Theology

The Church’s Strategy for Responding to Suffering

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What credible answer does the Church of Jesus Christ give to suffering, to the many ways in which human life is degraded and diminished?

A perennial temptation we have is to offer our theologizing, which often is little more than a bit of speculative or moral philosophy with some Christianity sprinkled on top. It is no wonder that the world has a difficult time believing our “good news.” We have failed to actually give it to them.

What is it that makes our good news credible in the face of human suffering?

What Makes Pain Agony

Some years ago, I sat with a woman in our congregation who was preparing for baptism on Easter Sunday along with several others. Her name was Pam.

One of the things I learned during those weeks was that Pam’s life up to that point had been very hard. A history of drugs and periods of attendant homelessness had ravaged her body. Along the way, she had found Jesus; yet the remnants of those hard years remained. Chronic pain was a normal part of her life, and this most recent period had been particularly challenging. She pressed the issue with me one Saturday: “Andrew, why is God allowing this? What is he trying to teach me?”

There was agony in her voice. Pain is one thing. But what can make pain a genuine existential agony is the way that pain is psychologically and spiritually exacerbated in the sufferer by questions of “Why?” and “What?” As in: “Why is God allowing this? Why is this happening to me?” Or worse: “Why is he doing this to me? What meaning does it all have?”

No wonder the world has a hard time believing our 'good news.' Click To Tweet

More Than What We See: A Cross-Shaped Mystery

It is tempting in the face of such questions to rush in with our answers, which in truth are educated guesses at best. Moses said to the people of Israel long ago, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). There are “secret things” and there are “revealed things.” And it is crucial that we know the difference between the two.

Unfortunately, not many pastors or church leaders understand that difference, let alone bear it in mind in the face of human suffering.

Years ago, when a massive earthquake struck a small country in the Caribbean, one high profile Christian leader went on record confidently stating that the tragedy was a result of a deal with the devil the country had made in a previous century. This was a mere hours after hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced from their homes. Never minding the rank insensitivity of the remark, how is this a thing that could possibly be known, much less stated with any degree of confidence? Surely, even if such a “deal with the devil” had taken place, how could this leader have ever known such a deal was exclusively, primarily, or even remotely to blame for the tragedy?

Of course, he could not. And neither can we. But that does not stop many of us from trying.

We rush to fill the void created by the mystery of suffering by saying good-hearted but fundamentally misguided things like: “This is all part of God’s perfect plan” or “There must be unrepented sin in your life” or “God is trying to teach you something.”

We forget that there is always more going on than what we see—which ought, at least, to temper our ambitious proposals on “what is really going on.” We simply don’t know enough.

In the face of human suffering, it is worth noting that Scripture never gives us an exhaustive or definitive “why” to dispense at random to those who hurt. It gives us, I believe, something much better.

In the face of suffering, Scripture never gives us a definitive “why” to dispense at random. Click To Tweet

Not why, but who?

There’s a story told in the Gospel of John that illustrates what I think this “something better” is.

Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who was blind from birth. The disciples, perhaps wanting to demonstrate their theological acuity, ask Jesus, “Who sinned, Rabbi, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).

They are looking for a why. Someone or something to blame. And Jesus refuses to oblige their theological or moral curiosity with retrospectives. Instead, he lifts up this broken man’s story into the light of redemptive love. The ESV captures the sense of Jesus’ answer so well when it says: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:3).

He replaced the deep, vexing, and ultimately unanswerable questions of “Why?” with the much better question of “Who?” As in, “Who is God for you now, and what does he intend to do?”

I cannot emphasize the importance of this move enough. There are no “explanations” we can give to tragedies—both the ones that occur within our congregations and also those that take place “out there” with our neighbors or in faraway places—that are accurate enough to even remotely satisfy. We just don’t know enough. Other than the most general explanation possible (“sin”), we don’t know why kids are born blind. Or why tsunamis happen. Or why famines devastate entire countries.

We know that God has given a measure of autonomy to created beings, and that such autonomy has much to do with the evil with which we find ourselves enveloped. But beyond that, we know little of the details. When Job stared into the whirlwind, what he got was not answers to his troubling questions, but a concrete encounter with the God of his redemption, which put his soul at rest, and awakened hope. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5).

What we offer is not explanations, but presence.

What we offer a hurting world is not explanations, but presence. Click To Tweet

The Church’s Answer: Cruciform Presence

The God that we worship and serve in Christian faith is the God who has, in Christ Jesus, entered into our sin-stained world and overcome its many painful fragmentations and mischances with his resurrected life. He is now present to humanity by the power of the Holy Spirit and—here is the critical move—through the visible Body of Christ to communicate hope and life to the world.

The important question in the face of suffering is never “Why?” but rather “Who?”—as in, “Who is God for us in this?” And the resolute answer the Church gives is: “He is the Incarnate One. And he is here, for​ ​we​ ​are​ ​here​ ​now.​ Waiting patiently with you for the coming kingdom.”

When the Church offers herself in love to a world that is hurting, when she sits beside the bedside of the sufferer or at the table of the oppressed one in hopeful solidarity, she becomes a living embodiment of what she in fact is: the Cruciform Presence of God. Offering not idle philosophical speculation, but the tender and committed love that awakens the hope that God has not abandoned, and that there is future beyond the circumstance.

And so, at the end of Lent that year, on Easter Sunday, we baptized our former chronically-homeless, drug-addicted, body-still-wracked-with-pain friend. Pam went down into the waters of a borrowed horse trough with Jesus. And she came up again with him, with us. We all splashed communion waters on our heads that day. There wasn’t a dry eye in that place. To a person I think we all felt it: “This is God’s answer to the devastations of sin. Pam belongs to us. We’re going to take good care of her.”

And we did. Because that’s what, at our best, we do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that the Church is the presence of Christ to the world as Christ is the presence of God (Sanctorum Communio).

We have something better to offer the world than thin theological “answers.” We have love. We have Cruciform Presence. The kind of presence that cuts through agony and awakens hope, making our message of God’s concrete redemption of human life credible.

Resist the temptation to theologize with those who hurt. Give yourself instead. Your love. Your time. Your attention. It will make all the difference in the world.

We have something better to offer the world than thin theological answers. We have love. Click To Tweet

Where do you see the Church offering theologizing instead of Cruciform Presence?

What can you and your community do to offer this better way?

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