Saturday, December 20, 2008

Suffering and the Gospel- Part 1

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

This post is the first in a series, the purpose of which is to explore some of the Biblical connections between human suffering and the gospel. Note the word and. I don't mean suffering for the gospel. What I mean is: what does human suffering have to do with the gospel? What do cancer and natural disasters and terrorist attacks and car accidents have to do with the cross of Christ? Are there Biblical connections? I believe there are- in fact, the connection is as wide as the Bible itself.

There is a certain urgency in coming to grips with a full, robust, biblical understanding of suffering. That's because human suffering is a universal experience. If you are breathing and have a body temperature, you either have or will experience suffering. And my sad conviction is that far too few people today have an adequate theology of suffering. By "theology" I simply mean a biblical understanding. People just don't know or understand what the Bible says about these things.

And that will leave you in an extremely vulnerable place when suffering finally does reach you. For some people, suffering leads them to abandon their faith. This is especially prone to happen if they have been taught to place false expectations upon God. If your pastor tells you that God is supposed to make your life comfortable, successful and pain-free, and- best of all- miraculously deliver you from every predicament or disease, prolonged suffering can lead you to the conclusion that God has either failed you, doesn't love you, or just plain doesn't exist.

Far more common, however, is another kind of spiritual death- a dying that often goes unnoticed, but is no less real. It happens when suffering people do not abandon Christianity, but instead redefine it for themselves. Their anemic theology can't process how a big, mighty, sovereign Creator could allow his people to suffer so horribly. So, in order to cope, they scale back their understanding of God and His place in the universe.

They no longer see and worship God as the One who fills heaven and earth and accomplishes His will in everything that happens. They no longer view Christianity as a comprehensive worldview, Scripture as a divine and comprehensive revelation of absolute truth that is binding upon all.

Instead, their faith in God retreats to becomes something small and private. The world is a big, scary place, and God, instead of being the King over the whole thing, becomes more and more like a private therapist or a reassuring friend, a close co-sufferer who helps us survive the big world out there, a world that often shocks Him as much as it does us.

Some theologians clearly spell out this (mis)understanding of God- like the Open Theists, who believe that He does not know the future. But far more common are the ordinary Christians who will never speak it clearly, yet still live day in and day out with a weak, small, privatized, therapy-oriented view of God.

But the Lord of all will not let us get away with this. In His word, He tells us so much more. We serve a sovereign God who is the king over all creation, and upholds all things by the Word of His power. He is not sleeping or powerless when people are diagnosed with cancer or planes fly into buildings or hurricanes develop over the ocean. He works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). Whatever He pleases, He does, in heaven, on earth, and in the sea (Psalm 135:6). He is King and Lord (Dan. 4:34-35).

And in His Word, he has given us very clear explanations for suffering, and why it exists, and what we are to make of it. We may not like those answers, but that does not mean they are not there. God has spoken clearly to these issues, and we must listen up to what He has said.

That's the purpose of this series. Stay tuned.

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