before I do that, I thought I’d begin by telling you of a story of a young woman, a girl. She was in her middle to late twenties. She had contracted cancer exactly one year before, and for twelve months or so her family, and especially her mother, kept a blog online at the Caring Bridge Center with daily — sometimes twice or three times daily — entries. Many, many people followed these blogs and were moved in ways that go beyond explanation by the faith, the courage, the adventure of the highs, the lows of watching her 27-year-old daughter die of cancer. At the funeral service I preached on Romans 8:28. I sometimes say we ought to have a moratorium in using Romans 8:28 in a way that is sometimes inappropriate and trite, but it seemed on this occasion to be the exact words for this circumstance: that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him; that there isn’t a circumstance, there isn’t a set of contingencies in which God isn’t in absolute and total control.
It was, I suppose, a no-holds-barred Presbyterian predestinarian sermon reflecting on the issue of suffering and providence. And then a few days later, unbeknown to me, I was informed that in a local paper in a neighboring town, The Greenwood Commonwealth, the editor of the newspaper writes an article, “Is Suffering Part of God’s Doing or Not?” in which for a couple of pages or so he enters into a diatribe of this event. He was a friend (a so-called friend) of the family, and took issue with
“…the Presbyterian minister at the memorial service who made an interesting and scripturally grounded case suggesting that there really is no randomness in our lives; that God’s hand is in everything good, bad, and all in between. ‘He weaves,’ the preacher said, ‘not only the fabric that produces joy and righteousness, but also that which produces agony and evil. Both strands in the tapestry eventually will lead us to glorify God even if we don’t quite understand how or why He sometimes chooses a path that involves so much pain.’”
Well, that’s true enough. That’s exactly what I said! [Laughter]
And then he went on to say,
“Maybe a person has to believe in predestination to fully grasp the concept, but I cannot quite get my mind around the idea that God’s hand is in everything I do or that is done to me. If I choose to order catfish instead of chicken for lunch one Sunday at the Crystal Grill, is that God’s will at work? I would think He is too busy to worry or intervene with such inconsequential matters.”
And so little by little he attempts to undo the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in suffering, and actually engages in quite unhelpful remarks about the family’s faith and trust in God…and he tries to do so as a friend. It was one of the most blatant…non-Calvinistic, but non-biblical attempts in public that I’d seen for many a year.
So the issue that I want us to talk about this morning is
a biblical view of suffering.
How can I possibly do this in less than an hour? I’ve got about 45-50 minutes or so to weave now a tapestry of biblical evidence and biblical theology to try and put together something that’s coherent about a doctrine of suffering.
David Hume, the famous philosophical skeptic, put it in a way that’s been cited and quoted and re-quoted and regurgitated in many different forms, but it appeared first of all in his Concerning Natural Religion:
“If God is willing to prevent evil, is He willing to prevent evil but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
And that is the conundrum (at least, the philosophical conundrum) with regard to suffering. The Bible doesn’t even begin to attempt to answer that particular question directly, simply to assert that God is in absolute and total control.
I want to outline five different things that I want to do in the next hour. Some I’m going to spend much more time on than others.
First of all, I want just to reflect very briefly on what is sometimes called “the problem of evil,” and not so much from a philosophical point of view, rather from a pastoral point of view that there is a problem of evil, a problem of suffering. Why do the righteous suffer? Why does God take away the life of this beautiful, intelligent, 27-year-old girl and leave now the family with a thousand questions in their attempt to recover from this particular providence? The problem of evil.
And secondly, I want us to look at various responses to evil, and again I want to do that in the generic form. Then I want at least to try and attempt a biblical theology of suffering and to look at all the various ways (at least, as many as we can) in which the Bible actually addresses the issue of suffering. I want to then move on to try and highlight seven particular forms of suffering. We can speak about suffering, but suffering is a generic term. I want to try and identify seven different forms of suffering. And then, fifthly, to look at twelve responses to suffering. So that’s the plan, that’s the trajectory down which I want us to go in the next 45 minutes or so.
I. The problem of evil.
Let’s begin by addressing something of what theologians and philosophers sometimes euphemistically call the problem of evil. And when we speak of the problem of evil, we sometimes address it in at least two different ways — natural evil and moral evil. By natural evil we mean evil that isn’t of particular human volition or action. So we can think of hurricanes or floods, as was on the news this morning, or tornadoes; or perhaps even cancer, although sometimes cancer is a direct consequence of human action, to be sure; or, something like cystic fibrosis, perhaps.
Then, secondly, moral evil in which there is particular human volition or human action involved…and I have in mind all kinds of crimes and war, of course, and all forms of cruelty and discrimination, and slavery and injustices, and so on. The number of moral evil categories are legion.
II. Our response to evil.
What is our response to evil?
Either natural or moral evil? We need to appreciate that we can be the victims of suffering that is a direct consequence of something that we do or something that we think, or some action on our part, or some volition on our part; but we can also equally be victims of suffering through no particular action or no particular volition of our own. We simply live in a world that is out of joint, as Shakespeare says. We’re in a world that has fallen. We’re in a world that is “groaning and travailing in birth, waiting for the regeneration of all things,” to use Paul’s language in Romans 8.
An intellectual response. And our response to the problem of evil…let me outline first of all…one possible response is an intellectual response. And it’s a valid form of study, and we could think of the study of apologetics, for example, as it relates to the whole issue of suffering and evil. I think, for example, of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Not an unreserved…it would be a somewhat qualified response that I would give to C.S. Lewis’s Problem of Pain
To abandon God’s omnipotence. One particular response would be to abandon omnipotence: that the problem of pain and suffering can be resolved simply by saying that God isn’t in control. I venture to suggest that’s probably what this reporter was suggesting — that there are things that God simply isn’t in control of…trivial things…and perhaps for moral reasons to obviate the problem of God’s involvement in pain and suffering, that God is less than sovereign. One possible avenue, of course, is the avenue of dualism: that evil and good are equally ultimate, and that we live in a dualistic world. Zoroastrianism, for example… Manichaeism. In church history both have advocated various variations on that theme. The abandonment of sovereignty.
To abandon God’s control of the future. Another is to abandon God’s control of the future; that God is sovereign to an extent, but there are things particularly in regard to the future that God doesn’t have control of. That sometimes is an avenue that is adopted in order to maintain and secure human freedom. It is, for example, what open theism has been advocating in the last five or ten years. One thinks about the writings of Clarke Pinnock and others…Saunders and others…suggesting that in order to maintain human freedom and human choice (and the validity of human freedom and choice in every context and every sphere) that God isn’t in control of the future. I have always failed from a pastoral point of view to see how that can be even remotely comforting. Even if it does solve something intellectually for some and seems to cross an “i” or dot a “t” in one’s intellectual trajectory with relation to the suffering of evil, I can’t imagine that these folk are really involved in trying to be a comfort to people that you say you can turn a corner, you can get on an interstate outside this hotel complex (and we’re looking down at the traffic that seems to go on night and day and keep you awake) and imagine that two miles out of Dallas, all of a sudden God isn’t in control and it’s all up to you…and probably up to the guy in the car who’s weaving left and right beside you. I just fail to see how that is even remotely comforting.
To abandon God’s omnipotence. Another response (one is the abandonment of omnipotence, and another is the abandonment of God’s control of the future).
To modify God’s goodness. And another is to modify God’s goodness. There are arguments to suggest, for example, that Islam modified the goodness of God. I think if you hold to a deterministic view of the future then you have to in some way modify God’s goodness.
To reject evil and suffering. Another possible response — and I don’t want to spend any great deal of time on these responses. We could spend an hour trying to undo all of these responses, but I’m just suggesting some of them. Another, of course, is the Tom Cruise response, and that is to reject evil and suffering altogether: it’s just a figment of your imagination. And Christian Science and probably Spinoza, the philosopher that lies behind all of that.
III. A pastoral response to evil.
Well, pastorally, from another trajectory altogether, what can be our response to suffering? Let me suggest at least two books that ought to be on everybody’s bookshelf, and I make no apologies for advocating books from the seventeenth century and the Puritan period. The Puritans, if they were strong in anything at all, were strong on the issue of suffering. They were good pastors. They were Biblicists in the sense that everything must come to the touchstone of sola Scriptura, including the conundrums of suffering.
I’m thinking especially of Thomas Boston (and I’m putting him as a Puritan…his theology is Puritan)…Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot, and Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence. I think those are two books that ought to be on everyone’s bookshelf. They were written of course for ordinary folk. I don’t mean that in any other sense but the way I say it. They were meant for the likes of you and me. Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, and Thomas Boston’s Crook in the Lot. I wouldn’t recommend trying to read in a hurry anything by Alvin Plantinga, only because it’s not easy reading. Some of his books I’ve read several times and I’m still wondering exactly what he’s saying! But he is right, I think, in this when he says in God, Freedom, and Evil that a person for whom some specific evil is presenting itself as a religious problem, what they need, I think, is pastoral care more than a course on philosophical apologetics. And for all the books out there trying to solve the philosophical apologetical question — and certainly seminarians need to understand the trajectory down which some of those issues are solved — on a pastoral level, this is an issue that affects us all.
There are particular areas, I think, where this issue manifests itself more than others. I think in modern America, perhaps more so than, I think, in Europe, on the issue of bad health. That seems to be a particular pastoral issue for modern American Christians. I sometimes think when I attend our prayer meetings that they have become, as I sometimes call them, “organ recitals”…[Laughter]…kidneys and liver and heart and lungs and so on, and we rarely pray for anything else unless we are specifically cajoled into doing so. But the default of most prayer meetings that I attend is that we pray for health. And it has become a significant pastoral issue, more so I think than if you’d lived in any other century when death was much more prevalent, and death at a young age. Particularly, the death of children was a very particular phenomenon, and I think for us the issue of bad health and the expectation of good health. Sometimes we think of it as a right, one of our human rights, to have good health, and we get angry with God when bad health seems to come to us.
Physical health vs Mental Health.
The issue needs further explication I think, and a differentiation, I think, between physical health or ill health and mental or emotional health, or bad health. And it seems to me…let me say something about the latter: that as Christians, and particularly as pastors and elders, we need to see the way in which the Bible actually addresses the latter. I don’t want to touch on the whole issue of counseling and biblical counseling, but it does seem to me that the Bible does have something to say about mental health and about emotional health. I think that one of the things, for example, that the church has lost is a grasp of the canon of the Psalter. And I think the fact that we don’t sing the Psalms and read the Psalms in the same way that previous generations sung and read the Psalms means that we have lost something of significant value in the Psalms. The Psalms complain a lot. The Psalms are sometimes down in the dumps a lot.
When I was younger, my daughter was…I don’t know…she was ten or eleven or so. She did a little cross-stitch. It was one of the first cross-stitches (whatever the word is) that she ever did. And it was of Eyore, because I think my daughter saw something in me of a reflection of the character of Eyore! And Eyore is saying to his friends, “Have a nice day…if it is a nice day…which I doubt.” And it’s in my study and I look at it every day. It reminds me of my daughter, but it also reminds me of something about myself and about how others sometimes see me. It’s my Celtic genes that tend, I think, to see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. But I take refuge in the fact that there are many, many Psalms that do exactly the same. And I think my point here is simply to say that unless we are familiar with the Psalms, the language of lament and the language of complaint will be a feature of our lives…that when we find ourselves doing it, we will be somewhat out of joint. And I think that reading the Psalms and immersing ourselves in the Psalms helps us to see that in the language of worship there is room for the genre of lament and complaint.
I don’t know if Psalm 88 is familiar to you; if you tell me it’s your favorite Psalm, you are in need of counseling, big time! It’s a Psalm…it’s the darkest Psalm in the Psalter. I doubt that you or I would put it in a hymnbook. If we were on a committee saying, you know, which hymns deserve to be sung in the church. We want happy hymns, we want clappy hymns, and we want to feel good. We want to go out from a service feeling affirmed. Well, Psalm 88 ends (at least in one translation), “Darkness is my only friend.” That’s pretty dark. I don’t know when you last said…and maybe somebody in this room this morning, and maybe that’s why you came. You were drawn like a bee to honey [maybe the metaphor needs to be changed now], but you were drawn to go to a seminar on suffering because in your current experience darkness is your only friend.
Well, the language of Job 3, cursing the day in which he was born, wishing that he had died in his mother’s womb so that his mother’s womb would forever be his grave; the language of Jeremiah 20. By the way, the Jeremiah who’d been in the stocks the night before is now in chapter 20 repeating what looks like the very language of Job 3. What had been his personal devotions in the stocks the night before? It looks as though it was Job 3. But if that kind of complaint, if that kind of lament isn’t part of the fabric of your Christian experience, then you don’t have the resources, the biblical resources, to address on a personal level the issue of suffering.
If your expectation is that life is always going to be wonderful, that suffering and pain have no right to manifest themselves in your life, that when they come, they come as a total shock and surprise, then you don’t have all of the armor that you need to face evil and suffering.
And the Bible has given you full armor here to address the issue of suffering. At the very least it’s saying you are not alone; you are with the likes of…is it Ethan the Ezrahite, or Nathan the Ezrahite? Or is it Ezra the…? Whoever wrote Psalm 88 — his name has gone from my mind, but you’re with him. [Somebody will tell me in a minute!] But you’re with him, and you’re with Job, and you’re with Jeremiah. That’s pretty good company to be with if you’re down in the dumps. Some of the greatest men of all (and who wouldn’t put Jeremiah and Job, for example, up there with some of the greatest saints that have ever walked the face of the earth?), but they have been down in the dumps, saying things like “I wish I’d never been born. I wish this thing had never come my way.”
Afterwards, if you want to ask me, I’ve found the writings of Dyess Davis in the area of emotional and mental health to be of particular help to me. Of all the books on counseling that I know, from a sensible but biblically committed point of view I have found the writings of Dyess Davis to be incredibly helpful.
Now the problems here are many. Let me just suggest some of them…and I don’t have time now to go into all of them. I just want to suggest them for the fullness of this seminar on a biblical theology of suffering.
Our understanding of suffering, particularly when it comes to ill health, and particularly physical and mental ill health, is somewhat complicated by, I think, a continuing attempt in the church not to fully understand the relationship between body and mind — the psychosomatic relationship that we are body and mind. What I sometimes think is more of a platonic concept of the body rather than a biblical concept of the body. We are, I think, to look forward to a new heavens and a new earth, in which we will exist in bodily and mental and emotional forms, and all of that has to come into a picture of the biblical understanding of suffering.
All illness is punishment by God.
Sometimes I think that we resort too quickly to illness as punishment, illness as a message of some kind from God Almighty. It is the default, for example, of Job’s friends. Eliphaz, for example, in his opening speech [and with friends like this, of course, who needs enemies?]…Eliphaz says to Job, ‘You reap what you sow. You get out of life exactly what you put into it, no more and no less.’ Well, that is of course partly true. We do reap what we sow. If you live a profligate lifestyle and contract AIDS as a result of it, you are to blame. You cannot point the finger at anybody else. You have reaped what you have sown. But you can equally contract AIDS through bad blood transfusion through no fault of your own. So taking half a truth and making it the whole truth, it becomes an untruth. And that’s precisely what Eliphaz and his friends are doing in the book of Job.
You can be a skeptic. You can be a skeptic about God’s role in healing, and from a biblical point of view we need to understand, for example, the importance of James 5 and the prayers of the elders. We’re not denying the role of doctors and nurses and medicine and so on, and counselors. But equally we look to the sovereignty of God and that God answers prayer, and that God especially hears the prayers of His people.
There was a short period in my life where I was affected a little bit by the so-called “by faith” formula; that the reason why you are not well is because you haven’t exercised faith. I remember all too vividly visiting a woman. She was dying of cancer. She was in fact just two days away from death, as it turned out. She had teenage girls, three of them, and her husband. I was visiting the hospice. I was just walking in the door to where she was, and a man was exiting. I had a vague recollection that I had seen him or I knew him from somewhere, and eventually I realized he was a minister that I had met before of an independent, somewhat charismatic church. As I walked through the door…I said hello to him and he left, and I went up to the lady, and she was in tears. I said, “What’s wrong?” and she said, “Well, Pastor So-and-so…” (and then I realized who it was that had just left) “…Pastor So-and-so said if I had enough faith, God would heal me.” She was two days away from dying of cancer. What that man had done was one of the cruelest things I’ve seen. She died in a state of complete torment, emotionally. She had no peace. She was second-guessing for the rest of that day; I went back several times during the course of the day, and was never able to lift her out of that state of depression into which she sank. The casualties of “by faith” formulas.
The secular idol of physical health and beauty.
The secular idol of physical health and beauty, as what I call the negation of ugliness, weakness, and death, and I don’t elaborate too much on that, but I think that we have made health and beauty an idol, and I think we are dangerously close to that in the modern church in a way that the church has never done before in its entire history, I think. And it’s a considerable problem, the sense of “right” that we now feel to not just health, but youthfulness and beauty.
And then, another issue that I’ve already touched on, the disregard of the psychosomatic links.
Now let me go quickly towards the theology of suffering and suggest here some perspectival principles:
III. Perspectives on Suffering
All suffering, including illness, is a consequence of Adamic sin.
Firstly, that all suffering including illness is a consequence of Adamic sin. That seems to me to be a place where we need to begin, that all suffering is the result of sin in some form…not personal sin on our part, but certainly sin in the world.
We live in a fallen world. We are the results of the covenant of works. We are the result of the corruption and fallenness of Adam, and the federal nature of Adam’s representation of the rest of humanity, “as in Adam, all died.” Every single individual in this world is a consequence in some form of another of Adamic sin. The biblical theology of suffering in this world, in this existence, in the tension between the now and the not yet…in that eschatological tension between what this world now is and what it one day will be, all sin and all suffering is the result of Adamic sin. Now that’s very different from saying that all [suffering] is the result of my personal sin or personal failure.
All circumstances in our Christian lives are ordered by God
Secondly, I would say that all circumstances in our Christian lives are ordered by God for furthering the good of final salvation in heaven, and are occasions for practicing faith and hope and love, and the disciplines that constitute and ripen the fruit of the Spirit. It’s Romans 8:28…that everything that happens to us, all our circumstances in our Christian lives are ordered by God for furthering the good of final salvation. And that good that all things work together for good in Romans 8:28 is not necessarily the good of tomorrow, or the good of the next day. It is the final good, it’s God’s ultimate good; that having begun a good work, He will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.
The context of course of Romans 8 is that “those whom God hath predestined, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, He also glorified.” And the good of Romans 8 is the good of glorification: that everything that happens to us furthers our glorification. They further our promotion towards our glorification, and are instruments by which the fruits of the Spirit…of faith, hope, and love and the fruits of the Spirit can manifest themselves.
Illness may have a prospective disciplinary sanctifying purpose without bearing any relation to past sins
And, thirdly, I would suggest that illness may have a prospective disciplinary sanctifying purpose without bearing any relation to past sins. I think that’s particularly what the book of Job is about, that some suffering happens not because of something that we do.
It was Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz’s contention that Job had sinned — either a big sin or a little sin, a sin in his past, a sin in his youth that he can’t even remember and recollect anymore; that all that he needs to do is confess his sin and he would see God coming and restoring him again. That is of course a play on “health and wealth”–that God doesn’t intend for you illness or sickness or suffering in any shape or form. God wants you to thrive. God wants you to be healthy and strong.
It seems to me that the three friends of Job…and to some extent Elihu…you may have your own interpretation of Elihu. I think Elihu begins well but ends badly. I think he begins adding a particular concept that suffering can be educative; it can teach us something and instruct us something. But I think in the latter part of Elihu’s chapters, I think that Elihu just steps back again into the theology of Job’s three friends, a theology that I would call instant retribution: that you get out of life exactly what you deserve; that sin and suffering is always a concomitant of personal sin; that suffering is always the concomitant of personal sin on our part.
Well, illness may have a disciplinary sanctifying purpose without necessarily bearing any relation to past sins. God may bring suffering into our lives as He did into the life of Job, not because of anything that he had done, but because of what God wanted to do in the life of Job: teach him; instruct him; bring him low in order that he might exalt the sovereignty of God; that he might put his hand upon his mouth — a phrase, by the way, that Paul picks up when he’s expounding on sin in Romans 2 and 3 — “that every mouth may be stopped.” And that’s what God did in the life of Job.
Sickness, healing, and health.
On sickness in particular, let me say a couple of things: that good physical health, and spiritual triumph while continuing ill, and recovery (whether through physicians’ counsel, medication and/or surgery or through some form of deliberate prayer, or both together) are all God’s gracious gifts every time. And that I think is self-explanatory, that God uses not just medicine but uses our prayers as well.
It doesn’t follow that since God is able to heal miraculously that He is willing or intends to do it every time, nor does the healing that is in the atonement (and I’m thinking especially of Isaiah 53, that “He bore our sicknesses”) mean that bodily healing here is what we can expect rather than glory hereafter. I think into a biblical theology of suffering we need to add the uniqueness of signs of the kingdom in apostolic age, and what II Corinthians 12:12 refers to as “signs of the Apostles.” So there were things that happened under the ministry of the Apostles in terms of healing and so on that aren’t necessarily things that are to be seen throughout the eventual age from the resurrection of Jesus to His Second Coming.
The Christian way to be ill is always to give glory to God and self-searching. “Is God telling me something?” is I think something that we ought always to do when we find ourselves ill. What is God teaching me? What can I learn from this particular sickness?
A readiness to leave this world.
And then finally in this section, a readiness to leave the world is a discipline to be practiced at all times. I think in a biblical theology of suffering we need to adopt what Puritans called living life sub specie eternitatis — living life in the light of eternity, with our bags packed and ready to go. I think that’s the way we should live our lives, and I think that in modern America — modern North America in particular — we tend not to live our lives that way. We live our lives with the expectation and sometimes a feeling of right that we will live to 80 or 90 or 100 or 110, or 120. [And frankly I don’t want to live till I’m 120, with all of the consequences that that probably will bring.]
Let me move on to eight forms of suffering and address these now fairly quickly.
IV. Forms of Suffering.
First of all, one form of suffering is satanic. We must never rule that out, and certainly there is the involvement of Satan in the suffering of Job. It was of course something that Job himself was thoroughly unaware of, but the opening prologue, the first two chapters of Job are meant to instruct us that a theology of suffering must involve the malevolence, the constant malevolence, of the evil one. We live in an age where Satan prowls about, seeking whom he may devour, and we must never lose sight of that.
Suffering is the consequence of sin.
Secondly,that just suffering — on the issue of just suffering — that sometimes suffering is the consequence of sin. When Ananias and Sapphira are judged, it is instant retribution. However difficult it may be for us to understand the extent of the retribution for what is, you might suggest, a white lie about the price of a piece of real estate that the church had no business knowing anyway…you might attempt, though I don’t advise it, to philosophize on Ananias and Sapphira in that way. The fact is that Scripture presents their judgment as a consequence of their sin. So instant retribution is sometimes correct.
Some suffering is meant to be educational or disciplinary
Thirdly, thatsome suffering is meant to be educational or disciplinary, and I think that you could argue that in some sense all suffering is meant to be educative. It’s meant to teach us something. It’s meant to instruct us in the way of righteousness. It’s meant to instruct us, and the language of Hebrews 12 in particular is suggesting that God uses suffering to teach us how to be disciples in a fallen world.
Fourthly, that empathetic suffering where one person’s grief affects another…and sometimes we do suffer because we are sympathizing with another…I think in very personal family circumstances we enter into the suffering of another in order to empathize, in order to help, in order to encourage. And I think the Bible does speak of empathetic suffering.
Fifthly, innocent suffering. I think I’ve spoken about Job. I think of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. You remember the question of the disciples. It’s the instant default retribution question: Who sinned? Was it him, or was it his parents? And the fact is it was neither, but rather that the works of God might be made manifest through him, Jesus says. And God in the person of Christ heals him, and through his healing he ministers to others. God brings suffering into the lives of some people that they might be vehicles to minister to us.
I will never forget the death of Catherine Hutton. I’ll never forget some of the conversations I had with her in the hospital. I’ll never forget the last day I saw her just a few days before she died in her home, in which she spoke so matter-of-factly about being in heaven. It was a surreal conversation that we were having, but it was almost as though she was there. I’ll never ever forget that, and she ministered to me. And at least part of the reason why she was allowed to suffer in God’s providence was that she might be a vehicle to minister to thousands of people through that Caring Bridge blog that people read. [And I notice that David is here, too, and he ministered to Catherine more than I did in the last number of days. David, I’ve just seen you.]
Suffering is a part of the universe forever
Sixthly, eternal suffering must be a part of a theology of suffering: that suffering is a part of the universe forever.We believe in a day of judgment, and afterwards the just punishment of sinners in hell forever. And there is, I think, in a theology of suffering the reality that in the universe there will always be suffering. There will forever be suffering in a part of the universe that God has created.
Suffering that is a substitution
And seventhly, suffering that is a substitution. An issue of course that’s under great stress and even denial today in certain evangelical quarters is ‘How can somebody suffer on the part of or in the place of, or as a substitute for another?’ That seems to some to be inherently unjust.
Of course it’s at the heart of the atonement that Jesus suffered in our place, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. One thinks of The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Do you remember the movie? — the man looking for those shovels, and the Japanese guard screaming and suggesting that somebody’s going to be shot unless the man who has hidden the shovel comes forward, and this soldier steps forward. You remember? And he’s shot in the head. And then they recount the shovels, and there’s none missing. What did he do? He suffered on behalf of others in order to prevent somebody else dying; he gave himself.
Suffering as discipleship, or suffering for the sake of Christ
And then, eighthly, suffering as discipleship, or suffering for the sake of Christ, as when the believer has the privilege of enduring rejection and trials and persecution out of loyalty for Jesus Christ. I noticed the other day a statement of John Bunyan in which he said,
“A man when he suffereth for Christ is set upon a hill, upon a stage as in a theater, to play a part for God in the world.”
He’s set in a theater to play a part for God in the world.
Well, twelve responses now to suffering — Let me try and get through these as quickly as I can…twelve responses to suffering.
V. Responses to suffering.
Christianity is an invitation to trust God’s love at all times and in all situations because of the cross
First, that Christianity is an invitation to trust God’s love at all times and in all situations because of the cross. And, I’m putting it that way because at first glance the cross is an instrument of pain and suffering and calls on us to think of God in an entirely different way apart from the way that faith would have us think.
Because of God’s love for us in the cross, we’re to trust Him in every circumstance, no matter how difficult, no matter how hard. We can never doubt God’s love for us, who gave himself for us in Jesus Christ, to die the accursed death of the cross. And Christianity from beginning to end is an invitation to trust God in every circumstance. At the end of the day the problem of suffering is not the problem of suffering, it’s the problem of faith. It’s the problem of believing. It’s the problem of trusting God even when the lights go out.
You know, that’s in the end the conclusion of the book of Job. You remember He shows him Behemoth and Leviathan. And that’s just for the sake of argument. We don’t have time now to go into all the ins and outs of it, but let’s just for the sake of argument say that Behemoth is an elephant or a hippopotamus, and Leviathan is a crocodile. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that.
My understanding of the universe, or of God, or of theodicy would not be bent out of shape if there were no crocodiles in the world. I don’t like them. I don’t want to be anywhere near them. I watch Animal Planet, and I think people who play about with alligators and crocodiles are nuts! [Laughter] I think they’re completely off their rocker. And if there were no more alligators — and all of you green folk now can get all aerated — but if there were no more alligators in the world, I wouldn’t shed a tear! [Laughter] Why did God make alligators and crocodiles? I have no idea whatsoever. And what does God say to Job? “Have you ever considered Behemoth? Have you ever considered Leviathan?” Have you ever asked yourself the question, ‘Why did God make a crocodile?’ Well, why did God make a crocodile? And the answer is….I don’t know. Actually there’s a better answer…the catechism answer: “For His own glory.” Now I don’t understand that. I really don’t understand that. But God made a crocodile for His own glory, and that’s the only answer that Job was given. That’s the only answer he was given. It was for His glory. I can’t answer all of the questions. I can’t resolve all the conundrums. But I do know the bottom line is, “for His own glory.”
Blessing is not automatically derived from suffering
Secondly, blessing is not automatically derived from suffering. Affliction by itself, no matter how great its intensity, does not in itself sanctify because chastening can be met with disdain and contempt. It’s part of what Hebrews 12 is trying to avoid. Now let’s be clear here. Even Jesus was tempted by suffering. And the problem is that suffering can produce bitterness. We’ve met folk — maybe we are the folk — I’ve met folk in church [not First Pres…we have First Pres folk here now!]…but I have met people who are still angry about something that happened thirty or forty years ago. They’ve lived thirty or forty years in anger and resentment. Suffering doesn’t automatically sanctify. Of the three crosses on Calvary, one was atoning and the other was sanctifying, but quite as certainly the third was hardening.
Immediate acquiescence to suffering is not necessarily a sign of Christian maturity.
Thirdly, immediate acquiescence to suffering is not necessarily a sign of Christian maturity. Even Paul prayed three times that the thorn in the flesh be removed. No, even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane…His immediate response to the onset of the fullness of suffering was to pray, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Now I know He went on to say, “Not My will, but Thy will be done,” but the fact that Jesus himself in His immediate response to suffering asked, ‘Lord, is there some other way?’ teaches us, I think, a profound lesson that immediate acquiescence to suffering is not necessarily a sign of maturity, and I think that that has enormous pastoral implications.
Suffering tests our faith in God’s love.
Fourthly, suffering…our own suffering and those whom we love…is a test and challenge to our faith in God’s love, and it tests it to the utmost. Nothing tests our love for God more than suffering and trials, and the death of someone we love, or the illness of someone we love more than anyone else in this world, apart from Jesus.
Physical evils of sickness and pain and unproductive suffering
Fifthly, physical evils of sickness and pain and unproductive suffering…I want to address something about that issue, the physical evils of sickness and pain and unproductive suffering. That’s a very considerable issue that if we don’t see suffering and trial as something that must produce in us more praise for God, more yielding to His sovereignty…. I think the issue of unproductive suffering, suffering that hasn’t yet produced that fruit of the Spirit, is a pastoral issue.
This life is not the only one
Sixthly, this life is not the only one and I think that’s something that suffering needs to bring out in considerable force…that we are here only for a time…that our life is three-score years and ten, and if by reason of strength, maybe four-score years. They are weariness and toil. Our life is a vapor that appears for a moment and then is gone…that we live for an eternal city…that we mustn’t set down our roots in this world too deep, but that we must live our lives as those who are packed up and ready to go. The response to suffering, then, is seeing this life as not the only life there is.
Christianity was from the first announced as the way of the cross
Seventhly, that Christianity was from the first announced as the way of the cross. Do you remember the first lesson Paul learnt on his first missionary journey? When he comes back and gives his report of his first missionary journey, what does he say? “It is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God.” That’s his philosophy of the Christian life. That’s his philosophy of Christian work. That’s his philosophy of Christian ministry: “It is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God.” You know, when you realize that, you won’t be taken by surprise when tribulations come.
God sanctifies through the experience of suffering
Eighthly, God sanctifies through the experience of suffering.
Freedom from suffering is no indication of a right relationship with God
Ninth, freedom from suffering is no indication of a right relationship with God. “Why do the unrighteous prosper?” Again, if you feel bad about asking that question, it’s a question that of course the psalmist asks. Why do the unrighteous prosper?
We must glory in suffering
Ten, we must glory in suffering. We must, in the language of Paul in II Corinthians 12, “take pleasure in infirmities” not because we are masochists, but we must move beyond the point of mere acquiescence. We must move beyond the point of submitting ourselves to the sovereignty of God. We must actually come to the point where we glory in tribulation, seeing it as the vehicle through which God sanctifies, seeing it as the vehicle through which God will be given all the glory.
We must look to Jesus in our suffering.
Eleven, we must look to Jesus in our suffering.Of course I’m thinking of Hebrews 12:
“…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith… [the founder and protector of our faith], who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the majesty on high.”
Looking unto Jesus as the pioneer, as the one who blazes a trail before us.
I like sometimes to use the illustration of a man who’s in a cave somewhere deep down in the ground where there’s no light whatsoever…not a ray of light. And he puts on… [I was going to say a torch, but you Americans think of that as something else]…a flashlight. And in the ground, in the sandy surface of the ground in that cave there are footprints, and they are the footprints of Jesus. There isn’t a circumstance, there isn’t a set of contingencies where our Savior hasn’t gone before…in every trial, in every difficulty.
We have no good reason to be discouraged
And, twelve (and this is the end), we have no good reason to be discouraged. Spiritual depression is linked with theological ineptitude. We become weary and we faint in our minds because we fail to consider the bearing of Christ’s suffering on our own experience. We are rebuked for forgetting the exhortation which speaks with us. This exhortation is specifically identified as a passage of Scripture in Hebrews 12. To possess the Scriptures, to read the Scriptures, to hear the Scriptures, there are no substitutes. The Bible yields its comfort only to thought. We are to consider Christ, to think through the significance of His advent and His work. We are not to forget the exhortation, the argument, the case by which Scripture speaks. It discourses, it reasons, it uses logic. It is at this point that we expose ourselves to the charge of Hebrews. We know the truth, but we do not know how to apply it. We are unskilled in the word of righteousness, inept in applying its great doctrines to the anxieties of life.
The Bible has so much, then, to say to us about suffering.
Well, I trust that that will be of some help to you. Let me close in prayer. If you want to stay and ask questions, you may do so, but some of you need to go. Let’s pray together.
Father, we are in awe at Your majesty and sovereignty. We thank You for our Savior, who has been tempted in every point like as we are, yet without sin. We pray as we are pilgrims in this world, as we make our way towards the Celestial City, that You would be our teacher and instructor. Help us in every circumstance, O Lord, to give You glory. And help us by Your Spirit to bring us to the point whereby we may glory in tribulations also, and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that thereby You are glorified and Your kingdom is further advanced. Hear us, O Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.