Day #12 A Theology Compatible with Suffering

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18

In my last post, I wrote about the “why” of the Christian life: God, by His Spirit, who is transforming our lives, making us more like Jesus. This is a “big theological rock” that should inform our days…especially in times of trial and suffering.

We may ask ourselves, “Why do I need to be transformed? Can’t I just go to church, pay my tithes, read my Bible, work hard, love my family, be kind to my neighbor and serve at the Union Gospel Mission?” If we miss the “why” of the transformation of our hearts, we will also miss the help and intent of our salvation.

Let me say right up front that I am not a theologian. I don’t have the smarts to even enter the room with those who are. It seems to me, however, that a lot of people hold to a theology (the truths we hold about God) that is not compatible with suffering. This theology is not compatible with the wounds and pain we receive in this life. When pain or crisis comes, what we thought we believed about God comes into question, for pain has a way of stripping away all our illusions of God. When everything starts to fall apart, often so does our sense of the reality of God. God is not who we thought He was. The problem however isn’t God, it’s our theology of Him and His purposes (transformation) in our lives.

When everything starts to fall apart, often so does our sense of the reality of God.

Some of us instinctively feel that if we are faithful to Jesus, life will go well for us. This puts us squarely in the middle of a transactional faith (“If I do this…then God must do this…”) rather than a transformational faith. If we hold to the belief (theology) that God must bend to our claim to the good life, suffering is seen, not as a normalcy of living in a broken world, but as a betrayal. At worst, it calls God’s honor and intention toward us into question. If we believe God’s promises are to be secured for our prosperity, suffering has to be denied. If our faith is only a belief about God, it only takes one night of pain to realize there is no comfort or security when suffering wreaks havoc in our soul.

Too often our only thought in suffering is how we can get out of it, or how we can manipulate God to do something about it. No doubt some, even Christians, will shake their fist at God insisting He give an account of Himself or demand, “Where were you?” (Just so you know…in the midst of your suffering, God has not left the room; He is presently active: inviting, wooing, healing, restoring….in the middle of it.) In the midst of our pain, our prayers can become hyper-focused to get God to act in our situation. (In requiring God to act in a certain way, we run the risk of missing all the other ways God is healing/rescuing/saving us.)

Some of us hold to the idea that God trying to teach us something in our suffering. This implies that with enough knowledge we can somehow fix our pain ourselves. This also implies we can do so without any personal or relational interaction with Jesus. However, we can’t heal our own souls and knowledge alone could never expand our souls enough to absorb our pain, loss, and unexpected heartache. Instead of teaching us something in our pain, I think God, wants to reveal himself to us in our pain. The good news is that pain often becomes the place where we are most open to encountering God.

Instead of teaching us something in our pain, I think God, wants to reveal himself to us in our pain.

The reality is we were never created to carry the weight of this world, and if we let it, pain will lead us to the Savior who can. In this way, author Gerald Sittser describes pain and loss as “a grace disguised.” Author Eugene Peterson similarly notes, “It’s not so much what we go through as it is the help we receive.” This is so good. It is the help, when all other help is exhausted, in the face of relentless despair, and when hope gets lost in a distance fog…it is the unexpected and unexplainable divine help that rescues us in surprising ways that profoundly marks us, and we are never the same. You have probably experienced that.

Please know I am not diminishing the loss and hurt of our lives. Our pain is real and runs deep. I guess my only qualification even to speak to such a thing is simply my shared humanness and living in a world that is not my own. The reality is that I am still stumbling through all of this as well. I wish my initial reaction to suffering is trust that God is doing a good work even when I cannot see it, but most often it is not. But…I hold to a theology that grounds my frightened heart that assures me that my pain will not have the last word. My hope is to offer you a way of seeing our pain with new eyes and the promise of redemption, that might bring healing to your soul.

Our faith must be a faith that is able to stand the realities of this world. Our faith must embrace that in this broken world not that all well, but God, who inhabits our soul, is still doing His best and transformative work in us…and we can be well. (This should also remind us that our pain is not the most real thing about us.) Let us hold to a theology that offers us a redemptive vision of pain knowing that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. As author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For those willing to stay awake, pain remains a reliable altar in the world, a place to discover that a life can be as full of meaning as it is of hurt” (An Altar in the World, 173).

In our journey through Lent, we know how it ends…we know where it will take us…to Easter, Resurrection Day. Our journey through suffering also invites us, in the end, to the place of resurrection. Our brokenness is not a disqualifier to abundant life. Broken is not the end of anything; it’s the beginning. We are a resurrection people.

A prayer for those who hurt: Lord, give me the courage to trust you with my whole heart and story.   

Reflection Questions:

Reflect on your situation. How has it influenced your approach to God?

How can you see your situation in a different light?

What kind of hope can you hang on to?

What do you need to let go of in order to experience resurrection?

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