This week as I have reflected on the nature of suffering, there is one final thing I’d like to add. In my lesson Wednesday I mentioned the plethora of bad teaching on suffering. Throughout the history of mankind, theologians and philosophers alike have struggled to find meaning and purposeful reflection on this very difficult topic, so it’s no wonder that pastors today continue to fumble the ball.
With that in mind, I want to add a number of things that suffering is NOT. These points are taken from the Driscoll sermon I mentioned in my last post, and I think they provides some helpful boundaries for not only interpreting our own suffering, but comforting others in their suffering as well:
- Suffering does not make you a victim. While it’s important that we not blame ourselves or believe that God is somehow punishing us when tragedy strikes, it is also important that we understand sin has consequences. For instance, choosing to have unsafe sex can result in contracting diseases. Choosing to date someone that you know is wrong can result in massive heartache. In these instances God’s is not punishing you, but there are very real consequence for your bad decisions.
- Suffering is not to be pursued. There is some very faulty theology that exalts the path of suffering and considers it to be more virtuous. This belief is problematic in two ways:
- In Genesis 1 God declares the world and all that is in it to be good. Then in 1 Timothy 6:17 we are reminded that God gives us richly all things to enjoy. While we should never let material things become our master, they are not evil. To resist the good things of this world and impose suffering on our ourselves is to deny the gifts that God has given us. This thinking also strays into a kind of heretical theology called gnosticism.
- The pursuit of suffering is rooted in guilt. As I have mentioned before, the suffering that we as Christians endure is not a punishment from God. Jesus received that punishment on the cross. The suffering we endure is a result of living in a thoroughly broken world. God is a redeemer and He can use it, but for us to pursue suffering for its own sake indicates a belief that Jesus’ sacrifice was not enough to restore our relationship with God. Instead, we find ways to add to the meaning and power of his sacrifice. The pursuit of suffering is not the only way we do this–any action that is driven by the belief that we must make ourselves better in order to be accepted is rooted in the same errant belief. Do not imply that Christ’s crucifixion is somehow inadequate by seeking out suffering. Jesus’ dying words, “It is finished,” remind us that his suffering and death was not only enough, but also complete.
- Suffering is not to be excused because God uses it. Driscoll told the story of a father who beat his sons growing up. Reflecting upon their childhood the father concluded, “Well, look how good they turned out! I must have done something right!” The father’s actions were inexcusably wrong, and the fact that God redeemed the situation was no validation of the father’s behavior. God, by His very character, can take a bad situation and make it good, but that does not mean the evil actions of a person are somehow justified. Sin is sin no matter how God uses it.
- Suffering is no excuse to allow evil. I CANNOT emphasize this point enough, especially when talking to women. In fact, I wish I had mentioned it on Wednesday. Do NOT allow people to sin in the name of your own sanctification! If you are in an abusive relationship and you feel God has used it to grow your relationship with Him, then praise God, but the man who is abusing you needs to be sanctified too. Call the police and let God deal with him! You are facilitating evil by allowing Him to abuse you. God HATES the actions of any person who treats you as less than the beautiful, divine image that you are. Never ever excuse your own suffering when it enables the twisted sin of another person in your life.
- Not all suffering has an explanation. In the face of tragedy we desperately seek to understand why. It is this desperation that often leads us to superficial answers. There are some things we will never know this side of eternity, so we must find solace in the knowledge that God DOES love us, even when we don’t feel it.
If you find yourself in a place of despair right now, please know that God has not forgotten you. I don’t know why you are there, but I do know the character of your Father. It is the character of One who could easily distance Himself from our pain, but instead became a man to share in our suffering. It is the character of One who is so intimately tied to His people, so much so that we are called His “body.” When we are wounded, His own body is wounded. So remember His character! He grieves along side of you and aches when your heart aches, but not as one without power or hope. God is also a redeemer. He is loving and He is good. In those darkest of moments, place your hope in Him.