Toward a Theology of Suffering…

Many of us recognize the first Sunday of November as more than an opportunity to get an extra hour of sleep the night before. It has been set aside as Prayer for the Persecuted Church Sunday. In fact, I will be leading a prayer service at Wheaton College on Sunday at 8 pm; an event sponsored by World Christian Fellowship (Phelps meeting room, south end of lower level of the Beamer Student Center, for those who would like to come). This has motivated me to share some principles I have gleaned from Scripture about suffering. I do so for two reasons: First, to help you build a theological framework in which to deal with what some have called the Problem of Evil; Second, to help you construct a place to stand for your own faith when you face suffering or see it played out in the suffering of other followers of Christ.

These principles could be summed up in Elisabeth Elliot’s book Suffering is Not for Nothing, in which she wrote, “I see [suffering] as a necessary part of the sovereign and loving purpose of God, even as a gift to be received, then offered back as a sacrifice, capable of being turned into something beautiful.”

You may not agree with her conclusion, but you must respect her suffering. Here are my principles:

  1. The presence of suffering in this world does not need to be problematic for the Christian’s faith. In reality, it can be seen as a proof of God’s existence. If God did not exist there would be no standard by which to judge whether an action was good or evil. God is the ultimate reference point and apart from Him good and evil cannot be defined. (Rom 7:7-12)
  2. In many cases evil and suffering are redeemed by God to produce something of value. Imagine the shape of morality in a world where there was no pain, only pleasure. (2 Cor 4:16-18; James 1:2-4)
  3. What satisfies us most when we suffer are not intellectual answers to our questions, but the experience of the personal presence of God. (Job 42:3-5)
  4. Given our self-seeking and rebellious natures, suffering is the only way by which God could arrest our attention and graciously motivate us to begin seeking after His help. Truly, pain is God’s “megaphone.” (Gen 3:16a; 4:1; Lam 3:19-33)
  5. Suffering for the Christian does not imply punishment, but presents an opportunity for learning and drawing near to God for His sustaining grace in the midst of our crisis. (Rom 8:1; Heb 12:5-11; 4:15, 16; Ps 119:71)
  6. God allows evil to exist, but has limited its effect. While this is not the “best of all possible worlds” because of human sin, it is also not as bad as it could be because of God’s common grace. For the honest seeker, this creates what we call “the problem of the good.” (Rom 8:20-23)
  7. Our suffering may serve the purpose of showcasing God’s glory before a watching universe (John 9:1-3; 11:4; Job 1, 2) and as a witness to the Gospel (Acts 9:15, 16).
  8. While we do not know why God permits suffering to accomplish His purposes, we do know that there was a principle established at the Cross; evil is overcome through the suffering and death of Christ. It is the “deeper magic,” which turns tables on the evil one. Victory is not through violence or revenge, but through suffering; life comes out of death. (1 Cor 15:50-57) [Look at the example of the Apostle Paul, where the persecutor became a devoted follower; this should cause us to pray specifically for the “beloved enemies” of the gospel.]
  9. Suffering is not only a part of the human condition in a fallen world, but also what a follower of Christ should expect as a means spiritual development and of reaching a fallen world with the gospel. (Matt 5: 11, 12; 20:27-28; Phil 1:29; 2 Cor 4:8-10; James 1:2, 3; 1 Peter 4:1, 2; 2 Tim 3:12)
  10. In the coming Kingdom of God, ALL EVIL will be overcome and the incomparable GLORY AND GOODNESS OF GOD will reign, FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN (Rom 8:18; Rev 20:11-21:4)

Wasted Pain…

Charlotte Elliot lived at the close of the eighteenth century and in great physical pain most of her life because of a childhood illness. She also struggled with bouts of depression. An old family friend once asked her whether she had ever come to know the peace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. She became defensive; upset that anyone would dare ask such a question, but after cooling down she admitted her need of spiritual help. She confessed her desire to receive Christ and said, “I want to come to Jesus, but I don’t know how.” Her friend replied, “Come to him just as you are.” She did and experienced the peace of God in her life in spite of her many struggles.

One Sunday she was at home unable to attend church because of her pain. She took a pen and paper and began to write these words: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me. And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come! I come!” She published this hymn anonymously in a small Christian newspaper, and it began to gain popularity all over England.

One day her doctor handed her this poem thinking it would be of encouragement and she recognized it as her own. She began writing more hymns of encouragement and invitation. Her pain became the source of a deeper walk with God and a well-spring of opportunity for ministry to others. A century later a young man named Billy Graham went forward to receive Christ when this hymn was sung.

Is your pain being wasted? How could God use it for His glory and the eternal good of others? Just a thought….

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Rom 8:26

The Slavery of Too Many Choices

Years ago I went for lunch at a restaurant in Moscow. I sat down; the bread was already on the table (on all the tables), having been put there when the restaurant opened that morning. It was hard as a rock and probably could have been used in self-defense if the KGB ever came after me. I asked the waitress for a menu and she told me that they did not have one. She proceeded to tell me what they were serving and whether I wanted it cold or hot. On the one hand, I was stunned with the fact that I was being told what I was going to eat. On the other hand, it was refreshing that I didn’t have to make a choice— except for the temperature of the food. The Moscow markets were also very limited. People would buy whatever was on the shelves whether they needed it at that time or not. The issue was not one of choice but of supply. When I returned to the US and went into one of our grocery stores, I had a strange feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices with which I was again confronted.

Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice (2004) says, “Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”  That’s an understatement.  Instead of increasing our happiness, too many choices have tended to increase our anxiety. “Am I getting the best deal? Maybe I just won’t choose right now.”  “I’ve got so many interests, how am I ever going to choose what I want to be? Maybe I’ll put that decision on hold and travel.” “I’m afraid that if I get involved in a relationship it might not be with the one I’m supposed to end up with. Maybe I’ll be like Al Paccino in Heat who vowed never to get involved in a relationship he couldn’t walk away from in thirty seconds.” Could it be more than just an Orwellian truth that “Freedom is Slavery?”

The realization of this “paralysis of analysis” has actually found its way into advertising. I was reading one email advertising guru who said that if you’re trying to convince readers to take one action, a single offer is better than multiple ones. “With multiple offers, readers have to decide which product they want to focus on; then, they have to decide whether or not they want to act on that offer. This divides attention between choices and requires more decisions…” [As an aside: I know that purchasing a car can be an overwhelming experience because of all the choices. So a couple of years ago, when I was looking for a newer used vehicle, I used a different tactic.  I prayed for wisdom and then determined beforehand the make and model, the year, the approximate mileage and the price range of the car I wanted. I didn’t care that much about the color or the interior. I sent this information out on the internet to a few dealerships. I visited three of them and bought the car in two weeks.]

James 1:6-8 tells us that when we ask God for something we should ask in faith and not with a double mind; such doubt produces instability in all we do. I read an article awhile ago In Christianity Today written by Barry Cooper, Imprisoned by Choices. He said, “There comes a point when not choosing becomes idolatry. It becomes a lack of trust in the God who ordains the decisions we will make, gathers up the frayed ends, and works all things for our good and his glory. Be wise, but then rest in God’s total sovereignty and goodness, and choose. Commit. Make a decision. Be wholehearted and single-minded.” Martin Luther once said that in view of God’s grace “sin boldly.” Perhaps if he were talking about God’s sovereignty he would have said, “choose boldly.”