My Theology of Suffering

The following is part of a paper I wrote for one of my crisis counseling courses.  To be honest, God spoke directly to my heart as I penned the words.  I pray that your heart is touched as you read.  Thank you for taking a glimpse into my world today.

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Suffering is rampant throughout the world today.  One cannot turn on the news without witnessing stories of lives torn apart, whether by seemingly small-scale events or national disasters.  Some are “acts of God,” such as Hurricane Katrina.  Others are man-made, such as the attacks on the United States that occurred September 11, 2001.  While there are some who cling to faith in God during traumatic incidents, many – even believers in Christ – question God’s reasoning and possibly His existence.  In spite of the difficulty in comprehending both the presence of pain and the existence of God, both are very real.  It took one act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden for suffering to become reality, yet trials are not without purpose.  Suffering strengthens individuals.  Tribulations point toward the need for redemption.  Pain can draw us closer to God.  Heartache creates compassion for those in need.  Humanity can find hope in that although we suffer now, one day Christ will return to redeem the world and His people, and we can share in His glory forevermore.

The bible teaches that God is good.  There are 61 verses in the bible that reference the goodness of God.  One such verse is Psalm 119:68, “You are good and do only good; teach me your decrees” (New Living Translation).  Christians are fond of proclaiming to one another, “God is good,” which generally evokes the reply, “All the time!”  Yet it is evident that a good God coexists with suffering in this world.  This coexistence forces individuals to develop their own theology of suffering.

From early in life, humans discover the existence of suffering in this world.  Whether just or unjust, people experience pain due to their own mistakes, the actions of others, or what some consider to be acts of God.  The reality of evil in this world causes many to question the very existence of an all-knowing, all-loving Creator.  Diane Langberg (2005) states the dilemma of “two irreconcilable realities … what is one to do with the rape of a child and the reality of God?” (p. 419).  Yet ever since Adam and Eve committed the first sin, humanity has suffered – and God still reigns.

However, it is not merely people who suffer.  According to Dan Allender (2001), the earth suffers due to disease, death, and decay.  Additionally, until Christ’s return, humanity aches: “We also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23, New King James Version).  God suffers as well.  Not only did Christ suffer on our behalf, but God feels our every hurt and sees our every tear.  All of this pain is not for loss.  Paul told the Roman church that, “… we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Romans 8:16b-17, NKJV).  Believers have the hope that although there is suffering now, Christ is with them, and they can look forward to future glory with Him as well.

It is through suffering that God strengthens His children.  Psalm 66:10 reads, “For You, O God, have tested us; You have refined us as silver is refined” (NKJV).  The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes that we must “lose things” before we can know kindness (2016).  Suffering gives us hearts of compassion for others in this world, that we may touch their lives with the love that God has bestowed upon us.  Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (NLT).  Humans will never understand this world. The earth will never fit picture-perfect ideals because this world is not heaven. Realistically, man’s ideals do not always honor God.  Man’s ideals often create isolation from those who are viewed as different. If the world were perfect according to people’s ideals, there would be no need for serving others.  There would be no need to reach out to the helpless, the hopeless, the grieving, or the suffering, and without that, how in the world could individuals ever become more Christ-like?  How would mankind ever experience God’s loving mercies?

Jesus Christ is the epitome of God’s goodness and love.  He became God incarnate, that is, God in human form or in the flesh.  Jesus was God’s one and only Son.  His entire life was spent serving God.  Everything He did was for God’s glory, and He gave God that glory.  He was obedient, even to the point of crucifixion upon the cross.  God sent His own Son to be beaten, tortured, mocked, spat upon, degraded, and murdered.  Loving parents would never even consider sending their child into a situation such as that.  Indeed, God is not an ordinary Father, and Jesus was by no means any ordinary Son.  As previously stated, Jesus was God.  John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (New International Version).  When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, fellowship with God was broken.  Humanity could not restore that relationship on its own.  Observing mankind throughout the ages and even today, many believe they do not desire that fellowship.  Still … God wanted it.  God wanted restoration and redemption, and the only way for that to happen was a perfect sacrifice.  The only sacrifice good enough was God Himself.  God chose to send His Son – His perfect, glorious Son – because He loves people.  Mankind is blemished with sin, and yet God believes each person is worth dying for.  The Creator of the universe left the glory of heaven to come to earth in order to not only die and rise again for the redemption of this sin-stained world, but in order to experience the utmost in human suffering so that He knows how human pain feels.  Jesus knows what it is like to cry out to the Father during suffering, as seen in Matthew 27:46, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” (New American Standard Bible).  He feels the anguish of suffering souls, and He is by their side, crying with them.

It may take an undefined amount of time, but the day can come when those who have suffered loss can look back at their traumatic times and name the beauty that God brought from them.  The bible describes such beauty in Isaiah 61:1-3:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies. To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory. (NLT)

Suffering depicts the gospel.  Pain points to Christ’s suffering on the cross.  If He would have only died and not been resurrected, there would be no hope.  However, He did rise again, and when people invite God into their suffering, hope becomes possible.  If people are wounded simply for pain’s sake, it is like leaving Jesus on that cross without completing His purpose.  Yet, if individuals allow others into their redemption stories, hope is offered via the ministry of presence and the relief of not being alone; someone else truly understands.  The empathy that occurs is genuine, and when that authenticity is perceived by another agonized soul, it can bring comfort beyond measure.  The healing God did in the life of one who suffered is witnessed up close, and at that point, survivors of trauma join Christ in stepping on the neck of evil, taking what was meant to harm and using it for something good.

In the end, Jesus promises to put an end to suffering upon His return.  Revelation 21:4 reads, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (NLT).  Suffering, while not enjoyable, serves a purpose today.  Praise God the day will come, though, when all pain, grief, sorrow and tears will be gone forever; Christ will make all things new (Revelation 21:5).

References

Allender, D. (2001). Suffering and glory. In Clinton, T., Hindson, E., & Ohlschlager, G.   (Eds.), The soul care bible (pp. 646-647). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Langberg, D. (2005). Adult survivors of sexual abuse: Trauma, treatment, and living in the truth. In Clinton, T., Hart, A., & Ohlschlager, G. (Eds.), Caring for people God’s way (pp. 409-443). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Nye, N.S. (2016). Kindness. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/kindness (Original work published 1952)

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Revelation 5:8

This morning while reading my devotional, I was struck with emotion.  Revelation 5:8 reads:

And when he took the scroll, the four living beings and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb.  Each one had a harp, and they held gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. (My emphasis added)

The magnitude of that one phrase overwhelms my heart today.  The prayers of God’s people. My prayers.  Every praise to my Father.  Every plea of anguish.  Every whisper of gratitude.  Every scream of anger and confusion.  Every petition lifted on behalf of my family, my friends, my church, this world.  The prayers of God’s people are there at the end as incense.  Incense is defined as “a gum, spice, or other substance that is burned for the sweet smell it produces”.  Our prayers are a sweet smell in the nostrils of God.  Today.  Tomorrow.  Til the very end times.

We hear about the importance and power of prayer.  In Luke 11:1-13, Jesus teaches us the specifics of prayer.  Yet most people – including believers – will admit to wondering “why bother?” at times.  For today, this isn’t about a deep theological discussion.  Just for today, the comfort of my prayers touching God in such a personal way touches my soul.  The knowledge that the prayers of His people play a part in even the end times draws me closer to Him.  In this moment, I am thankful that my communication with Almighty God is personal and powerful, intimate and important, and according to Revelation 5:8, everlasting.

Sister

Childhood best friends

Sweet little sister

I will protect you

From the monster

I will save you

From the deep waters

We giggle, we play

We grow, we love

We change

Different paths

Different choices

Don’t go down that path

But I still love you

We are still friends

Mistakes made

Separately, together

No, no, don’t go further down

Don’t throw it all away

But to whom am I speaking?

To you?

To me?

So easy to judge

When my sin is hidden

I thought you left me

Left us all

But maybe

I left you

And now dark secrets

And a thousand miles

And many years

Separate us

You seek forgiveness

Can I trust you?

I need forgiveness

For failing you

As your big sister

As God’s child

As your friend

Fear

Struggle

I look back at the old me:

The thinner me,

The filthy-on-the-inside me,

And I don’t want to be her (do I want to be her?).

I don’t miss the way she was (oh, how I miss the way she looked!).

So I keep running away from her,

Protecting myself from her with food and fat.

I see my picture and ugh, I look like that?!

I can’t bear to see what I’ve become!

Different now?  Yes.

Better now? Yes.

All on the inside, all on the inside.

Yet I am unhealthy, inside and out.

Eating my emotions. Sabotaging my health.

Not afraid to die, except for the pain.

Not wanting to die … but is this not a slow form of suicide?

Take another bite.  (Not worth the fight.)

Feeling disgusted.  Feeling defeated.

How ridiculous this must seem, in a world of pain.

No one to blame but myself.

Why can’t I just get this right?

Why do I care so much (but you ARE beautiful … lies, lies!)?

He thinks I’m beautiful (how? why?).

God beautifully wove me, right?

So tired of the struggle.

So tired of the fight.

Not giving up … but can’t seem to find …

Victory tonight.

Peace

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines peace as, “a state of calm and quiet; freedom from disturbing thoughts and emotions” (2004).

Philippians 4:6-7 reads, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything.  Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done.  Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.  His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (New Living Translation).

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for You alone, O LORD, will keep me safe” (Psalm 4:8, NLT).

In the midst of my life, God gives me peace.  It’s not a pat on the head, “oh, everything will be okay” kind of peace.  It is the deep down in the fibers of my being trust that God, the Creator of the universe, knows better than we do … than I do.  It is knowing and believing that He is taking the filth that Satan has smeared all over the world and turning it around for good.  Even when I can’t see it.  Even when it hurts too much to bear.  He bears it for me.

Every situation – no matter how huge or tiny – is in His hands.  He loves me, and that is why I have peace.