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In the Midst of Suffering

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Good morning and welcome to today’s episode. I had originally planned to start a study on Revelation. But given the current crisis that our entire world now seems to be facing I thought it best to begin to address some points of thought that I think would be more helpful to put things in a proper perspective. We talked last time about how the current crisis in our world with the virus will require us to make some sacrifices. That is certainly the case. We live in a time that we have to give up very few things. But when tough time come. There is something that often accompany time like these. And that is suffering. Now first I know this not a popular topic. And my focus here is not to drop you to a point of despair. But to provide a point of hope by giving context to the idea of suffering. Because weather we admit it or not. We will all encounter it in one form or another. Second is that my goal is not to necessary give you a why to the reason for suffering. God did not answer Job’s why when asked him about his suffering. Jesus even told us that, “in this world you will have trouble”. So today what I hope to do is help you understand the “how” of suffering. Almost to learn to “suffer well” if there is such a phrase. That may sound strange but you will see as we move though what I mean. The better we understand the nature of suffering the better we can weather the storms of this life. But more importantly. And I would say the most importantly is so that we can help comfort others in times of suffering. But before I dive in. I want to point to resource that I think is really help in this topic.
[1] Aden, L. H., & Hughes, R. G. (2002). Preaching God’s Compassion: Comforting Those Who Suffer (pp. 1–8). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
A fifty-year-old school teacher loses her husband when he joins a cross-country bicycle trip through a southwestern state and is hit by an automobile driver who may have been playing “chicken” with the cyclists.
A college student dreams of being accepted into medical school only to discover once he begins the study of medicine that he is not going to make it.
A devoted mother of three young children is stopped short by the news that her chronic fatigue is caused by an untreatable form of cancer.
In each of these instances, the person is involved in suffering, a state of intense pain and distress. This is not unusual, for to be human is to be acquainted with suffering. The Book of Job is descriptive of our plight, perhaps not in terms of its intensity, but certainly in terms of its reality.
Job is a man of faith and also a man of immense wealth, one of

“the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3).

Satan comes before God and casts doubt on Job’s faith:

“Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him?… You have blessed the work of his hands” (vv. 9–10).

Satan predicts that if Job is made to suffer, his faith will be shaken, if not negated. God agrees to put Job to the test, and in turn Job is stripped of his possessions, his children, and his health. In a word, Job is immersed in intense suffering.
Our lives need not duplicate the plight of Job for us to know the magnitude of suffering. Suffering is all around us, and maybe we ourselves have experienced a good measure of it. If so, we know the pain of suffering and the dark shadow that it can cast on our lives. And like Job we need someone to be with us in our distress, maybe even someone to help us find an answer to our misery.
The pain of suffering is often intense enough to drive us to do something about it. Douglas John Hall describes one of our most frequent reactions. Instead of acknowledging the suffering and tolerating the pain, we simply deny that we are suffering. Examples are abundant. The wife of an abusive husband covers up her hurt by saying that his actions are a justified response to her failures. The husband of an alcoholic lives for years with the hope that his wife will come to her senses and stop drinking. A child who is maligned and degraded by peers fabricates a world in which there is concord and recognition.
The denial of suffering or, as Hall describes it, the incapacity to suffer, is not only a personal response but also a societal prescription. We Americans are taught to believe that suffering can and will be overcome by

“human ingenuity and inventiveness.”

We buy into the American dream that diminishes the reality of human suffering, and then we, like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, become pathetic creatures not because we suffer but because we

“cannot face it.”

Part of the pathos (or tragedy) of our denial is its consequences. As Hall indicates, to deny suffering is to be subject to its impotencies: we cannot accept or articulate our own suffering, we cannot

“enter imaginatively into the suffering of others,”

and we cannot acknowledge how we are often the cause of our own suffering. In other words, we are at the mercy of suffering, and there is no road out of it.

The Misunderstanding of Suffering

Suffering is an interpreted fact, and how we see it either increases or decreases its effect on us. As Christians, we often see suffering in terms of God’s relation to us. We can feel that God is either against us or for us. The first option is a common, almost a logical, perception, but it has major flaws. The second option requires a deep intense faith, but it is more in line with our Christian theology. We will start with the first option and outline the three major forms suffering takes.
First,

Suffering can be seen as a punishment from God.

This is the most common understanding of suffering, even in the Old Testament. In this understanding, suffering becomes a punitive act of God, the reaction of a just and angry God to our wicked and rebellious ways. The thought is usually taken to its logical end: God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. According to this principle, the righteous should enjoy health, peace, and prosperity while the sinful should suffer and be driven to despair. The assumption that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked can be found in many places in the Old Testament.

Psalm 1:3–4 says righteous people “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”

And Psalm 37:9–10 says, “The wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more.”

Job’s three friends also believe that the wicked will be punished. They argue almost in the form of a neat syllogism:

“Major premise: Since God is just, he always punishes sin with suffering. Minor premise: Job is undergoing great suffering. Inescapable conclusion: Job is a great sinner.”

In our day, Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose son Aaron died from progeria, believed initially in a God of retribution, a God of rewards and punishments. That is why when he first heard of his son’s condition, he struggled with the question,

“Why do the righteous suffer?”

or, as he put it, I have tried

“to do what [is] right in the sight of God.… How could He do this to me?”

After much struggle, Kushner gave up the idea that God gives people what they deserve, that “our misdeeds cause our misfortune.” He realized that this understanding of suffering has a

“number of serious limitations.… It teaches people to blame themselves. It creates guilt even where there is no basis for guilt. It makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves. And most disturbing of all, it does not even fit the facts.”

Kushner is right. Our experience does not confirm the

retribution theory

On the contrary, we often find that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. Actually, the retribution theory of suffering deserves a more detailed consideration. On the positive side, it rests on the conviction that God is a just God, that there is an eminent fairness in what God does, whether or not we can see it. It also rests on the conviction that God is sovereign, that there is nothing more powerful or in control than the Creator. Finally, it addresses our psychological need for punishment. It means that we are not burdened by unrequited guilt but that suffering comes as a just payment for our misdeeds.
In the end, though, suffering often turns these positive affirmations on their head so they end up being negative assertions. For example, suffering, when it comes to people who are considered good, casts grave doubt on the justice and fairness of God.

“If God is just, why isn‘t that scoundrel suffering rather than me?”

Suffering can also raise serious questions about the sovereignty of God.

“If God really is in charge, why does God allow this to happen to me?”

And finally, if suffering is seen as punishment, it tends to make our suffering meritorious. Suffering becomes a self-earned expiation of guilt or at least a partial compensation for it. This leads to a performance-based faith that can also be very dangerous in and of itself.
There is thus serious difficulty with seeing suffering as a punishment sent from God. Suffering seen as punishment tends to complicate rather than strengthen the sufferer’s relationship with God. God is seen as an alien and punitive power who judges the sufferer and thus makes his or her suffering worse. This makes God more distant and less active in our lives. More importantly in the midst of our suffering. God is decidedly on the wrong side of suffering, leaving the sufferer without any gracious shelter.
Second,

Suffering can be seen as a test of faith

It becomes a probationary act of God by which God tries to determine how much we are really made of or how much we are willing to trust him. Kushner cites God putting Abraham to the test by suggesting the sacrifice of Isaac.
As we have seen, the story of Job begins with this picture of God. God allows afflictions to come to Job to determine if he is truly a

“blameless and upright man who fears” the Lord (Job 1:8).

In addition to Job, other sections of the Old Testament portray God as probationary. In Judges 2:22–3:6, God raises up a number of judges to save Israel from its enemies. Each time a judge dies, the nation goes back to its evil ways and forgets God. God gets angry and decides to use foreign nations to test Israel to see whether

“they would take care to walk in the way of the Lord as their ancestors did” (2:22).

In the New Testament the element of testing occurs, but it is often placed within the context of a different understanding of suffering. Suffering is seen as a way to remind us of our fragility and dependence. It moves us beyond the comforts of this life to seek comfort in God. Within this understanding, suffering is also a test of our faith, but it mobilizes our

“powers of resistance and steadfastness.”

It is interesting to note that suffering, like God’s law, can drive us to depend on and to trust in God. But to see suffering as an intentionally induced test from God is to make God a player of games or, even worse, a tyrannical ruler who uses power to test the powerless.

The net effect is to imply that God makes us prove that we are worthy of God’s care and concern.

God’s image is tarnished by this abrasive thought when God agrees to let Satan put Job’s faith to the test.

“Is God really that fickle and unfeeling as to play with a person’s life?”

But more important, the idea that God’s love is conditional goes against the gospel, which affirms that God’s care is constant and freely given. And the sufferer is again left without a gracious shelter and instead feels that he or she is on trial before a merciless judge.
Finally,

Suffering can be seen as a form of divine discipline

It becomes an educational act of God, a means of chastening us to make us better moral creatures or more faithful disciples.
Chastening is a frequent theme in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.

Psalm 94:12: “Happy are those whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law.”

In Job it is chiefly Elihu (Job 32–37) who promotes the educational understanding of suffering:

“God indeed does all these things, twice, three times, with mortals, to bring back their souls from the Pit, so that they may see the light of life” (33:29–30).

In the New Testament the classic example of suffering as chastening is in the story of the prodigal son.
In our day, Kushner, under the weight of suffering, considers the idea that God, like a good parent, uses suffering to

“cure us of our faults and make us better people.”

He quickly dismisses the thought, however, because he concludes that suffering is designed not to help the sufferer but

“to defend God.”

Besides, he observes that there is often very little connection between the fault that needs to be repaired and the suffering that is incurred. So the sufferer ends up confused if not totally turned off. In the end, then, suffering that is meant to chasten us often does not work. Instead of making us more obedient to God, it can make us more bitter and less trusting.
In summary, the belief that God is against us in and through suffering comes in different forms.

To see suffering as a punishment, as a test of faith, or as a chastening of our character assumes that God stands apart from our suffering and maybe even uses it for God’s own purposes.

This understanding of suffering may provide temporary relief or resolve, but it does not provide long-term comfort or encouragement. It tends to defeat the very purpose it hopes to achieve, namely, to fortify us against suffering by relating (ascribing) it to God. It ends up casting doubt on God and intensifying the pain of suffering.

A Christian Understanding of Suffering

To see God in the very midst of our suffering requires faith.

It is not evident to the sufferer that God is anywhere around, let alone close at hand. On the contrary, God seems very distant or, if present, seems like an uncaring part of the problem. C. S. Lewis, when tortured by grief, went so far as to call God a

“Cosmic Sadist.”

Over against our experience, the Christian faith is bold enough—or foolish enough—to declare that God is with us in suffering. It maintains that God is a suffering God, one who was born into and became a part of our world of travail. What we are talking about is an extension of the

incarnation

, the belief that God in Christ enters into our history and is with us in the actualities of our situation. This is a startling statement. It asserts not only that God is with us in suffering but also that our suffering causes him to suffer. Suffering, then, becomes a sad and painful event for both God and us, which is to say that God is with us in suffering in a profound and personal way.
Martin Luther’s theology of the cross expresses a similar thought. It maintains that God is revealed and known in the

“disgrace, poverty, and death” of Christ.

This crucified God is not found in the works of the world or in the speculations of the philosopher but in the weakness and defeat of the cross. Hidden in suffering, God is known by the suffering endured.
God with us in suffering has several important implications for our struggle with suffering. First, it means that we can take our struggle seriously. The human tendency is to brush the afflictions aside. God graced our afflictions by experiencing them, by taking them upon himself. We do not need to pretend that suffering is unreal or unimportant, for Christ’s incarnation invites us to acknowledge our pain and to give full recognition to our defeat or loss.
Second,

Suffering is not God’s will.

God may know about our suffering (omniscience), and God may be present in it (omnipresence), but God is not the cause of it. The cause is often lodged in our own history. It represents the natural working out of consequences that accrue from either our finiteness or our sin, from either our creaturely vicissitudes or our separation from the Source of life. In other words, there are forces in the world or choices in life that land us where we do not want to go.
In the short run, of course, the one who suffers may draw comfort from the idea that his or her suffering is God’s will. Suffering is hard to bear “if it is a ghastly mistake.” It is even hard to bear if it is a consequence of our own finiteness or sin. We gain more comfort by believing that it is God’s will not just because it gives us a logical explanation for our suffering but also because we find it easier to accept and to bear. Nevertheless, to pin our suffering on God is a distortion of God’s relation to the world, and in the long run it may pose a serious threat to the believer’s faith in a gracious and crucified God.
Third,

Despite our abandonment of God, we are not forsaken.

God is faithful in the midst of our unfaithfulness. This truth may not be apparent to the one who suffers. In fact, the sufferer may feel abandoned by God, and yet when the suffering is lifted, he or she may come to feel that God was there all the while. Sometimes, of course, the sufferer gains this assurance even as he or she is struggling with suffering.
Fourth,

God’s role in suffering is not passive but active.

God does not merely standby but

“consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction” (2 Cor. 1:4).

For Paul comfort is used in a twofold sense: Either God strengthens the person and enables him or her to go through the crisis or God rescues the person from the situation. In either case, God sustains the sufferer, not just as a temporary reprieve from the situation but as a continually empowering presence.

Fifth, with God on our side,

Suffering can be transformative—not redemptive but transformative.

It can increase our faith, our reliance on God. Suffering, seen in proper perspective, may drive us to God, not because we want to escape further punishment but because we see life from a different angle. We realize that we live in a fallen world and that in our brokenness we make decisions and get into situations where suffering is the consequence. In other words, we see that we are part of the problem and that we cannot get out of it by our own power. We are driven to God. We realize that we must put our trust in a power that stands above and is more powerful than the finiteness and the distortions of life. And when we go to God, to our surprise we find ourselves embraced by a suffering, caring presence.
Sixth,

Suffering in the name of Christ can edify, can build up the fellowship in a twofold sense.

Suffering and being comforted equips us to console others with the
“consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
Having experienced God’s comfort, we can enter into the afflictions of others in a much more empathic way, and in this sense we build up the fellowship by re-presenting (offering) the comfort of Christ to our wounded neighbors. We also build up the fellowship, because our suffering has redemptive value for others, not because it is meritorious for them but because it serves as an inspiring example to them, especially if they are weak in the faith. Besides, we are doing in our own way what Christ has done for us, namely, bear the pain and suffering of others and thus lighten their load and take away their isolation. Paul says that he is

“completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).

By this phrase he does not mean that we complete, or add anything to, the saving work of Christ. Instead, he means that as Christians we are united with Christ in sufferings like his and that when we endure those sufferings for the sake of the church, we are carrying on his mission and work, that is, we are building up the fellowship.[1]
[1] Aden, L. H., & Hughes, R. G. (2002). Preaching God’s Compassion: Comforting Those Who Suffer (pp. 1–8). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
So how we view suffering matter even more than why we suffer. Because it is in the midst of suffering that we can find true connection with God. God knows and cares when we suffer. He does not stand at a distance as we go though it. He is there comforting, consoling, counseling and completing the suffering with us.
PRAYER
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