Letter from America
Pastoring those in pain
Suffering is hateful. Bloody. Nasty. Indiscriminate. Horrible.
Just ask Job if you don’t believe me. For all the books out there on suffering — and there are many — it is a topic that will not go away because the easy answers do not work.
Typical evangelical answers to suffering fall into two categories. First, there is the empathy category. In this approach our goal is not to provide an answer but to provide a shoulder. We ‘come alongside’. We listen. We mourn with those who mourn, etc.
The other category, though, is the answer category. Here, perhaps not at the moment of suffering, answers of various kinds are attempted. If you want an insight into just how difficult this topic is compare C.S. Lewis’s brilliant The Problem of Evil with his later (and more personal) A Grief Observed.
The reason why I am thinking about suffering, and revisiting its answer, is because of all the mundane, regular, hideous, horrible, disgusting, inexplicable suffering that hits the news in America — as anywhere else. Storms recently, with a baby and her whole family picked up out of nowhere deposited miles away, with all the family dead, but the child surviving (just). You want to make meaning out of that? Be my guest.
Romans 8 is the typical answer. God works all things together for those who love him. Yes. Somehow God uses dark with the light to produce a result beyond all brilliance. The cross itself teaches this: the most despicable, disgusting, degraded, evil act in the course of all human history; and at the same time it is the very centre of mercy, love, compassion, grace and salvation for all God’s people.
Yes, I know the answers. The religious mindset says about suffering: ‘Why is this happening to me? I deserve better’. The gospel mindset says: ‘I deserve nothing but hell. Anything good I receive is pure mercy. And I am grateful’.
These are, indeed, the answers. Until that is you counsel an abuse victim. Who smiles at you through her Christian tear-stained eyes when you attempt to comfort her. She knows the answers too.
I suspect, then, that at some point in life we all end up somewhere in the discourse in Job. He questions. He rails. He provokes. He shocks. And at the end of it all he is provided not with an answer but with an encounter. An encounter with God himself. I suppose our prayer should be that when we revisit suffering we would in the end revisit God.
Josh Moody is the senior pastor of College Church, Wheaton, Illinois.