A New World of Suffering

I am a psychologist; I’ve been a pastor. I also teach graduate students how to counsel people in a way that I think reflects the absolute sufficiency of the Scripture. I talk to people every day about every kind of suffering and pain—pain that results from the uncontrollable; pain that is self-inflicted; pain that comes with the illusion of success and pain that accompanies profound failure. One of the things that I have noticed is that for Christians in cultures other than ours talking about suffering is like getting a fish to describe water.

For these Christians suffering, while not embraced, is expected, and blessings are just that—blessings, not entitlements. Meanwhile, the Christians in my clan who are caught in the grip of trauma and loss, poverty and death are more likely to concoct stories of spiritual warfare while we secretly wonder if we would have the guts to be persecuted or martyred for Jesus’ name, rather than accepting the matter-of-fact presence of suffering.  Talk to Haitian Christians, or Christians rebuilding their lives after a tsunami, or Christians in China, and you quickly discover they think us odd.  From their point of view, suffering as a Christian just gets added to the general brokenness of life (Romans 8:20-22; John 16:33; Job 5:7, 14:1).  As a generally non-suffering community, we view these men and women as remarkable heroes while they view themselves as ordinary men and women of faith. We extol them while they extol Christ.

[blockquote]God makes it clear to Adam that life outside of Eden will be perpetual hardship, frustration and suffering, but with that promise comes a promise of redemption and justice.[/blockquote]

This kind of self-criticism is not entirely new. It is evidenced as the academy attempts to grapple with multiculturalism.  It is evidenced in the church by a renewed emphasis on mercy ministry. That said, I believe we are still catching up to the notion that suffering isn’t an aberration—a temporary bump in the road. God makes it clear to Adam that life outside of Eden will be perpetual hardship, frustration and suffering, but with that promise comes a promise of redemption and justice (Gen. 3:15- 19, 21).  The divine work of suffering in the lives of God’s people, according to the New Testament, is value added (Phil. 1:29, 3:10; 2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Tim. 3:12) and is summed up at both the cosmic and individual level by Joseph when he declares that God’s purposes are sovereignly expressed in his story (Gen. 50:20) and therefore the story of every believer.

So what does that look like for me? Maybe something as simple as the realization that a recession can plague the rest of my adult life, and that I will probably have to work until I die rather than retire. Seems simple enough to say, but why wasn’t I prepared for this? Why do I presume that it is unjust or—more importantly—temporary? Let me suggest an answer.  In the traditional Bible-believing church we preach our own version of prosperity grace. I am not talking about “that” kind of prosperity theology.  No, that kind of theologizing rises and falls with the fame of its spokespersons, but never makes it into the mainstream simply because the level of cancer, social disorder, and unemployment that surrounds us makes believing that stuff unreasonable. No, I’m talking about the way American evangelicals have reflected on suffering and have provided explanations and counsel.   The main theme of this counsel is often that inexplicable suffering isn’t as awful as it seems if we can put the right explanatory spin on it.

Up to this point, suffering has often been so scarce at a national level and so culture-specific at a community level that we have had time to argue about whether God “causes” or “allows” suffering. We invent crisis recovery teams to swoop down on suffering and return things to normal as quickly as they can because we believe that things will—or at least ought to—return to normal. Talk to those same relief workers when suffering brought about by disaster or evil is pervasive, chronic, and unrelenting, however, and the quiet conversations about traditional theological questions seem less relevant as the focus shifts to a deliverance that is eschatological, not temporal.  The lesson of the suffering and persecuted church is that the desperation of brokenness that comes from the suffering and bondage to sin catapults us to contrition and helplessness (Ps. 51:16-17)—the kind of contrition and helplessness David tells us pleases God precisely because the deliverance maximizes his fame (Judges 7:2).

Suffering effects God’s plan even while we wrestle with identifying its causes precisely because—for those who ask—it triggers an outpouring of grace that, not only we didn’t know was there, but one we didn’t know we needed. The helplessness of suffering and the helplessness of sin, often very different in their beginnings, are both remedied by the same outpouring of grace.  In that sense, suffering and bondage are merely triggers. While other believers look to daily grace to persevere to the glory of Christ, we are only beginning to appreciate that “hard” is the new normal.  We have much to learn from our more tried—and in many ways more real—brothers and sisters who are, like Jesus, men of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3).

As we approach this new world of suffering, I believe the Scripture calls us to at least these three things:  1) a better understanding of eschatology; 2) a better understanding of contentedness; and 3) a better understanding of community. In every generation that experiences hardship and suffering as a constant feature of life, those who profess Christ understand the true meaning of eschatology (Col. 3:1-2; Phil 3:7-9; Matt. 25: 13). They are men and women who have set their affections on things not connected to this world. Thomas Watson says that such are heavenly in their disposition, having sent their heart to heaven before they themselves arrive. “The world is but a beautiful prison and the suffering soul cannot be much in love with his fetters.”1 Second, we are called to understand in full measure what Paul meant when he stated that he had learned contentment in every situation (Phil 4:11-13). Sufferers know best that they are sojourners who must travel light if they want to travel far. Finally, we can no longer afford the luxury of individualism—in Paul’s call for community and unity, we suffer and rejoice together or we fail in our faith and die alone.

In all of this, I believe that we are beginning to realize that our notions of the necessity and the reach of God’s grace have been impoverished just as they were for the rich young ruler. To say that it is harder for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven is not to dethrone blessing; it is to recognize the hidden deceit of self-reliance, self-determination, and self-rule.

To listen to an audio recording of Dr. Black’s Agora Conference session, “It Shouldn’t be this Hard: Remedies for the Anxious Heart,” visit pbu.edu/agora.

[framed_box]Dr. Jeff Black is the Chair of the Department of Christian Counseling. 
He has taught at PBU since 2005. He is a licensed psychologist. 
Jeff can be reached by emailing jblack@cairn.edu.

[/framed_box]

Notes:
1 The Godly Man’s Picture, 1666.

  • Thought provoking Dr. Black. I guess I have three comments/questions:
    1. Does the pervasive reality of suffering making it just and fair? I’m not sure that simply b/c suffering are a constant part of life that we should any less resist such suffering. e.g. If there is economic suffering (the main complaint in the U.S. right now that I hear), should we not resist it simply b/c it normative?
    2. Concerning the suffering of martyrdom, this is an area I long struggled with – knowing that if I was tortured there was nothing in myself which could indefinitely resist my human frailty. In my humanity, I would deny Christ. I was encouraged, however, when reading Justo Gonzalez’s Story of Christianity in which he highlights an early church belief that the ability to persevere through martyrdom was a divine gift of grace.
    3. While there is certainly a movement amongst oppressed Christians to view things in an eschatological manner – is there also a movement (or historically has there been a movement) that fights for justice now? I am thinking here particularly of oppressed minorities in the Americas, especially Latin and South America (e.g. liberation theology).
    I guess I believe that suffering is inevitable, it certainly seems to be a constant in my life, yet at the same time I ponder how much of this suffering is brought upon us by our own decisions…is there suffering that can be alleviated and if so, should it be? Or does this distract from an eschatological imperative?