This blog title is also the title of an excellent book by Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in New York City.
(Another pastor blessed with baldness!)
I’ve just finished reading it and want to do a “book report” (interspersed with my devotional commentaries), both to solidify what I’m learning and hopefully help you. Perhaps my writing will make you thirsty to read Keller’s . . .
In Chapter One Keller justifies his book: “Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity.” In the Epilogue he does it again: “If we know the biblical theology of suffering and have our hearts and minds engaged by it, then when grief, pain and loss come, we will not be surprised and can respond in the various ways laid out in Scripture.”
I’d rather stick my head in the sand and presume Jesus gives his people “heaven on earth.” But that’s only for dumb birds. Nobody escapes suffering. ” . . . through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
I remember hearing a well-known TV evangelist say, “God will keep me healthy; I’m just going to die of old age.” Not only presumptuous, that statement is foolish. Old-age body parts wear out, and we suffer. There’s no escape, unless Jesus returns first.
Nevertheless, our Western culture (sometimes including Christianity) does a poor job explaining suffering and preparing us for it. Keller quotes Dr. Paul Brand, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon in the treatment of leprosy: “In the United States . . . I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated (elsewhere in the world), but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it” (p.16).
In our secular culture, this world is all there is. Therefore, suffering has no meaningful place. It’s an enemy that interrupts our pleasure-seeking. This contrasts with every other culture which views suffering as punishment or test or opportunity.
But our culture says suffering is senseless. In the view of Richard Dawkins’ (evolutionary biologist), “the reason people struggle so mightily in the face of suffering is because they will not accept it never has any purpose.” Richard Shweder (cultural anthropologist) writes, “The sufferer is a victim, under attack from natural forces devoid of intentionality.”
Thus, the sufferer is not responsible for how he responds. Keller writes, “The older view of suffering was that the pain is a symptom of a conflict between a person’s internal and external world. It meant the sufferer’s behavior and thinking may need to be changed, or some significant circumstance in the environment had to be changed, or both. The focus was not on the painful and uncomfortable feeling—it was on what the feelings told you about your life, and what should be done about it” (p. 25).
Suffering is sometimes caused by “unjust economic and social conditions, bad public policies, broken family patterns, or simply villainous evil parties” (p. 26). Our response is anger. Current events, right?
C.S. Lewis wrote: “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue . . . For [modernity] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men, the solution is technique” (p. 26).
Christianity holds a radically different view of suffering, even while other cultures contain half-truths of it. For example, a fatalistic culture demands stoic endurance; Christians are encouraged “to express their grief with cries and questions” (p. 28). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46).
Karma-believers hold that the sufferer is being punished for past wrongs; Christians believe “suffering is often unjust and disproportionate.” Job is the classic example and Jesus the supreme.
Moralists believe that suffering works off one’s sinful debt; Christians believe our sin-debt has been paid. “ . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23,24). Therefore, suffering is not meritorious.
Christianity teaches that suffering has a purpose, “and, if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine” (p. 30).
The key, then, is learning how to face suffering “rightly”. This Keller (and I) will discuss in coming posts. For now, let’s conclude Chapter One with these compelling words from Keller . . .
“While other worldviews led us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy” (p. 31).