By Howard Dial and Howard Eyrich –
There are no non-sufferers in this world. Living in a fallen world and carrying about a death-cursed body is adequate qualification for being a sufferer. Of course there is much more involved in suffering in terms of degrees and kinds of pain and suffering, but all of us are hurting in some way. Broken relationships, life-dominating sins, unwise decision making, cancer, brain tumors, disappointments, anger , guilt, fevers, anorexia, rebellious children, promiscuity, and migraine headaches all have one thing in common. Evil is the common enemy of the Christian and the non-Christian. Human fallenness makes us an easy target. It is important to know how to biblically respond to such issues when they present themselves.
It is the intention of this article to provide practical, biblical counsel in dealing with pain and suffering. By necessity there are limitations in a work of this sort. There is no one size that fits all in the highly nuanced work of bringing the wisdom of God’s Word to bear on a host of personal maladies. But certain fundamentals should serve as river banks to the flow of truth into the lives of the hurting. Suffering brings questions. Why? Why me? The problem of suffering brings difficulties. Why did my mother die? Why do I have cancer? What happened to our marriage? Why do tsunamis sneak up on people and drown them indiscriminately? Why did my child die? How do we respond to our sons declared homosexuality? How can I break this drug habit? The list is almost endless. Three principles can guide us through our suffering.
- REALIZE THAT PAIN AND SUFFERING OCCUR IN A CONTEXT
Eliphaz has captured life’s experience when he said, “For man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). We live in a world that is a symphony of sighs, longing for the way things are supposed to be. “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom. 8:22). Life is filled with misery and pain. We live in a dying culture and struggle with the fragile nature of life. Whether it is moral evil (the bad) or natural evil (the harmful), all of us are casualties, to greater and lesser degrees, of sin’s opportunism. The corruption of society’s conscience in matters of morals is wrecking homes and communities. Gender confusion, child molestation, drug addiction, and eating disorders are consequences of the banishment of God’s moral law to the out skirt s of modern life. When a problem-stricken individual in our time needs help to cope with suffering, he is not merely bringing one presenting issue but scores of related assumptions and personal standards that have been infected by a post-Christian value system. It is a system of neo-paganism and humanistic psychology that has spawned a culture that conspires to complicate and distort the thinking of many.
It is at this point that we must guard against two errors. Edward T. Welch has called attention to those Christians who exalt pain and those who deny p ain.1 Some people exalt pain by viewing it as the root cause of all sin. According to this school of thought, there is always a sea of pain that lies beneath the surface of sin. Abusive behavior, anger, pornography, alcoholism and other maladies can be traced to a wound incurred in one’s past. But as Welch has rightly observed, “sin can never be reduced to or explained by pain. Sin is just sin. We cannot find the culprit anywhere else but in our own law-breaking.”2 In this case, the pain problem becomes deeper than our sin problem. This kind of theology has the effect of appearing to be deep and thus requiring special training and skill to uncover the soul-wrenching hurts.
On the other hand, there are those who ignore pain. Being armed with an arsenal of Scriptural truth, one can race to the answers without empathy and listening.3 The fact is that sin does not always lie behind pain and suffering (e.g. John 9:1f f.). But when it does there ought to be mourning and weeping (James 4:9). We should not be indifferent to the incredible ache that accompanies sin (Rom. 12:15). The weeping of Jesus reveals the depth of His suffering as He identified with the sorrows brought on by sin (Luke 19:41; Heb. 5:7; John 11:35).4 A Christ-like response to suffering will follow a biblical theology of suffering. It will reject the shallow and distorted thinking of an age that patronizes pain and suffering with its man-made theories disguised as “insights.”
- DEVELOP A SOUND THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING
Everyone is a theologian. One’s theology may be good, bad, seriously flawed, or glaringly heretical, but people are theologians nonetheless. Everyone has a world view and with it a philosophy of pain and suffering. It will be helpful to review some of the more popular (false) theologies of suffering.5
First, suffering interpreted as karma (i.e.”all the acts, words, and thought s of one’s life, supposed to determine a persons fate in his next stage of existence”6). The outlook here is that one is getting what one deserves. It is a westernized version of Hinduism’s belief in karma. Bad things that are happening to the sufferer are interpreted to be a sort of curse that is following one s family or personal life without regard to choices made or personal responsibility.
Second, suffering interpreted as an illusion. The experience of suffering is denied by some. Christian Science put s this spin on pain and suffering. Buddhism and Theosophy have their versions of what is known as “idealism: the denial of evil.”7 Welch noted that G. K. Chesterton says “somewhere that the great problem of philosophy is why little Tommy loves to torture the cat. Idealism’s solution is to deny the cat.”8 There are sufferers who come from homes where life goes on as if everything is normal while ignoring the five hundred pound gorilla of suffering in the living room. This can be seen in a family where alcohol or drugs are conspicuously ravaging a life but everyone looks the other way.
Third, suffering interpreted as body chemistry. Some hold that pain, or at least ones response to it, is considered to be a matter of body chemistry that can be remedied by appropriate doses of medication. Drugs are prescribed to alter moods and manipulate emotions. This can also be another form of denial. The real issues of desires and thinking are masked by a host of chemicals. The wise person will not be drawn into the illusion that suffering is remedied by solving a chemical imbalance. While there may be a chemical imbalance that needs to be treated (a hypoactive thyroid, for example), the myriad of wrong assumptions (she doe not love me because she never initiates sex) and the behavioral/emotional reactions (his anger , withdrawal or screaming accusations), with all the accompanying pain, must be addressed.
Fourth, suffering interpreted as victimization. Though we are of ten victims of others’ wrongdoing, a philosophy of victimization can be a narcotic that anesthetizes a sufferer into believing her pain exists because of what others are doing to her. This mind-set can be a serious impediment to problem solving, personal responsibility, and biblical change, if it is not exposed. Blame-shifting lurks in every human heart and can be traced to discontent with God. The biblical doctrine of the providence of God with its concomitant truth of God’s sovereignty over evil it self will put to flight the pathology of blaming others for one’s plight.
In summary, a biblically sound theology of suffering will lead one to (1) acknowledge God’s sovereignty and providence in suffering (this is happening to me by God’s design), (2) embrace the reality of evil and pain as defects in God’s creation, (3) realize that suffering is not always due to ones personal sin, but (4) take responsibility for suffering when it is due to ones own sin.
- LOOK TO THE PROMISES OF GOD’S WORD FOR COMFORT
A very popular book on suffering has spread a theological virus throughout the culture. One of its teachings is that we cannot really be sure of a world to come or be confident that there is a reward for those who have been faithful to God through suffering. The only hope one is given by this outlook is that since we cannot know for sure, we would be well advised to take this world as seriously as we can, in case it turns out to be the only one we will ever have, and to look for meaning and justice here.9 This philosophy of agnosticism brings little, if any comfort, to those who are trying to make sense out of suffering. It is really a rather dismal answer to the problems of evil. It is a theology that falls under its own weight. To create meaning out of meaninglessness is a feat only the foolish would attempt. The great joy of the Christian who suffers is that he can indeed find abounding joy in the hope-filled life in Christ. For it is only in Christ that pain and suffering can have meaning.
Final answers to life’s pains are not offered in this life. But hope-giving is the precious gift of God this side of eternity. The responses of surprise (1 Pet. 4:12), anger (Jon. 4:1-3), bitterness (Ps.73:21), doubt and self-pity (Mal. 1:2; Jer. 20:1-18), hasty conclusions (Job 4-37; John 9:1-3), and despair (Ps. 42:5, 11; Gen. 42:36) must be met with massive doses of biblical instruction.
All of Scripture is comfort-giving to the sufferer. That is the very nature of revealed truth. Each part of the Bible makes its own contribution to instilling joy and hope in the midst of affliction. Welch has highlighted a key factor in the work of faith-building for sufferers. He has called attention to the vital truth of the “counter-weight of God’s glory” as developed by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:17.10 He adds further that glory “counterbalances” can be seen under five headings:
- God says,” Put your suffering into speech.”
- In cases of overt victimization, God says, “You have been sinned against.”
- God says, “I am with you and love you.”
- God says, “Know that I am God.”
- God says, “There is purpose in suffering.”11
Probably the most frequent passage spoken to a suffering individual is Romans 8:28. While this passage presents the wonderful truth of Gods sovereign oversight of the believer’s life and His gracious work on behalf of the believer to effect a sure and commodious outcome to suffering, it often is used in a manner that short circuits spiritual development. All too often this intended balm of Gilead generates an anger response, or at best, a sanguine smile from the suffering subject. Why this response to such soul-quieting truth? This is a very logical response to a truth that has been inappropriately applied. A suffering person must first be prepared for this soul-comforting truth. Preparation often comes by articulating one’s hurts, questions, and frustrations.
What kind of questions? Questions like we find in the Psalms: How can God be who He says is and do what He has done? How can God love me and let this happen to me? Why should my children, who were good kids, be killed by this brutal person? What have I done that God would bring this tragedy upon me? You can add to the list the questions you have heard.
Many of us have been taught that to ask such questions is to be blasphemous. Do we not risk Gods displeasure by allowing the ejaculation of such questions from the depths of our souls? The answer is no! In fact, there is a genre of biblical literature that models for us the asking of such questions. It is the genre of lament. This model teaches how to explore our souls.12 It provides the suffering individual with a methodology to process his deep hurts with an attitude of worship. The lament literature is an under-tapped resource for coping with suffering. (This is true even if the suffering is from perceived deprivation in the face of ungodly people prospering. We have used Psalm 73 on many occasions with this complaint).
There are five components generally common to lament literature. They are as follows.
- An appeal to God
- An expression of perceived reality
- A formal appeal for understanding or relief
- A response from God
- A resignation (not always a resolution) and expression of worship
This lament model is an excellent approach to coping with pain. We should appeal to God for understanding and assistance. We should pour out our soul’s agony over our perceived reality. We should write out our appeal to God for understanding and relief (In counseling, we have found this process greatly aids people in sorting out their thoughts and attitudes). We should think through the Scriptures appropriate to our lives from which God may well respond to us. Finally, we should condition our expectations by developing a spirit of worship. This process prepares the suffering heart to embrace Romans 8:28 and bask in its full Sonshine.
Because of the brevity of this article, we cannot lead you through one of these passages. However, there are a number of good commentaries that will be helpful in your prep aration.13You will find a lament passage appropriate to every kind of suffering.
We spoke above of meaning in the midst of suffering. Meaning is found in exploring one’s soul before God and beginning to grapple with the purpose of one’s suffering. Possible purposes in any individual episode of suffering can be (1) chastening for unrepentant sin (Heb. 12:6; Prov. 28:13), (2) the development of endurance (Jas. 1:3; Rom. 5:3), (3) the acquisition of wisdom (Jas. 1:5; Ps. 73:17), (4) opportunities for Christian witness (2 Tim. 2:9-10) and (5) fruit-bearing (John 15:2). These are only a few of the possibilities. Suffering can never be put into neat little categories of purpose with the immediate result of consolation and relief. It is not that neat. Nevertheless, God does have a design for the heart-broken, grief-stricken, pain-bearing Christian. God’s Word will lead him to the high ground of a Spirit-taught perspective.
Howard Dial (Th.M., D.Min.) is the Pastor of Berachah Bible Church in Atlanta, GA, and an adjunct professor at Trinity Theological Seminary. Howard Eyrich (M.A., Th.M., D.Min.) is President of Birmingham Theological Seminary and an Associate Pastor at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL.
1 Edward T. Welch, “Exalting Pain? Ignoring Pain? What do we do with suffering?” Journal of Biblical Counseling 12:3 (Spring 1994): 4.
3 Ibid., 5.
4 The personal sufferings of Jesus are highly instructive to every Christian counselor and counselee. Jesus felt compassion for hurting people. Interestingly, compassion is the most frequently mentioned emotion of Jesus in the Gospels. See B.B. Warfields “The Emotional Life of our Lord” in the Person and Work of Christ.
5 The “theologies” of suffering presented here are by design popular renditions of how people interpret their pain and suffering. For a more thorough analysis of the various theological systems and problems of evil the following authors may be consulted: John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); and D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991).
6 World Book Dictionary
7 Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering. Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1986, pp. 42-43.
8 Welch, op. cit., p. 9
9 Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (New York: Avon Books, 1981), page 29.
10 Welch, op. cit., p. 9.
11 Ibid., p. 9.
12 The five components of a lament Psalm noted below provide a framework for the five steps suggested by Welch above.