I don’t believe that I’ve had a huge amount of suffering in my life. However, in the suffering that I have endured, I’ve found that my perspective in the midst of it matters tremendously. Hence, I believe that developing a theology of suffering is a critical step in the life of a person of faith.
So, I figured I’d lay out a few of my thoughts on the matter. Keep in mind: these are the thoughts of a 23-year-old who has faced a few significant challenges and been shaped by them to some extent. Also I have done minimal theological reading and discussion but no formal training. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’m kind of a work-in-progress. Also, I’m not trying to make light of suffering in the present. This is not meant to be a trite consolation. Horrific things happen in this world that can and should break a person. There are wounds that time and good thoughts and words cannot mend. In fact, that’s actually my point.
First, let me clarify what I mean by a theology of suffering. I do not mean searching for an abstract philosophical consolation for a current painful reality. I’m not particularly interested in a theology or a philosophy that is outside of experience somehow divorced from actual pain. Basically, in this arena especially, I’m interested in a theology that is immersed in “nowness” – one tailored for being in the midst. I think the Bible has a lot more to say about God meeting us in our pain than it does about explaining it away.
My developing theology of suffering includes three components: empathy, story, and purpose.
For me this is the most significant (see my earlier post). In the midst of suffering, we as Christians remember that Christ has suffered. God knows the depths of our sorrows, for He has experienced it. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that our great High Priest (Jesus) knows our weaknesses. He sympathizes with us. God does not call us to anything to which He has not subjected Himself.
When we ask the question, “Why, God?” most often we don’t find an answer. We do find a God who wants us to ask the question, who wants us to cry to Him, who understands, who grieves with us.
I’m not discounting the empathy we receive from others in the midst of suffering. We certainly need that, but we also deeply need the love, care comfort, understanding, and empathy of our God who carries our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4).
I recently read Eugene Peterson’s work on Revelation Reversed Thunder. Peterson is careful to frame all of Revelation in the context of the churches to which John was writing. He notes the persecution these churches were experiencing. He titles most of the chapters, “The Last Word on ______.” One of Peterson’s main contentions is that the purpose of Revelation is to comfort these churches by reminding them that what they see now is not the end. It may look like Caesar is in control and that he has the last word, but God alone has the last word on every subject including suffering and power. There is a greater story beyond what we can see.
Paul echoes this in 2 Corinthians 4 when he says that our “light” present suffering achieves for us an eternal glory. I don’t think he’s saying, “What you’re going through now isn’t so bad. Look at the bright side.” Rather, he’s reminding them that this isn’t the end. The story is bigger than the present. The story is bigger than you. The last word, the best word has not yet been spoken. There is a hope that does not disappoint. God is in the business of redemption and nothing is beyond His reach.
By purpose, I’m not repeating the cliche, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s true that God uses our suffering and pain to grow us, to allow us to love others in the midst of their pain. However, I think it’s foolish to say that these somehow make up for the suffering we experience in life – at least not for the really significant stuff.
In the fall of my senior year of high school, one of my classmates died in a car crash. The whole school community was thrown into grief, and the question “Why, God?” (it was a Christian school) was on the lips of many and the hearts of the rest.
The senior class gathered on that first school day after the tragedy. We had no classes; we simply grieved together. My English teacher told us some of the most profound words I’ve heard in my life that day.
He told us the story of one of his former teachers – one who inspired him, one who had an infectious passion for what he taught, the kind of teacher everyone wants to have. Then he told us of this teacher’s early and tragic death and how that was a significant part of his own journey in becoming a teacher. Of course, this meant that many other lives were impacted through his own teaching. He then asked the question, “Were the lives that I’ve affected as a teacher worth this man’s death?” He let it hang for a moment then said, “Absolutely not.”
Yes, God often uses tragedy to shape our stories and good frequently comes out of it, but that doesn’t mean that we’re ever going to come to a point where we look back upon the hardest moments of our lives and say, “Oh, now I get why that happened.” That’s trite and shallow and it doesn’t take sin or brokenness seriously.
So what do I mean by purpose? When we look at the image of the resurrected Christ in the New Testament, we find something curious. In His post resurrection appearances to the apostles, His wounds are still prominent. In Revelation 5, Jesus the one worthy to open the scroll is the Lamb who was slain. What does this tell us?
It tells us that the sufferings of Jesus have an eternal significance. It tells us that He remains the slain Lamb and the victorious Lion into Eternity. It tells us that, even in the Eschaton, all that Jesus did and experienced in His time among us matters.
A slew of New Testament passages tell us that the Resurrection of Jesus is our hope and our destination as well (most notably 1 Corinthians 15). So, if Jesus remains scarred, if He still carries His experiences and sufferings into the New Creation, if His pain here on earth in history still matters in Eternity, wouldn’t the same be true of us as well?
This isn’t to say that we will still carry the weight and grief as we do now. No, it’s clear in Revelation 22 that pain and sorrow and grief will not continue in the New Creation in the same way as they have here in this life. I don’t believe that we will continue to hurt from our past, but it doesn’t mean that we won’t still remember and carry our past. Rather, these sufferings, trials, pains, tragedies, disappointments, and griefs will be healed but not disappear.
Revelation 22:2 says that the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. The promise is for healing not compensation not removal. Healing. Healed wounds are still wounds but they no longer bring pain or despair.
This is purpose. All that we experience now matters. All of the joys and all of the sorrows. It isn’t a waste.
In John 11, Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus dies. Jesus travels to Bethany, the home of Lazarus’ family. In the end Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but before that happens He grieves with Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters. I find this deeply compelling. There is a purpose. Lazarus’ death really matters or else Jesus would not have grieved it. There is a greater story. Lazarus’ death is not the final word. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Yet Jesus Himself still grieves, still enters our pain.